Forest Meadow Junior High has had a mixed reputation for years. Too long, say parents and educators who insist it’s time for that wrong-headed perception to catch up with reality.
Yes, the school was rated “low-performing” on state accountability tests several years ago. And yes, the school district website shows Forest Meadow ranking last among Richardson junior high schools for the percentage of students who passed the TAAS test in 2002.
But last fall, Forest Meadow’s ranking moved up to “acceptable.” And the school was the big winner at district headquarters last year, when it received two Silver Cup Awards from the RISD board of trustees. One was for community involvement in the school and the other was for students’ involvement in the community.
School principal Charles Bruner, who has been there three years, is proud of the turnaround but shuns the credit.
“It’s the teachers in the trenches that make the difference,” says Bruner, who allowed students to good-naturedly shave his head to celebrate on the day the school’s acceptable ranking was announced.
Some district officials say the low-performing ranking should never have cast such a dark shadow over a school. They say it has always done a good job of educating most students.
“We’re disappointed that low performing is used to describe a school whose vast majority of students passed the TAKS with flying colors,” says Jeanne Guerra, the district’s director of communications. “It’s unfortunate that one test on one day labels an entire school.
“I think there’s an old adage that it takes 10 very positive things to erase one negative thing,” she says. “I think the people who are really involved in the community and have sent their children there really know that.”
The school’s biggest challenge, officials say, is the high mobility rate among some families with children at Forest Meadow. In addition to frequent moves, which can impede learning, the families often don’t have ties to the neighborhood.
The school, which hosts the popular “Market in the Meadow” each fall, sits at the corner of Abrams and Whitehurst, in a neighborhood with most homes valued at $200,000 or more. But many of the students come from families that struggle to pay the rent at nearby apartments.
With an enrollment last year of 820 seventh- and eighth-graders, much of Bruner’s focus has been on creating and strengthening ties between those families and the school.
The purpose, he says, is to “form a connection, make them feel welcome. A lot of time people’s school experiences weren’t the best.”
“When you consider the percentage of students who come from the apartment complexes…they need to feel like they’re a part of the community,” he says.
Heavy participation in the school’s adult literacy program earned one of the district awards last year. The other was for an annual “community walk” to visit students from elementary feeder schools and welcome them. The school even hosted a community-wide immunization clinic at a popular area eatery and gave away ice cream to ensure good attendance.
“The program that they put together was phenomenal in its approach and its very creative way of reaching out to the community,” Guerra says.
Through the Communities in Schools program, which has been on the campus for three years, students get a wide range of support, including mentors, tutors, group counseling and anger management.
Visitors to the school say they can see a difference.
Linda Williamson, who heads the Dallas advisory board for a national organization called First Book, visited the campus last spring to donate new books directly to students. First Book makes donations at schools where 80 percent or more of the students are from low-income families.
“I was impressed that everyone’s needs were taken care of, not just the smart kids, not just the lucky kids. It’s a school for all children,” she says.
“There are a lot of qualified students there, so we could only afford one book per student,” she says. “The kids got to come in, a classroom at a time, and just pick what they wanted. They got to pick from like 100 different titles.
“They were excited,” she says. “They were like ‘When you read this one, I’ll read that one.’”
The school receives support from other outside groups. But internally, Bruner says his message is one of consistency. He tells the students there are no hidden agendas or expectations, and that message is reinforced during weekly advisory meetings between teachers and small groups of students.
“To me, that sets the tone of trust,” Bruner says.
In the coming year, the teacher-student advisory groups will increase their meetings to twice a week and cover everything from “character education” to test preparation.
Meanwhile, a program that brings in college students to tutor twice a week will continue, with the goal of grooming future college students at the junior high.
In the new school year, Forest Meadow will be one of only three Richardson schools whose faculty will be visited by mentors and master teachers under a new program funded by the Milken Foundation.
“This is a daily staff development for teachers,” Guerra says. “Teachers had to agree that they liked the idea, so they voted on whether or not to accept the program, which was a great thing.”
“It helps the teachers be better teachers,” she says. “The mentor teachers will hone the skills of the (other) teachers because not every student can be reached in the same way.”
District officials say Bruner has done a good job of pulling together various resources and instilling a sense of discipline and organization within the school.
“Obviously, what he’s doing is working because the (test) scores continue to increase, and they continue to do good things,” Guerra says.
For Bruner, a key message for the more mobile students is “telling them they’re as good as children from any other school.”
“It doesn’t matter where these children come from: Their parents want better for them,” he says.