Schools build 'cultures of excellence'

Experts say bold, systematic leadership is key to success.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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?

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.

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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 www.edtrust.org). 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.

These steps often require reversing long-held traditions, as Principal Roberts discovered when he decided to start assigning the best teachers to the neediest students. "It runs contrary to the elitist feelings that all of us have helped cultivate in public schools, [the idea that] 'If I'm a great teacher, I get the honors kids,' " he says.

Roberts also requires all students to take the courses they'll need to qualify for entry into the University of California system. Students whose skills aren't up to speed are expected to attend summer school. And Roberts works with middle schools to identify who needs the extra help.

For Hector Pineda, that meant math review the summer before his freshman year. He retook Algebra I the next summer to boost his grade and get ready for geometry. Now he's a junior and on track in Algebra II. What he really loves is history.

Hector plans to attend college, and if he finishes, he'll be the first in his family to do so. His mother, a secretary at a high school in Los Angeles, often brings home information from the counselor at her school. "That does help me a lot," Hector says. "My dad didn't really know about it until my mom let him know about college and what it can do for you."

Hector gives Principal Roberts credit for interacting so much with the students. "You know, he's always out there with us at lunch.... I've never seen a principal come out with so much motivation, and I think that's cool. I think that gets me going."

Education Trust supplemented the study with another report, "The Power to Change," profiling three public schools with stellar achievement levels for their mainly low-income and minority student bodies.

At University Park Campus School in Worcester, Mass., for instance, more than 80 percent of students score at the proficient or advanced levels on the 10th-grade state exit exams for language arts and math - compared with state averages of about 60 percent. All the students at this public school go on to college, the report says. About three-quarters of them come from low-income homes, and most speak English as a second language.

Their success, the report indicates, is built on factors such as a focused college-prep curriculum, excellent teachers who know their subjects, the smallness of the school (200 students in Grades 7 to 12), and a partnership with nearby Clark University.

Bold leadership is an element shared by the schools featured in both reports. But Haycock of Education Trust warns that "it's very important that we not create the impression that these leaders are some special, super-charismatic people.... They're passionate, but they're mostly systematic and methodical."

With all the testing that's done in high schools, there's actually not much follow-through to turn the data into something useful for teachers, but these principals have found ways to do it. "I'm convinced that more can learn if we give them the help," Haycock says.

Efforts to highlight good practices are always useful, but to implement them on a larger scale requires an influx of resources, says Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University. "If we're going to be systemic about really closing this achievement gap on a broad basis, it's obviously going to call for more public funding."

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