How Three Schools Are Making It Work

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Core Concerns in Today's Classrooms

By Judy Molland

In spite of growing concerns that American public schools and the children who attend them continue to struggle, there are some wonderful success stories out there. Here are three worth noting, primarily because they demonstrate how schools can boost the academic achievement of kids who've historically had the most difficulties, those from low-income, minority families.

Hard Work Pays Off in L.A.

Rafe Esquith teaches fifth grade at the second-largest elementary school in the nation, an inner-city Los Angeles school called Hobart Elementary. Ninety percent of the 2,000 kids attending this school live below the poverty level, and all are from immigrant families, primarily Central American and Korean.

But even though not one of his students speaks English as a first language, Esquith leads them to excel year after year. The students are reading far above their grade-level, with book assignments that include Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. These fifth-graders are also tackling algebra and even staging Shakespeare shows at a professional level.

What's Esquith's secret? His students aren't geniuses, but they outwork everybody else. Esquith has worked hard to create a classroom based on trust, which he says is built with consistency, kindness and a reputation he has developed by staying in one place for so many years.

Within his classroom, Esquith has created what he calls a "culture of excellence," demanding long hours and high standards. Every morning, some of his students show up at 6:30 a.m., 90 minutes before the rest of the school, to work on math exercises. Not only do his students arrive early, they work through recess and often stay until 5 p.m. They also come to school during vacations and holidays. As a result, they consistently score in the top 5 to 10 percent in the country on standardized tests.

And each year, the Hobart Shakespeareans, as Esquith's students are known, perform one of Shakespeare's plays. They have opened for the Royal Shakespeare Company, been hired by Sir Peter Hall to perform A Midsummer Night's Dream in Los Angeles and appeared at the Globe Theater in London.

In recognition of his unparalleled achievements, Esquith has won the American Teacher Award, been awarded the National Medal of Arts, and been made an honorary member of the Order of the British Empire.

Seattle Sees the Promise a Grant Brings

In April 2006, Seattle Public Schools received a $250,000 grant from the National Education Association Foundation (NEAF) to help the school system close achievement gaps for minority and low-income students.

"We are honored and excited that the NEA Foundation chose to help fund the high quality work being accomplished in our schools," Seattle School Superintendent Raj Manhas said in a statement. "The organization's generous and on-going contribution to our efforts to close the achievement gaps will greatly assist in helping students who need it most."

The NEAF was impressed by Seattle because the school district, along with the Seattle Education Association, had developed a strong plan of action for Seattle's students, enlisting the support of more than three dozen corporate and education partners, including members of the Alliance for Education and the University of Washington School of Education.

Working together, the school district and the Seattle Education Association identified schools where achievement gaps are most profound, and clustered these schools into so-called "flights." The initial goal is to help these schools improve literacy, mathematics and science achievement, reduce the dropout and truancy rates, and reduce disparate rates of referral to special education for minority students. The schools will also receive help stabilizing staff and getting families and communities involved in the learning process. In addition, the grant will provide cultural training to staff to assist them with learning more effective ways to communicate with people of different cultures.

The grant requires Seattle to close the achievement gaps by 2011, and is renewable annually for an additional four years, depending on demonstrated progress and effective use of the funds. In other words, if Seattle does well, its school district could receive as much as $1.25 million over the first five-year period.

Volunteers Bring Major Boost to Boston School

Outgoing Boston Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Payzant announced last summer that closing the achievement gap would be the public schools' top priority. The result? The number of African-American students at Boston Community Leadership Academy who demonstrated proficiency in math jumped by 20 percentage points.

Volunteers from Boston Partners in Education, the area's oldest school volunteer organization currently working in more than 100 district schools, have been tutoring students at Leadership Academy on a daily basis.

The story of this school also demonstrates what happens when several interested parties come together to make a difference. Formerly the Boston High School, the school's faculty voted in 2001 to become a pilot school under the Boston Public Schools' Office of High School Renewal. This program, in collaboration with various partners and financial backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others, supports the creation of small, dynamic learning environments to help develop skilled, motivated and independent learners. The school, which opened in September 2001, currently enrolls 372 students, and provides a full academic college prep curriculum, with an emphasis on community involvement and leadership.

Judy Molland is a teacher and a freelance writer specializing in education issues.

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Articles in this series:

  • How Schools Are Confronting Their Own Problems: As kids stock up on notebooks, pencils and calculators for the new school year, teachers and administrators are beginning their fifth year under the country's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education reform law. Click to learn more

  • The Lag in Math & Science: We may be a country with vastly more resources than other nations, but when it comes to math and science know-how, our kids don't seem to count. Click to learn more

  • Boys' Academic Failure: The worry that boys are falling behind girls academically has repeatedly made headlines this year. But debate continues over whether this is actually true. Click to learn more

  • The Race & Class Gap: While the gender gap is debatable, almost everyone agrees that when it comes to academic achievement, race and class count far more. Click to learn more

  • Decaying School Buildings: With all the emphasis on boosting students' academic skills, it's not surprising that efforts and resources to maintain older school buildings have fallen by the wayside. Click to learn more

  • How Three Schools Are Making It Work: In spite of growing concerns that American public schools and the children who attend them continue to struggle, there are some wonderful success stories out there. Click to learn more


On the Web

  • Healthy Schools Network: This non-profit research and advocacy organization is dedicated to environmentally healthy schools.

  • MathMovesU:  This initiative of Raytheon Company aims to improve the way U.S. middle school students view math.

  • The Michael Gurian Educational Institute:  Provides parents and teachers with information about how boys and girls learn differently.

  • Moms for Math:  Helps parents understand the importance of math, and offers them tips to help children with math.

  • Parents for Public Schools:  Works to ensure that all public schools effectively serve all children. They offer a multitude of parent resources.