Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

It Can Be Done, It's Being Done, and Here's How: All Schools Could Learn Something from the Qualities Shared by Schools That Have Been Successful in Educating Poor and Minority Students to High Levels

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

It Can Be Done, It's Being Done, and Here's How: All Schools Could Learn Something from the Qualities Shared by Schools That Have Been Successful in Educating Poor and Minority Students to High Levels

Article excerpt

For decades, a sense of powerlessness has permeated many schools and many educators. "There's not much we can do" has been the mantra of many teachers faced with students who arrive behind and seem to slip backward through their school years.

Maureen Downey of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently wrote about this phenomenon: "I am always taken aback when teachers tell me that their students are essentially unteachable, that there's little they can do to educate children who arrive at school unfed, unprepared, and unmotivated" (July 15, 2009).

Educators' sense of powerlessness has been bolstered by what seem like endless data demonstrating the correlation of achievement with poverty and race. Poor, black, and Hispanic students achieve at lower levels, on average, than middle-class white and Asian students in study after study, assessment after assessment, giving failure a sense of inevitability.

So what can we make of schools where those patterns are broken--schools where poor students read as well as middle-class students; where black and Hispanic students do math as well as or even better than white students in their states?

Take, for example, George Hall Elementary. Just a few years ago, the school was one of the lowest performing schools in Mobile, Alabama, and suffered mightily from disciplinary problems. With a student population almost entirely low-income and black, in an area of Mobile notorious for high crime rates and intergenerational poverty, its low performance and chaotic atmosphere weren't considered all that surprising. What was surprising was the attitude of its new principal, Agnes "Terri" Tomlinson, and her team after the school was reconstituted in 2004. (Reconstitution meant, in this case, that the entire staff reapplied for their jobs.)

"I knew achievement wouldn't be a problem," Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson, a veteran educator, was right: Once the school was doing what it should have been doing, students' academic achievement rose to a level more often associated with white, middle-class students. In fact, most George Hall students score above the national norm on the SAT 10 test.

George Hall isn't the only school that demonstrates the power that schools have to change the educational trajectory of their students. Graham Road Elementary in Falls Church, Virginia, is another. Once one of the lowest performing schools in Fairfax County, Graham Road is now one of the top schools in the state, outperforming many much wealthier schools. This, even though 80% of the students speak a language other than English at home because they mostly come from low-income families who recently immigrated to this country.

Yet another is P.S./M.S. 124 Osmond A. Church School in Queens, New York, where more than 80% of the students qualify for the federal free lunch program but perform at levels associated with much wealthier students. Still another is Capitol View Elementary in a low-income neighborhood of south-western Atlanta, where the students--almost all black--post student achievement that rivals the wealthiest schools in Georgia.

Graham Road Elementary School Falls Church, Virginia

Enrollment: 359
Grades: Pre-K-6
Demographics:
   Black                   13%
   Asian                   16%
   Hispanic                64%
   White                    7%
Free/reduced-price lunch   81%
English language learners  51%

WHAT'S DIFFERENT?

So the question is: What's done differently at George Hall, Graham Road, P.S./M.S.124 Queens, Capitol View, and other schools where low-income children and children of color learn at high levels?

After spending the last few years visiting such schools and writing about what they do, I've come to the conclusion that they succeed where other schools fail because they ruthlessly organize themselves around one thing: helping students learn a great deal.

This seems too simple an explanation, really. …

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