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Volume 10, Number 6
November/December 1994

How the Firing of Mrs. Ditto Helped Transform a School

What happened when a new principal, determined to change the climate of his school, took on a veteran teacher


Sarah Scott Middle School in Terre Haute, Indiana, used to have the worst reputation of all the schools in Vigo County. It serves the largest population of poor and black kids in the city. There are two public housing projects in Terre Haute; both are in the Sarah Scott district. Many parents are unemployed. School counselors estimate that half the students live in single-parent homes. "Many of our students virtually raise themselves," says Principal Sandra Kelley. "There is no adult, maybe from Monday to Friday. The only meals they eat, often, are here at school."

Over the past eight years, Sarah Scott has undergone a remarkable transformation, sparked in part by its participation in a statewide urban middle school reform project called the Middle Grades Improvement Program (MGIP). Sponsored by the Lilly Endowment, MGIP draws on more than 20 years of research on the developmental needs of young adolescents and the practical challenges of profound school change. The evidence of success at Sarah Scott includes steadily rising attendance rates and test scores and lower numbers of suspensions and expulsions (all during a period when the poverty of the community was increasing and corporal punishment was abolished in the school).

Even more important, perhaps, has been the less easily quantifiable change in the school's atmosphere. Relationships between adults and students are striking for their openness. Every teacher knows every student. When classes change and the halls are filled, all the teachers are outside their rooms, greeting and talking with kids.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

N. Ames and E. Miller. Changing Middle Schools: How to Make Schools Work for Young Adolescents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994.

B. Jentz and J. Wofford. Leadership and Learning: Personal Change in a Professional Setting. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.