Schools build 'cultures of excellence'
Experts say bold, systematic leadership is key to success.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."