Schoolteacher Ashley Cobb spends her evenings in what might be called “receive mode.”
The eighth-grade math teacher at Jefferson Middle School Academy in the District receives dozens of texts and phone calls a day — at all hours — from students with questions about homework.
“I have gotten messages at 2 o’clock in the morning saying, ‘Please wake up and help me,’ ” Cobb said. “I will still respond if I am up and I see it.”
But Cobb is not in the kind of “receive mode” that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos famously said she saw at this school. She is not waiting to be told what do for her students. Nor are her colleagues at a school that officials say has made solid progress in efforts to close achievement gaps.
Eighth-grade math teacher Ashley Cobb, center, works with students including Demetrice Whitted, left, and Zori Taper, right. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Jefferson was thrust into the spotlight when DeVos visited Feb. 10 and encountered protesters outside. DeVos praised the school that day, but a week later, she told a conservative columnist that she saw teachers in it whose attitudes were “more of a ‘receive mode.’ ”
“They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child,” DeVos said. “You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.”
DeVos later sought to clarify: “Your teachers are awesome! They deserve MORE freedom to innovate and help students,” she wrote to the school on Twitter. “Great teachers deserve freedom and flexibility, not to constantly be on the receiving end of government dictates.”
This week, The Washington Post also visited Jefferson, a school facing many academic challenges. Test scores show that less than a fifth of students meet math and reading standards. But the school also has an energy that cannot be captured by standardized exams.
The staff display an all-in attitude to improving the lives of students and families. Students and teachers appear to have a close rapport. Classes seem attentive, with students turning to each other to ask for help.
In his first interview since the DeVos visit, Jefferson Principal Greg Dohmann said he was “flabbergasted” by DeVos’s comments. Dohmann tweeted 11 times last month to rebut them, ending with: “JA teachers are not in a ‘receive mode.’ Unless you mean we ‘receive’ students at a 2nd-grade level and move them to an 8th-grade level.”
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who was with DeVos during her visit, said her “receive mode” comment did not reflect what was seen.
“The secretary will have to speak for herself,” Wilson said, “but my impression was that was something she may have felt, in general, about education and contextualized it based on the school that she was in.”
DeVos spent less than two hours in the school, including 30 minutes in two classrooms. She didn’t see the laundry room in the basement, where parents wash clothes, or all the texts Dohmann receives throughout the day from parents and students.
Like many urban schools, Jefferson must focus on more than academics. It must offer social and emotional support to students and families.
For five years, educators have worked to turn around a school with a long record of low performance. Jefferson has about 300 students, all from low-
income families. About 95 percent are black.
The school, in a waterfront neighborhood of Southwest, wants to become the highest-achieving middle school in the city. It also wants teachers, students and families to love being there. Those are what Jefferson calls “BHAGS” — big, hairy, audacious goals.
Dohmann said that in the end, DeVos’s comments had a positive effect. The school’s staff “brought out their Jefferson pride, wanting to defend the work we are doing,” he said. Supporters sent postcards and donations to help buy supplies, including Chromebook laptops.
“No one was taking the comments seriously,” Dohmann said.
The latest turnaround efforts began at Jefferson five years ago. The city’s old DC CAS tests showed several years of gains in math and reading. New tests linked to the Common Core standards show that 17 percent of students met reading standards last school year, compared with the citywide average of 27 percent. In math, 16 percent met standards at Jefferson, compared with the average of 25 percent.
Jefferson’s teachers and administrators acknowledge that they have much work to do. But they also point to surveys showing that a large majority of students enjoy school and feel safe and welcome there, and they add that more parents are attending teacher conferences and becoming involved in other ways.
Meshaun Pratt, 14, an eighth-grader, said the school feels like a family. When something goes wrong, she said, whether it’s a student misbehaving or a class being disrespectful, the teachers correct the students.
“They help us reflect on the mistakes we have made,” Pratt said. “At the end of the day, there is always going to be at least one person at the school who you can rely on to talk to.”
Dohmann, in his first year as principal, said teachers make home visits at least once a year, typically in the summer, laying out expectations and talking about goals for students.
Near the front office, a poster the height of the wall declares: “Home is where the heart is.” It features photos of parents, students and teachers taken at home. This school year, teachers have made 176 home visits.
Jasmine McDuffie, 12, a sixth-grader, said she once considered going to a different middle school but wants to stay at Jefferson. She said her favorite class is a home room known as “advisory.” Every student spends a half-hour each morning with about a dozen others. Girls are grouped with female teachers, boys with male teachers.
They meet informally, sometimes on bean bags or pillows near a classroom corner.
McDuffie is in Kate Alwon Brenner’s advisory class. Each day, Alwon Brenner asks whether the girls have finished their homework and checks in on how they are feeling. They set short- and long-term goals. McDuffie wants to be on the honor roll — A’s in all classes.
Students are given incentives to meet the goals. Alwon Brenner invited McDuffie and her other students to her home recently.
“It was a privilege that we earned,” McDuffie said. “We did fun stuff. We talked and we danced.” They baked cookies, too.
As Alwon Brenner’s sixth-grade literature students were leaving for lunch, they lined up at the classroom door. She gave each student a hug and sometimes pressed her cheek against a student’s to blow an air-kiss.
“Ciao. Love you,” she said to each one. The school’s motto this year is “Lead. Learn. Love.”
This level of affection may seem unusual, even to some other teachers. Latisha Trent, one of the teachers DeVos observed, said her friends who are also teachers do not have the same culture in their schools.
“It’s so different when you come into a school and everyone has that same mentality,” she said. “It really makes the building such a powerful place for our kids, and our families feel it, too.”
Justin McKee, a social studies teacher, said the feeling of support he gets from peers, and the satisfaction of helping a student with life beyond schoolwork, keeps him coming back to the school. McKee said Jefferson is the first school in his six years as a teacher where he has decided to stay for a third year.
“There is positive peer pressure to constantly push yourself,” McKee said.
Teachers at Jefferson are expected to field text messages and phone calls. Math teachers write their phone numbers on homework sheets. Students often have phone numbers for other math teachers, too. Dohmann, the principal, gives out his number to parents and students.
“If your brother or sister text you asking for help, it has that same feeling for me. It’s not a burden, it’s not going above and beyond,” Dohmann said. “It’s what makes us love being here.”