Successful Strategies in Schools

By John Monfredo, Worcester School Committee member

InCity Times has been a strong advocate for our children in Worcester and has especially attempted to support educational efforts on behalf of those families who have no voice in the decision-making process. One of the questions facing education across the nation is what can be done to help our children learn at high levels. Can poor children and children of color achieve success? Is it possible for schools to help children who face the substantial obstacles of poverty and discrimination learn to read, write and become educated citizens?
As a former Worcester Public Schools principal and a long-time educator, I believe the answer is “yes.” The question is how to do it and is it being done? Robert Gordon, education advisor to U. S. Senator John Kerry, pleads passionately for us to recognize that if we rectify our most glaring and manifest shortcomings, then we can achieve a social miracle. We can have an America where birth doesn’t dictate destiny. Nothing offends democratic ideals more than the fact that a typical African American 12th grader reads at the same level as a typical middle-class or white 8th grader. Nothing is a greater threat to middle-class prosperity than mediocre schools. Gordon believes that we need to demand educational results. – Robert Gordon, Class Struggle

The first thing that we need to know is whether our schools are teaching their students at high levels, and the only way to find that out is through data. Not that I want to test our children to “death,” but if we don’t test them, we have no way of knowing whether children are learning the baseline skills needed to be productive. That is why there has been an emphasis on testing at the federal and state level. If we think it is important to be able to read, write, compute and understand the political and scientific issues enough to vote and be productive citizens, then we need to make sure children can do those things before they leave school. Therefore, we need an accountability instrument to see if this is taking place, and that can be accomplished by mandated testing.

There are lots of aspects not to like about the No Child Left Behind act, but this was the first time the nation ever declared that schools have a responsibility to teach every single child to meet their state’s standards of learning. That means all children – no matter what language they speak, how much their families earn, what disabilities they may have or what holidays they celebrate. The NCLB act requires that schools not only report overall scores but break out those scores by different kinds of students. There are tremendous disparities in funding, facilities and instructional resources across the 16,000 school districts. This inequity underlies the poor outcomes that the law is attempting to address.
What are successful schools doing and how are they getting great results? Karin Chenoweth in her book “It’s Being Done,” identified several schools across the nation that are beating the odds and achieving great results with inner-city populations made up of poor and minority students. One of those schools was our own Worcester Public School, University Park Campus School, at 12 Freeland St. This school, with grades 7 to 12 and about 230 students, was the brainchild of Clark University and the City of Worcester. What makes this school special? Consider that 72% of the students enrolled qualify for free lunch and 80% come from homes where English is not spoken. The school has a zero dropout rate and all of the students have passed MCAS. Former Principal June Eressy (this current school year a quadrant manager) said students are told their school never gives up on them. The school’s mission is to prepare every student for secondary education.

During the summer before entering grade seven an introduction program to the school takes place. This three-week program helps the teachers establish a rapport with their students and sets the climate for the students. Assessments take place, and when the opening bell rings the school starts out with a very strong language arts and math program. In grades 7 and 8 students who need additional help in language arts and math receive assistance so when they enter grade nine they are ready for high school. Tutoring before and after school takes place, individualized instruction when needed is given to students throughout the day, and contact with parents is on-going.
Smallness at University Park Campus is a strength: the teachers know the students. The personalization of instruction and knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the students add up to a better education for the students. Other major factors are the relationship with Clark University, for the school’s teachers are able to take courses at Clark, and student teachers from Clark may do their internships at the school. The staff is very close and all have one goal – providing the best education for their students. They also serve as mentors to the students. As one student said: they even eat lunch with us.
As former Principal Erresy stated one of the keys to its success is the school’s culture. “We instill pride in our school,” she said. “Older students are now stake holders in the educational process and become models for the young ones.”

At the elementary level, Frankford Elementary School in Delaware, is a school of over 400 students with a large minority population. 76% received free and reduced lunch. A great deal of emphasis is placed on reading and writing. Each class has a data sheet on which the teachers have recorded the achievement levels of each child. When reviewing children’s math scores teachers found math was a problem the school intensified training for their staff. New staff members went to district-sponsored “math clubs” where they learned both the math and how to teach it. Teachers worked as a team, and not in isolation, and shared good teaching practices.
This school had strong leadership and a staff that worked hard and was open to change. Homework clubs were established after school, as well as instruction in how to play an instrument. The key again was a strong belief from the staff that all children can learn.
Several other schools across the nation were also acknowledged by author Karin Chenoweth. There appeared to be some commonality among them. One important belief was that they have high expectations for their students. As one principal stated, “It’s not about feeling sorry for kids – it’s about making sure that they understand what it is they’re expected to do.” According the Chenoweth, schools that are successful do the following:
– Embrace and use all the data they can get their hands on… These successful schools want to know how their students are doing and they know that classroom observation by teachers is important. Data is taken seriously and the schools know how to interpret the data and find solutions.

– Use data to focus on individual students, not just groups of students… Successful schools find ways to pay attention to every student. Some schools have an assessment wall and the schools attempt to make sure that no one falls through the cracks.

– Constantly reexamine what they do. If the data shows that the way they teach reading isn’t working teachers research and incorporate new methods of reading instruction. What isn’t working extends to all aspects of the building and thus they look to make changes together as a staff.

– Embrace accountability… The schools know they have an obligation not only to their students but to their communities to demonstrate that they are doing the job that has been entrusted to them – to educate future citizens. Teachers meet regularly to share, refine and assess the impact lessons and strategies to help increasing numbers of students learn at higher levels.

– Make decisions on what is good for kids, not what is good for adults… As the author points out department chairs will ask the teachers which classes they want to teach and when. In successful schools student needs, not adult need drive decision making. Successful schools make decisions on what is best for children first.

– Use school time wisely… Students are engaged in productive activities just about all the time. School time is time for instruction and most of the schools establish uninterrupted blocks of time for instruction. Classes are not disrupted by bus announcements or by students being pulled out for speech or other activities.

– Expand the time students- particularly struggling students have in school. S Some have before and after school classes as well as summer school. All have figured out a way to get their children more time for instruction..

– Do not spend a lot of time disciplining students… Successful schools teach students how to act by noticing and encouraging kindness and consideration and they teach students how to have good social and professional relationships by explicitly teaching them through anti bullying programs or social programs how to disagree with someone without getting upset and fighting.

– Establish an atmosphere of respect…All students, teachers and parents are treated with respect. It all starts with the principal being the role model and the superintendent supporting an atmosphere of respect.

Additionally, principals are extremely important to the success of the schools. Tge following are examples of the role of principals.

– Principals are a constant presence… Principals in successful schools walk the halls, confer with staff, look at students’ work and have good rapport with students, teachers and parents. Depending on the size of the building many principals make it a point to stop in every classroom throughout the day.

– Principals are important leaders, but they are not the only leaders… There is distributed leadership in the building. Teachers are part of a team that makes decisions.

– Principals pay careful attention to the quality of the teaching staff… In many schools, teachers and sometimes parents sit in with administrators on interviews with potential new teachers. Often the schools will test out teachers before hiring them by allowing them to student teach or sub in their building.

– Principals provide teachers time to observe each other… Teachers are encouraged to seek out and observe colleagues who have perfected a particular lesson or are trying something new and want feedback about whether it is clear and coherent.

– Principals provide teachers with the time to meet and plan and work collaboratively… A schedule is built in so that teachers can have common planning time. These are working meetings, not gripe sessions and this allows them to share responsibility for instruction.
The climate of the school is also important in the learning process of successful schools for schools are nice places to work… There is collaboration with staff and the atmosphere in these schools are one of respect.

In addition, professional development is embraced by the school. The general feeling is that if a student is weak in a general area, then the teacher needs to learn more about it. The professional development workshops are suggested by staff.

Most importantly, the schools like children. Strange as it may seem, this is not always the case. In successful schools students are important. Schools know about the students’ home life and they have a great rapport with them.

The important factor – parents… Parent communication and parent involvement is ongoing. When schools, families and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more.

These successful schools believe that they can make a difference in the education of their students and they have succeeded. They have shown that good schools can make a  difference in giving every child a chance to achieve the American Dream. Author Chenoweth, in her book It’s Being Done, quoted Jim McDermott, a former English teacher and Department head in Worcester and now a professor at Clark University:  “We know what works in education… the question today is not about what works, but about why we do not implement what we know works in all schools for all kids.”

There’s the challenge for our public school system and schools across the nation! Let’s follow the research and implement what works.

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