BURLINGTON, Vt. — It’s hard to find anyone here who believes that Joyce Irvine should have been removed as principal of Wheeler Elementary School.
John Mudasigana, one of many recent African refugees whose children attend the high-poverty school, says he is grateful for how Ms. Irvine and her teachers have helped his five children. “Everything is so good about the school,” he said, before taking his daughter Evangeline, 11, into the school’s dental clinic.
Ms. Irvine’s most recent job evaluation began, “Joyce has successfully completed a phenomenal year.” Jeanne Collins, Burlington’s school superintendent, calls Ms. Irvine “a leader among her colleagues” and “a very good principal.”
Beth Evans, a Wheeler teacher, said, “Joyce has done a great job,” and United States Senator Bernie Sanders noted all the enrichment programs, including summer school, that Ms. Irvine had added since becoming principal six years ago.
“She should not have been removed,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview. “I’ve walked that school with her — she seemed to know the name and life history of every child.”
Ms. Irvine wasn’t removed by anyone who had seen her work (often 80-hour weeks) at a school where 37 of 39 fifth graders were either refugees or special-ed children and where, much to Mr. Mudasigana’s delight, his daughter Evangeline learned to play the violin.
Ms. Irvine was removed because the Burlington School District wanted to qualify for up to $3 million in federal stimulus money for its dozen schools.
And under the Obama administration rules, for a district to qualify, schools with very low test scores, like Wheeler, must do one of the following: close down; be replaced by a charter (Vermont does not have charters); remove the principal and half the staff; or remove the principal and transform the school.
And since Ms. Irvine had already “worked tirelessly,” as her evaluation said, to “successfully” transform the school last fall to an arts magnet, even she understood her removal was the least disruptive option.
“Joyce Irvine versus millions,” Ms. Irvine said. “You can buy a lot of help for children with that money.”
Burlington faced the difficult choice because performance evaluations for teachers and principals based on test results, as much as on local officials’ judgment, are a hallmark of the two main competitive grant programs the Obama administration developed to spur its initiatives: the stimulus and Race to the Top.
“I was distraught,” said Ms. Irvine, 57, who was removed July 1. “I loved being principal — I put my heart and soul into that school for six years.” Still, she counts herself lucky that the superintendent moved her to an administrative job — even if it will pay considerably less.
“I didn’t want to lose her, she’s too good,” Ms. Collins said, adding that the school’s low scores were the result of a testing system that’s “totally inappropriate” for Wheeler’s children.
Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the United States Department of Education, noted that districts don’t have to apply for the grants, that the rules are clear and that federal officials do not remove principals. But Burlington officials say that not applying in such hard times would have shortchanged students.
At the heart of things is whether the testing system under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 can fairly assess schools full of middle-class children, as well as a school like Wheeler, with a 97 percent poverty rate and large numbers of refugees, many with little previous education.
President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform says that “instead of a single snapshot, we will recognize progress and growth.” Ms. Collins says if a year’s progress for each student were the standard, Wheeler would score well. However, the reality is that measuring every student’s yearly growth statewide is complex, and virtually all states, including Vermont, rely on a school’s annual test scores.
Under No Child rules, a student arriving one day before the state math test must take it. Burlington is a major resettlement area, and one recent September, 28 new students — from Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan — arrived at Wheeler and took the math test in October.
Ms. Irvine said that in a room she monitored, 15 of 18 randomly filled in test bubbles. The math tests are word problems. A sample fourth-grade question: “Use Xs to draw an array for the sum of 4+4+4.” Five percent of Wheeler’s refugee students scored proficient in math.
About half the 230 students are foreign-born, collectively speaking 30 languages. Many have been traumatized; a third see one of the school’s three caseworkers. During Ms. Irvine’s tenure, suspensions were reduced to 7 last year, from 100.
Students take the reading test after one year in the country. Ms. Irvine tells a story about Mr. Mudasigana’s son Oscar and the fifth-grade test.
Oscar needed 20 minutes to read a passage on Neil Armstrong landing his Eagle spacecraft on the moon; it should have taken 5 minutes, she said, but Oscar was determined, reading out loud to himself.
The first question asked whether the passage was fact or fiction. “He said, ‘Oh, Mrs. Irvine, man don’t go on the moon, man don’t go on the back of eagles, this is not true,’ ” she recalled. “So he got the five follow-up questions wrong — penalized for a lack of experience.”
Thirteen percent of foreign-born students, 4 percent of special-ed students and 23 percent of the entire school scored proficient in reading.
Before Mr. Obama became president, Burlington officials began working to transform Wheeler to an arts magnet, in hopes of improving socioeconomic integration.
While doing her regular job, Ms. Irvine also developed a new arts curriculum. She got a grant for a staff trip to the Kennedy Center in Washington for arts training. She rented vans so teachers could visit arts magnets in nearby states. She created partnerships with local theater groups and artists. In English class, to learn characterization, children now write a one-person play and perform it at Burlington’s Very Merry Theater.
A sign of her effectiveness: an influx of new students, so that half the early grades will consist of middle-class pupils this fall.
Ms. Irvine predicts that in two years, when these new “magnet” students are old enough to take the state tests, scores will jump, not because the school is necessarily better, but because the tests are geared to the middle class.
Senator Sanders said that while the staff should be lauded for working at one of Vermont’s most challenging schools, it has been stigmatized.
“I applaud the Obama people for paying attention to low-income kids and caring,” said Mr. Sanders, a leftist independent. “But to label the school as failing and humiliate the principal and teachers is grossly unfair.”
The district has replaced Ms. Irvine with an interim principal and will conduct a search for a replacement.
And Ms. Irvine, who hoped to finish her career on the front lines, working with children, will be Burlington’s new school improvement administrator.
“Her students made so much progress,” Ms. Collins said. “What’s happened to her is not at all connected to reality.”