France responds to problems in schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Mar 21 12:20:51 UTC 2007

A Question of Priorities

After violence in poor immigrant neighborhoods shook the country last
year, France responded by focusing more resources on schools facing the
most pressing disadvantages.

By Caroline Hendrie

Stains, France

Its not hard to imagine what a newly assigned teacher from the French
provinces might feel when first setting foot in College Maurice Thorez.
Located in the heart of a public-housing complex with a particularly
forbidding reputation, the 720-student school is a far cry from the
Louvre, the Champs Elysees, and the other glittering Parisian destinations
most Americans associate with France. Each September brings a flood of new
faces to the four-building campus, and not just the usual influx of
students. Freshly minted teachers arrive from all corners of the country
to replace the large contingent that decamped the previous spring. Though
the Eiffel Tower is just seven miles away, many new recruits face a
culture shock when they land in the Cite du Clos Saint-Lazare, the housing
complex whose faded facades loom beyond the schools peeling iron fence.

At the end of a year, they take off, lamented Ali Ben Youssef, who at 33
is the schools senior math teacher. And then, everything starts over at
zero. Listen to an interview with Assistant Managing Editor Caroline
Hendrie about her recent visit to France to report on the impact on the
country's education system of the youth riots that swept the country last
year. The suburban riots created front page news stories around the globe
in 2005, and most recently in 2006 as violence has flared up once again.
Hendrie talks about what has changed, and what has not, as a result of the
widespread violence. This year, though, staff members feel they might
finally have the means to reduce their sky-high rate of teacher turnover,
as well as the discipline problems, low student-achievement levels, and
other challenges that help drive their colleagues away.

The campus has been designated as one of 249 middle schools nationwide
granted special priority under an initiative announced after a wave of
street violence a year ago that riveted international attention on poor
neighborhoods such as Clos Saint-Lazare and the largely immigrant families
that live in them. The venture refocuses the extra resources granted to
needy schools under Frances 25-year-old program of priority education on a
subset of campuses--dubbed ambition reussite, or ambition success--deemed to
face the gravest disadvantages. The project is part of a package of
educational and social service projects targeting unemployment and other
social ills afflicting the poor neighborhoods gripped by violence last

Whether ambition reussite amounts to much, experts say, may well hinge on
the efforts of the 1,000 teachers, including Mr. Youssef, who are point
people for turning its vision of school improvement into reality on the
ground. Known as enseignants referents, the teachers are pursuing a diverse
portfolio of projects as part of a push to encourage local experimentation
on how best to reach students in environments long marred by lagging
achievement. Many of the teachers are candid about the factors conspiring
against them: the discouraging social disadvantages their students face,
uncertainty about just where to focus their own energies, and skepticism
among many of their colleagues about whether their positions should even

Yet they also see their jobs as a chance not to be wasted. Freed up from
some of their classroom teaching duties--a point of contention with leaders
of their union--they are using those hours for tasks they and their
colleagues never had time for before. Some are analyzing test-score data,
for example, and then scheduling small-group remedial sessions
accordingly. Others are meeting with parent groups, forging partnerships
with community organizations, or providing support to newly arrived
colleagues. And whatever the project, they are emphasizing teamwork. They
have brought us flexibility, said Guy Seguin, the principal of College Elsa
Triolet, another school labeled ambition reussite. Its created a new

On the Outskirts

Many of the schools receiving extra resources are in the Paris suburbs,
where large concentrations of poor and immigrant children live. The
district encompasses three county-sized departements, including
Seine-Saint-Denis, which contains Stains, and Val-de-Marne, where Elsa
Triolet is located in the town of Champigny-sur-Marne. Seine-Saint-Denis,
with some 1.4 million residents, is the poorest of the departements
encircling Paris. It was there that street violence ignited after two
teenagers from African-immigrant families were accidentally electrocuted
on Oct. 27, 2005, while trying to hide from police in a power substation.
That incident touched off weeks of unrest that spread to poor
neighborhoods around the country. The government estimates that 10,000
cars were burned, some 200 public buildings, including schools, were
damaged, and 130 police officers were injured on duty.

Here in Stains, on the night and early morning of Nov. 3-4 alone, a fire
was started in an elementary school, two buses were stoned, one bus was
burned, and a group of some 40 young people faced off with police. Someone
even tried to set the mayors car on fire while he talked to young people
in Clos Saint-Lazare. The city was also the site of one of the only deaths
to occur amid the rioting, when a local resident died after a scuffle on
Nov. 7 of last year. All that turmoil was felt at the school, which
educates children from 68, mostly African, countries. Lots of incivility,
an attempted arson, and other problems occurred, Mr. Youssef recalled
during a recent meeting with school staff members. Three teachers ended up
leaving midyear after run-ins with aggressive students, and the faculty
went on strike for several days last winter to demand more resources for
the school.

It was the worst year of the whole decade that I've been here, said Mr.
Youssef, who, like others in this story, spoke in French. In that
atmosphere, the district of Certeil set about identifying schools to be
placed in the top-priority category under ambition reussite. Teachers in
some schools, like Maurice Thorez, agitated to be granted that status,
while in others, they protested against it.

Such objections were concentrated in some parts of Seine-Saint-Denis,
where the political left is strong and teachers union leaders oppose the
countrys right-of-center administration. Participation in the initiative
was not optional, though, and Seine-Saint-Denis wound up with 16 of the
districts 21 top-priority clusters--each made up of an anchor middle school,
known here as a college, and its feeder preschool and elementary sites.

One hallmark of ambition reussite is that all 1,000 enseignants referents
are to have substantial experience in disadvantaged schools. For Martin
Dufour, a school inspector responsible for carrying out the initiative in
the Certeil district, finding those teachers hasn't been easy.

Higher Ambitions

Frances recent overhaul of its priority education program for schools in
disadvantaged neighborhoods aims to refocus resources on the sites whose
students face the most pressing needs. The initiative, dubbed ambition
reussite, or ambition success, features a range of policy changes affecting
schools and students.


 Program includes 249 schools serving roughly 129,300 students in grades
6-9, or about 5 percent of French enrollment for those grades, along with
1,606 preschool and elementary sites serving 262,500 pupils, or 3.2
percent of the total.

 Schools are organized into networks, each made up of one middle school
and its feeder preschools and primary schools. Each network must sign a
four- or five-year contract with its school district detailing its
improvement plans.

 Networks receive a nationwide total of 1,000 experienced teachers given
reduced teaching loads and school-wide missions to coordinate efforts to
raise student achievement. They are supported by 3,000 additional teachers

 Each middle school chooses a theme--such as foreign languages, sports,
arts, environmental studies, or science and technology--through which it
aims to distinguish itself.


 Starting in grade school, students get individual proficiency reports
based on skills and knowledge outlined in national academic standards. One
goal is to prevent students from having to repeat grades.

 After-school study sessions are offered four nights a week, supervised by
teachers-in-training, outside contractors, or volunteer teachers. Middle
school students also receive extra career education.

 Students with strong scores on national proficiency tests at the end of
middle school, the equivalent of U.S. 9th grade, receive waivers allowing
them to enroll in high schools outside their attendance areas.

SOURCE: French Ministry of National Education

I've solicited some excellent teachers who have told me, I can't because
in my school nobody would ever talk to me again, he said during an
interview in the district headquarters in the city of Certeil. Mr. Dufour
thinks the national Education Ministry would have had more luck selling
the initiative to teachers if it had stated from the start that
enseignants referents would still have classroom teaching duties, to
counter the perception that the government was trying to anoint some
teachers as quasi-administrators.

The unions spread the idea of the superprof, the Zorro of pedagogy, the
teacher who would give lessons to his colleagues and wouldn't have any
students, Mr. Dufour said. The idea that there would be missions that
weren't uniquely administrative--such as the support of young teachers--was
not well understood. He also thinks the incentives offered--extra points
toward transfers and promotions for teachers who serve five years--were
not all that attractive. When you're already in a difficult middle school,
to take on five more years seems like the end of the world, he said.

Around the country, schools were still working in August to fill some 250
of the 1,000 posts, according to the nations major union of secondary
school teachers, the Syndicat National des Enseignements de Second Degre,
or SNES. Though most of those posts had been filled as of last month, the
union said novice teachers had been tapped for some spots. In the Certeil
district, all but two of the 84 enseignants referents had been chosen as of
last month. On average, they have nine years of experience, said Bernard
Saint-Girons, the districts schools chief. Its not true that we've put in

Still, faculty members of four of the districts 21 ambition reussite middle
schools were still refusing last month to go along with the initiative.
All are in Seine-Saint-Denis.

Like other union leaders, Ms. Derrey said the teachers should have
classroom duties equal to those of their colleagues, and that the extra
personnel should instead be used to lower class sizes for everyone. We
need 18 or 19 students per class instead of 25, she said. I have been in
difficult areas for a long time, and I've never met a teacher who wasn't
interested in changing their approach, she continued. We all want to try
new things, but we run into failure because of class sizes. Ms. Derrey
also argues that its unfair that enseignants referents can meet with
colleagues as part of their jobs, while regular teachers have to attend
such meetings on their own time.

At College Elsa Triolet, Laurence Cerchiari said she has run into such
concerns as a former elementary teacher now stationed at the middle school
as enseignant referent. One of the wide gulfs between the elementary and
secondary levels, she said, is that primary school teachers don't count
their hours. At the middle school, she said, she's found it hard to
motivate some teachers to stay for meetings outside the 18 hours per week
they are expected to teach. There are those who've said to me, I've done my
18 hours, Ms. Cerchiari said. Still, she sees progress: We are starting to
understand that we cannot work all alone.

Like College Maurice Thorez, Elsa Triolet is located in the middle of a
government-built housing complex that originally sheltered workers in
factories that have since shut down. The complex, the Cite du Bois l'Abbe,
is now populated mainly by poor immigrants from a wide range of African
countries. The 550-pupil campus is in better shape than that of Maurice
Thorez, where the three-story classroom building is slated to be renovated
in 2010, and an adjoining two-story administration building is due to be
razed altogether. Elsa Triolet, by contrast, was recently renovated and
expanded, and its brightly painted corridors gleam with natural light.

The principal, Mr. Seguin, says he feels safe in Cite du Bois l'Abbe, a
mix of high-rise and lower-elevation apartment buildings with more than
8,600 residents. The neighborhood feels almost like a village, he said.
Yet the cite is enclosed by a circular street that cuts it off from nearby
neighborhoods of single-family homes, some of which have the feel of a
typical American suburb. The street serves as a border that children of
the cite rarely cross, Mr. Seguin said. They come from all over, and many
don't speak French, he said. New students enter school all year long, he
said, and some move often from the home of one relative to the next.

This year, educators at Elsa Triolet are trying a variety of projects
aimed at showing students more of France beyond the cite, the principal
said, to kindle their ambition to pursue further studies and to open their
minds. Theres something at stake behind this, Mr. Seguin said, and thats
citizenship. Through education, you can touch everything else.

At Maurice Thorez, Mr. Youssef harbors similar goals. He feels lucky this
year, he said, because other teachers at his school are largely supportive
of ambition reussite. Now he has time to pursue projects he couldn't in the
past. Like many of his counterparts in the United States, he wants to make
better use of new software tools to slice and dice test-score data. This
year, he said, he has been scrutinizing results from the national test
given to incoming middle schoolers and then dividing students into
remedial groups based on those results. Last year, I would have been
incapable of doing that, Mr. Youssef said.

That kind of nitty-gritty work is what it will take for the governments
plans to pay off, said Mr. Saint-Girons, the districts schools chief. The
experienced teachers need both to help introduce approaches tailored to
their school populations and do a better job of helping younger teachers
learn their craft under trying circumstances, he said. As for those
teachers who reject the governments approach, they can change jobs, he
said. Were a free country.  If we want to save priority education, its
necessary to accept this new stage.

For Bernard Vincent, the newly appointed principal of Maurice Thorez, the
first year of the initiative should be about trying new things, while not
letting the ambition part of ambition reussite get out of hand. Its better
to do less, but do it well, than to rush off in all directions and get
nowhere, he said. Well try, well feel our way, and then among all the
actions we have tried, maybe some will be continued and others will be
abandoned or changed.

If we had miraculous remedies, Mr. Vincent added, we would have put them
in place a long time ago.

Vol. 26, Issue 10, Pages 26-29

March 20, 2007


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