Voices in Education

“Dispelling the Myth” Schools
Every year The Education Trust gives awards to schools that are succeeding in what it calls “Dispelling the Myth,” the myth in question being that schools cannot be expected to help most children who are poor, African American, or Latino meet meaningful academic standards.

The educators in the “Dispelling the Myth” schools believe right down to their toes that schools can and should be expected to help their kids achieve. It is an exhilarating experience to walk into one of these schools and to talk with the educators in them. They deal with the same kinds of issues that educators everywhere are dealing with: kids with limited vocabularies who watch too much television; parents whose experiences left them gun-shy about schools; teachers who arrive in the profession without knowing how to manage a classroom; and buses that don’t arrive on time. But they confront all those problems and more in a thoughtful way that allows them to help all or almost all of their students meet or exceed standards.

I wrote about some of the previous winners in “It’s Being Done”: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools and one of the conclusions I came to is that although getting the results they get is not easy, these schools demonstrate that it can be done.

I thought I would introduce you to this year’s award winners, because they are an inspiring bunch of schools. They’ll be formally announced next week, but let me tell you a little about them.
  • A small school in the Ozarks in a town where many adults failed to graduate from high school and very few went to college. Most people in the area get through the winter with the help of the gardens they plant in the spring, and the attitude of many parents toward the school is summed up in the words of one father: “The school’s okay, but it should have more sports.” Teachers say the school’s geographic isolation deepens their responsibility to introduce their students to the outside world and to prepare them for it by making them as academically accomplished as possible. It is only a small leap of the imagination to be reminded of stories of the rough-and-tumble frontier where the schoolmarm and schoolmaster were exemplars of learning and culture. This year the school’s literacy scores were among the highest in the state—a remarkable achievement for a school where about 80 percent of the students are low-income. Says one of the teachers: “We are dedicated to teaching not only whatever—because we could teach anything. We are dedicated to teaching to excellence.”
  • A suburban school that has been abandoned by its white, middle-class neighbors, some of whom tell the principal that their children have nothing in common with the Central American, Asian, and African immigrants who make up the majority of the student body. With about 80 percent of the students qualifying for the federal meal subsidy, and most speaking a language other than English at home, 100 percent of the sixth-grade students met the state’s standards for reading in 2008 and 96 percent met the state’s standards for math. That’s not all—about 70 percent exceeded the reading and math standards. Those scores don’t result from doing a lot of mindless test prep. Instead, the school’s faculty thinks deeply about what students need to know and then work hard to make sure they learn it. “This is a hard job,” says the principal, “but if you want to wake up knowing that you will make a difference, this is the place to teach.”
  • An urban charter middle school where all the students are either African American or Latino. Many of the students arrive two or more grade levels behind in reading and few arrive proficient. As one graduate remembers, “Reading wasn’t really my thing” when he first entered. After they finish eighth grade, all the students go to college preparatory high schools, some of them very selective. One teacher describes the school’s success as being based on “the passion of every single adult.” But the school doesn’t run on passion alone—teachers carefully study their state’s and other states’ standards, plan their instruction, and work together on lesson plans and identifying students who need additional help. One student says that before he entered, “I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.” After arriving at the school, he says, “I started believing I could.”
  • A school in the kind of rust-belt town where, a generation ago, “everybody’s father” worked at the mill but today is losing population and heart. Many such towns see academic achievement plummet as unemployment and poverty rises; in this town, academic achievement has steadily increased. The schools benefit from the fact that teachers across the district work together to develop common lesson plans within reading, math, social studies, and science curricula. The mantra the district lives by is, “systems elevate averages.” One school in particular is a standout, with just about every student meeting or exceeding state standards in reading, math, and science for the last several years. Says the principal: “Everybody tries to work together to do what’s best for students.”
That just gives a taste of these schools—once they’re announced, you will be able to read stories I’ve written about them on Ed Trust’s website. Anybody who’s really curious to hear faculty members describe what their schools do should think about coming to Washington, D.C., for the The Education Trust’s national conference from November 13-15, where they will be speaking.

Every year I am amazed at how different the schools we choose are and yet how consistent their underlying spirits. They are big and small; urban, suburban, and rural; integrated and racially isolated. But in each the faculty take seriously the need to connect with each individual student in their care and make sure all their students learn important things to prepare them for the rest of their lives. These educators are doing what too many dismiss as impossible—educating just about all students to a meaningful standard. I won’t say they make it look easy—it’s very clear they are working hard—but they make it look possible.

About the Author: Karin Chenoweth is a long-time education writer who currently writes for The Education Trust. She is the author of "It's Being Done": Academic Success in Unexpected Schools. From 1999 to 2004 she wrote a column on schools and education for The Washington Post, and before that was senior writer and executive editor of Black Issues in Higher Education (now Diverse).