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Published: Sunday, 12/9/2012

These schools aren’t allowed to fail

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

The failure of too many at-risk students in low-income schools — in Toledo, in Ohio, and across the country — is one of our most urgent and persistent crises. It’s a threat to our security, prosperity, and democracy if we can’t figure out how to resolve it.

Yet some public schools in struggling communities are succeeding academically at the level of the most affluent, advantaged suburban schools. What makes the difference in these schools, and what can others learn from them?

A new report by the nonpartisan research and policy group Public Agenda addresses these questions by examining nine high-achieving, high-poverty public schools across Ohio. TPS’ Grove Patterson Academy is one of them.

The study, funded by the federal Race to the Top program and sponsored by Ohio State University, the state Department of Education, and the Ohio Business Roundtable, is provocatively, yet optimistically, titled “Failure Is Not an Option” (read it at www.publicagenda.org/pages/failure-is-not-an-option).

The report’s authors visited the nine schools this year and talked to principals, teachers, students, parents, and community partners. The schools have continued to perform well amid the Great Recession and its attendant school budget cuts, labor-management tensions, and economic hardship for many of their students’ families.

The study identifies a number of practices and attributes that the schools have in common. Among them:

●The principal and teachers put students’ success first, and set high expectations for every student. They accept no excuses, from students or themselves, for academic failure.

●These expectations include good behavior by students; discipline is consistently applied throughout the school.

●The principal has a strong, clear vision for the school, takes personal responsibility for its success and for pursuing continuous improvement, and holds students and teachers equally accountable.

●Teachers and administrators collaborate and share best practices; their relationship is cooperative rather than adversarial.

●Although parent and community support is a valuable asset, its absence need not limit student achievement.

●The schools use test data for its true purpose: to evaluate and plan instruction.

●Students know that they will be challenged, but also valued and supported — and loved.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen the use of the word ‘love’ in a research report,” says Richard Stoff, president of the Ohio Business Roundtable. “When you hear teachers say, we’ll do anything for these kids, that’s a stunning finding. And it’s very optimistic.”

Toledo has a share of the bragging rights. Named for a renowned Blade editor of the past century, Grove Patterson Academy achieved the highest ranking on this year’s state report card, even as the overall TPS rating dropped for the first time in five years, to the equivalent of a D grade from a C.

About half of the elementary school’s students are poor (throughout TPS, it’s about three-fourths). Yet Patterson students’ scores on standardized tests are routinely among the highest in the state.

The academy offers an extended school day and year, along with a special 90-minute reading program at the start of each day, the study notes. The school does its own hiring and requires parents to get involved in its activities.

A Patterson staffer observed that teachers often must remind students to look up from the books they’re reading while they walk through the school’s halls. Reading instruction is part of all classes, including art and gym.

A system called “looping” pairs teachers at the school, and keeps them with classes for two years at a time. Teachers take part in job interviews, to help determine how prospective co-workers would fare within Patterson’s system. Since Patterson is considered one of the best places in TPS to teach, faculty turnover is low.

Students who behave, do their homework, and perform well are eligible for modest incentives: parties, recreational events, goodie bags, “Fun Fridays.” They quickly learn the connection between effort and reward.

Because it’s an academic magnet school, the academy can be more selective about the students it admits than a traditional neighborhood school. But it offers lessons that other schools in TPS, and elsewhere, could profitably absorb.

“Leadership makes the difference in how schools perform,” Mr. Stoff told me. “Our policy makers need to invest in leadership development, because it is absolutely within our power to train excellent school leaders.”

Mr. Stoff says that changes in Ohio’s pension laws governing public employees are likely to promote large-scale retirements of older principals in the next few years. Districts that seek to develop a new generation of talented school leaders would do well to use the Public Agenda report as a training manual.

It’s ludicrous to assert — although some anti-tax zealots do — that the amount of money a school district has to spend has little to do with the quality of the academic program it offers.

Certainly Toledo voters’ rejection of the property tax increase TPS sought last month will hamper the school system’s ability to carry out its reform plan.

But it’s equally false to argue that money alone determines the quality of a school district, or of a school. The Public Agenda report makes that clear.

We have to believe that all children can learn, once their basic needs are met, and to resolve that they will learn. When they don’t, we can’t just blame unprepared students or disengaged parents, or union contracts or bureaucratic rules, or a lack of money. As the schools in the study suggest, we achieve nothing by making — or accepting — excuses for schools that aren’t performing.

“This study is proof positive that children from poor and challenged backgrounds can learn at very high levels,” Mr. Stoff says. “Some people in our state, regrettably, would give up on these kids.

“The prejudice that you’re consigned to dependency because of your ZIP Code, that you’re not worth investing in — bunk to every one of these excuses,” he says. “We’ve got results that prove otherwise.”

David Kushma is editor of The Blade. Contact him at:dkushma@theblade.com

 



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