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Schools build 'cultures of excellence'

Experts say bold, systematic leadership is key to success.

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 8, 2005

Confronting achievement gaps and opportunity gaps is not optional at Los Altos High School in Hacienda Heights, Calif. Last year, Principal William Roberts posted some stark numbers over the copy machine, showing that Latinos made up 63 percent of the 2,000-plus student body but only 19 percent of Advanced Placement classes. He posed the question to the entire staff: What are we going to do about this?

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For one, they started talking to Hispanic parents and students, and found they had absorbed a lot of limiting messages. "When you hear kids say, 'Well, those classes are for the Asian kids,' that's painful," Mr. Roberts says, "but those realities have to surface ... to really address the issue."

By adding extra AP classes and providing support for any student who wanted to attend them, Los Altos boosted the Latino AP participation rate to 33 percent in one year. The change is requiring a lot of meetings with parents, Roberts says, both to make sure new AP students are committed and to assure those used to the old system that the curriculum isn't being watered down. He and his staff are committed to staying on the tough road to equity, he says.

It's one part of Roberts's insistence on a "culture of high expectations" at a public school that serves both poor and wealthy families.

Most high school leaders yearn to create such a culture, but it's hard to know how best to help students who enter ninth grade with significant skill deficits. To highlight concrete steps that some schools - including Los Altos - have taken, the nonprofit group Education Trust released an in-depth study last week titled "Gaining Traction, Gaining Ground" (see It's the latest contribution to a growing national dialogue about high school reform.

"A lot of people are spending a lot of time dreaming up what high schools should look like," says Education Trust director Kati Haycock, "but there are some high schools that have already figured out how to take students who live in very challenging circumstances to very high levels of achievement."

The study identified four "high impact" schools that serve a significant portion of low-income and minority students but do better than their counterparts in helping students catch up. It drew on surveys and focus groups with teachers and students, as well as direct observation of classrooms and school culture, interviews with administrators, and analyses of everything from class sizes to student transcripts.

These schools aren't at the top of the charts in terms of test scores, and they haven't eliminated achievement gaps, but they share "an absolutely unwavering commitment" to getting there, Ms. Haycock says.

Some of the practices that set the high-impact schools apart:

• They communicate consistently the goal of preparing students for college and careers, not simply graduation.

• They embrace external standards and assessment data to improve teaching.

• Students who need extra support are assigned to smaller classes led by more-experienced teachers; remedial work is done concurrently, rather than replacing grade-level courses.

• Students are encouraged to take challenging courses.