Jeffrey Schust likes a challenge but - of all the US placements available through the Visiting International Faculty (VIF) cultural exchange program - the school he selected in the first of his three years in Georgia was not what he'd hoped.
"My first year was hell. I was ready to quit," he says now of the experience - cockroaches, guns in the cafeteria, high suspension rates. No one cared. The school was going to close anyway.
The following year Schust moved to Southside High School and thrived.
Indeed, Schust, a teacher from suburban Toronto, went on to be named the 2004 US National Cultural Educator of the Year by VIF, which is the largest cultural exchange program for teachers in the US.
Southside is in inner-city Atlanta. Most students are poor. Eighty-seven per cent are on a free-lunch program, which means their family income is $20,000 or less. More than half live in subsidized housing. Ninety-six percent are African-American, two percent Hispanic and two percent Caucasian or Asian.
The students perform on par with other Atlanta schools but they are about 10 per cent below state standards. In 2002-03, the year Schust arrived at the school, Southside's No Child Left Behind report card concluded that the school had not made adequate yearly progress.
A special school-to-work program
In what some would find a less than ideal environment, Jeffrey Schust taught special education.
"Some students were slow to accept me. I'm Caucasian. I was a foreigner who spoke differently - not ebonics. Sometimes I was made fun of, but mostly it worked out well."
By his second year at the school he had focused on a school-to-work program for at-risk kids. "Their academic skills were very low. Most of them couldn't read. They had a Grade 2 literacy level and their numeracy was Grade 3. Most had IQs between 60 and 80."
Schust and his colleagues reviewed students' records and tried to find employment for students in the community. They helped them with applications, interviews and job skills. They placed students at Coca Cola, Home Depot and UPS, all of which have headquarters in the city, and at the Marriott and Weston Hotels, which offered work in housekeeping, valet parking and food services.
"My kids were great. They were wonderful," he says. Some of them stood out.
Michael, a teen with muscular dystrophy, loves auto mechanics. "We gave him an opportunity to go to Atlanta Technical College. He had to do academics like everyone else. He thought he wouldn't be able to do the work in the garage because of his problems with motor skills, but he's doing a great job. He has two years to go."
He also remembers Deonte, a "big behaviour problem who got into lots of fights and was suspended for six months for drug trafficking. We got him a job at the Bank of America doing custodial work. He showed up every day at 8 a.m. and worked 'til six, and they're going to keep him on. He called me when he had problems. His parents were separated, and I went to visit them both. His father had custody and he was just ecstatic. Deonte is a true success story."
These young people graduate with special education diplomas if they have completed the requirements of their individualized education plan.
Canadiana goes south
Jeffrey Schust was honoured for sharing Canadian culture and heritage with his students at Southside High School. He designed lesson plans about the Canadian flag, government, history, culture and geography.
"In math, I did currency exchange, which helped them learn to use calculators and to make conversions to the metric system. I used the Internet to teach history and geography. They especially enjoyed the kings and queens of England, and they liked the drama of the kings who killed their wives!"
The Internet also proved invaluable for showing southerners ethnic diversity. "They thought because I was Caucasian, all of Canada was like that. I showed them multicultural Toronto, Asian immigrants in BC and government statistics about other immigrants."
He took Canadian books with him. "We did two Margaret Atwood stories and read Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf."
He even gave cooking classes. "We made poutine one day. They loved that! And I did a haddock dish my mom taught me."
PD that works
Teaching abroad is a superb opportunity for professional development.
Schust attended conferences about High Schools That Work, a school improvement initiative. The original purpose of this program at the Southern Regional Education Board was to support vocationally inclined students. But its broader impact is to improve the performance of urban schools overall - helping more kids to get into post-secondary education.
Much of his professional activity revolved around the creation of small learning communities - groups of teachers who assume responsibility for kids who might otherwise skip school, drop out or graduate unprepared.
Schust personally undertook research to find out what would help Southside students the most. He gathered three sets of data: SAT scores, results from the Georgia High School graduation test (which covers writing, reading, math, social science and science and which students must pass to graduate) and student-opinion surveys. This revealed that students need better guidance if more of them are to make it to post-secondary.
"It showed us what we had to do." To turn Southside into a high school that works, the school leadership has set up small learning communities based on the kids' career/educational interests.
Jeffrey Schust isn't at Southside to see the fruits of his labour. But this year, there are small learning communities geared to aspiring doctors, plumbers, teachers, IT technicians, funeral directors, accountants and more.
Schust credits his principal. "My principal was amazing," he says. "When he found out I'd been a vice-principal, he said 'we're going to help you learn as much as possible.' He was a magnificent mentor. He made it possible for me to go to Little Rock, Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles."
William R. Shepherd returns the compliment. "Jeff had exceptional leadership skills for a teacher.
"It enhances any teacher professionally to do PD, but I probably sent him to more conferences because it would help the whole organization. He earned it. I could trust him to bring back good knowledge. He helped with implementation and brought effort and energy to it."
Dollars for outcomes
The last PD project Schust undertook at Southside yielded an extraordinary result.
Based on their efforts at school improvement, he and his colleagues convinced General Electric to give the school a million dollars to improve outcomes, increase the number of students taking higher-level courses and increase the number of students going to college. The school has five years to reach specific goals.
Southside is one of only three schools in the US to receive such a grant. The funds will pay for mentoring by local college and university students and for tutoring for the Georgia High School graduation test.
Teaching in Southside High School was "amazing," says Schust.
He acknowledges that many Canadians have a negative view of American schools. His experience, however, was that staff were more cohesive, informal and flexible.
"If there were kids who didn't get along with me, they'd go into another classroom for a break. And vice versa. We would have had kids in the office every day if we hadn't co-operated. And we did a lot of swapping to give kids exposure to new things.
"Working well with staff is probably the most important thing to bring about student success," he says.
Always on the lookout for a new challenge, Jeffrey Schust returned to Canada after his three-year stint with VIF to become the vice-principal at a small elementary school in Thornbury. Beaver Valley Community School is surrounded by farmland and apple orchards. It's near ski hills, a stone's throw from Georgian Bay.
It's a world away from inner-city Atlanta.
"I'm reframing the way I think about things. I can't wait to share the stuff I've learned."
Choosing the tough assignment
Jeffrey Schust had 11 years teaching experience in Ontario when he signed on with VIF. He had just made vice-principal in the Peel DSB.
Why leave a command post for the trenches?
"Because testing was coming up in Ontario and I wanted to find out more about it. I was in charge of the Grade 10 literacy test the year it didn't count. So I wanted to go to the States and learn more about testing."
VIF offered him a choice of suburban and city schools in six states and he chose Atlanta. "The school system was going through a transition because of testing," he says. "Also, it's warm!"
VIF recruits teachers from around the world and matches them with primary and secondary school positions in the United States and the United Kingdom. Teachers serve for up to three years as full-time classroom instructors. Last year 1,700 teachers from more than 40 countries (including 235 Canadians) taught in 10 US states.
Teachers from other countries help to open students' eyes to the world beyond their borders.