Being Successful Means Never Saying You're Satisfied

One thing I've noticed about educators in successful high-poverty schools is that they are never satisfied. Certainly they celebrate their successes, and they can't help but note with a certain amount of satisfaction that their kids achieve at higher levels than students in other schools. But by the time they've reached one goal, they are already reaching for the next one.

A good example of that is Chadwick Elementary in Baltimore County, just over the Baltimore City line in Maryland. About 79 percent of the students at Chadwick meet the qualifications for free and reduced-price meals, compared with 49 percent in the rest of Maryland. About half the students at Chadwick are African American and most of the rest are fairly recent immigrants from African, Southeast Asian, Central American, and Arab countries.

In the spring of 2012, practically all the fifth-graders at Chadwick met state reading and math standards. Many educators would be satisfied with that, but not Chadwick's leaders, who established as a new goal increasing the number of students reading at advanced levels. And sure enough, in the spring of 2013, 94 percent of the school's fifth-graders passed the reading assessments at advanced levels.

Just to give a sense of scale, only 56 percent of Maryland's fifth-graders -- and only 37 percent of low-income students -- read at an advanced level in 2013. At Chadwick, more than 95 percent of the low-income students read at an advanced level.

This accomplishment alone makes Chadwick worthy of study. It turns out that Chadwick's principal, Bonnie Hess, is a long-time reading specialist who over the years developed a carefully crafted reading program that addresses all the elements of reading and makes sure students systematically learn new vocabulary and background knowledge in science and social studies. Students begin a responsive writing program from kindergarten on, with writing integrated into all subject areas. That means students start writing research papers early and read and write a great deal by the time they leave Chadwick.

"We hold all of our children to a high standard," Hess said. This is one reason she and the rest of the faculty are embracing Common Core Standards, which they see as the next step up the ladder to academic excellence. Teachers and staff are working collaboratively to match their instruction to the new standards and learning how to help their students use evidence from what they read to develop and bolster their opinions.

None of this is to say that the work of Chadwick's teachers and staff is easy. It isn't. With almost half the students being new immigrants from non-English-speaking countries, many of the new arrivals are unfamiliar with the sounds of English, much less the alphabet and vocabulary.

But that just means the faculty has to continually think creatively about how to help their students meet high standards and work together to pool their knowledge and expertise.

"Given our excellent teachers, who are deeply committed to high expectations for all of our students, all children will be prepared for college and career," is Hess' basic mantra.

Chadwick's success in helping just about all its students meet standards is why it was one of four schools honored this year by The Education Trust's Dispelling the Myth Award.

Oh, and the new goal? "We've done quite well," Hess said.

So now she is focused on ensuring that more of her students are eligible for the school district's magnet middle. "We provide a rigorous program for all of our students. Even if students don't meet the formal guidelines the district has set for being identified as talented and gifted," she said, "they need access to that curriculum."

Some people are never satisfied.