Located not far from Detroit Metro Airport, Baylor-Woodson Elementary has just about doubled its student population in the past few years. That’s a growth rate that would stagger many schools — particularly those where 84 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-priced meals, and where many of the students and their families face economic challenges, including homelessness.
Yet Baylor-Woodson consistently posts high proficiency rates. Nearly all its students, most of whom are African American, meet reading and math standards. In fact, 73 percent of the school’s fifth-graders scored as advanced in math in 2010, compared with 45 percent in the state. Reading proficiency rates are almost as strong, with 63 percent having scored as advanced, compared with 44 percent statewide.
Years ago, the principal of the then-low-performing Calcedeaver Elementary School found that only a handful of the school’s alumni had gone on to graduate from high school in the previous decade. School failure was too often the expectation of the area’s low-income community, which largely identifies as MOWA (Mobile and Washington County) Choctaw. Residents trace their ancestry to American Indians who, rather than join the “Trail of Tears” in the 1830s, agreed to stop speaking their language in public.
The principal and her staff began changing the school’s dismal statistics. They improved reading and math instruction, used data to identify students who needed extra help and launched a cultural education program to teach the Choctaw language and culture — all in a motley collection of buildings that range from a neat brick building to a decrepit portable trailer.
Halle Hewetson Elementary School has its very own superhero. The fearless caped crusader helps students foil the diabolical plans of his arch villains, who plot to destroy literacy (eek!). This lighthearted approach to learning has helped Hewetson’s students — most of whom don’t speak English at home — develop a strong voice and sophistication in their writing.
Along the way, Hewetson students become voracious readers. In fact, the school library circulated about 80,000 books last year, the highest circulation of any school library in Clark County School District. Hewetson’s emphasis on reading and writing is part of a deliberate instruction plan that has propelled the school — located not far from the original casino neighborhood of Las Vegas known as “Fremont Street” — from being one of the lower performing schools in the city to one of the higher performers in the state.
Icahn Charter School 1 occupies two small buildings on a quiet South Bronx street, in the shadow of the massive Webster Homes public housing project. Inside the school, classrooms buzz with academic activity. While eighth-grade students discuss the Slave Codes, seventh-graders demand to know why tornadoes never threatened the Mayans, fifth-graders solve algebraic expressions and third-graders report on inventors.
Icahn 1 is the brainchild of founding principal Jeffrey Litt, now superintendent of the Icahn Charter School network of five schools. All Icahn schools use the Core Knowledge curriculum, which builds students’ background knowledge through an emphasis on social studies, science and literature. “Core Knowledge is my religion,” Litt says.
New Mexico has few rivals for the poor academic performance of its children. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the most respected measure of academic achievement, New Mexico ranks consistently near the bottom of the nation. In fourth-grade reading, for example, only Louisiana performs worse. With large populations of low-income, rural, Hispanic, and American-Indian children—groups that, on average, post lower achievement levels than their more privileged peers—New Mexico has few schools that can boast that almost all students meet state reading, writing, and math standards.
Among educators it is widely acknowledged that high schools—particularly large comprehensive high schools serving a diverse group of students—are hard.
Hard to run because they are complicated. Hard to improve for reasons that range from students’ poor preparation and hormonal swings to teachers’ adherence to old styles of teaching and departmental stodginess.
But Jack Britt High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina, demonstrates that with careful attention to every aspect of high school life, from school environment to instruction, diverse comprehensive high schools can serve their students and, at graduation, send them on their way prepared for the next stage of life. And they can reach and successfully educate a higher percentage of those students than is often thought possible.
Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School educates kids in one of those New Orleans neighborhoods that probably looked beleaguered before “the storm” and remains down-at-the-heels, with deeply rutted streets, plywood-covered windows, and peeling paint. It’s the kind of neighborhood where people who could never be considered cowards look away as small packages are traded in broad daylight.
Dolores Cisneros Emerson, the principal of Morningside Elementary School, never found learning particularly easy in the Catholic schools she attended growing up. “I didn’t learn to read until second grade,” she says. “Then something happened and the light went on.” Even so, she was never very interested in school.
“I went to school to talk and to socialize. I never read a book for pleasure,” she recalls. Despite that, she graduated in the middle of her high school class, began to buckle down in college, and eventually decided to be a teacher.
George Hall Elementary School is located in one of the poorest parts of Mobile. In 2004, when Mobile Public Schools ordered George Hall to reorganize and restaff, fewer than 50 percent of the school’s fourth-graders were performing at grade level in reading or mathematics.