When students return to Cook Elementary School in the fall, they will see a lot of new faces.
Cook, which is among the lowest performing in the state, will be making some big changes over the summer break as a result of the $1.7 million school improvement grant it recently received from the U.S. Department of Education to improve its academic standing over the course of the next three years.
Among the terms of the grant is a staff restructuring that requires every faculty and staff member to re-interview for their current posts. The grant stipulates that the school can choose to re-hire no more than half its existing staff. Those who aren’t re-hired at Cook will be placed at other schools, leaving Cook room to hire new faces.
“What the grant does is it’s going to help us to find teachers that we consider the cream of the crop,” explained Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School’s Title One Coordinator Patsy Squire. “We’re looking for those teachers that may show a demonstrated record of effectiveness.”
Teachers who are re-hired must pledge to uphold the grant’s stipulations and strive to meet its objectives, Cook Principal Christopher Massenburg said, adding that the restructuring will allow him to hire or re-hire only the most dedicated educators to help improve outcomes.
“You’ve got to sleep, you’ve got to eat, you’ve got to live Cook Elementary because it requires a commitment like that,” he said. “We’ve got a high poverty area, and we need to be ready for it. We need to be committed to it.”
The Cook grant is the fourth school improvement grant to be awarded to a WS/FCS since 2010. Forest Park and Petree elementary schools and John F. Kennedy High School have also received federal support in their efforts to boost student performance. Ann Petitjean, president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators, said she still isn’t convinced that the government’s school improvement model has succeeded in local schools.
“When I look at the other schools that have been in improvement for the last couple of years, I don’t see a huge sea-change, which is what they wanted,” said Petitjean, whose organization is home to 2,300 WS/FCS teachers and employees. “I would hope by putting this much energy into schools that deserve it, such as Petree and Forest Park and Kennedy, we would see some major changes, and I’m not seeing that.”
Removing such a large number of teachers from Cook is also a source of concern for Petitjean.
“I think it’s a double-edged sword. I hate to see people removed from positions where they have chosen to be,” Petitjean said. “…I understand that schools need to reform, and I understand that Cook needs help, but it concerns me that half of the staff will be removed. It takes a certain kind of person to work in schools that are struggling like that.”
Massenburg said the transformation will undoubtedly pose challenges for the 246 students and roughly 50 faculty members at Cook, but he is convinced that the school will ultimately prevail.
“It’s a great opportunity,” he said. “…We’re talking about being able to rebuild a school infrastructure from the ground up.”
Squire is also looking at the bright side of the grant.
“I’m excited about the change – I’m excited about what all we can see that can happen for Cook,” she said. “It’s all about having the right people in the right place, and I think if we get the right people in there, we can help our students to achieve.”
Massenburg says the influx of funding will help to continue efforts that were already underway to bolster Cook and transform it into “a 90/90/90 school,” meaning one where 90 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch, 90 percent are minority and 90 percent test at proficient.
“Before SIGs (school improvement grants) ever became a component of it, we were planning what we were going to do. School improvement grants just gave us an opportunity to make that happen quicker,” Massenburg said. “The school improvement grant allowed us to come in and put it in hyperdrive. That’s what makes it so exciting.”
The grant will mean other changes as well. The school year will start five days early at Cook, and the school day will be extended by 30 minutes. In addition, the grant will provide for after school tutoring, teacher recruitment and retention incentives and a family literacy program that was launched at Cook this spring. Massenburg said he will be updating the school’s decor to help educate and empower students at Cook, which he says is the largest predominantly African American elementary school in the district.
“It has a rich heritage in the black community. It has a rich heritage in the community in general,” Massenburg said. “That’s important to preserve. We want people to be proud of the school, for the right reasons.”