Lessons Learned From High-Poverty, High-Achieving Schools

Too often, we fall into a negativity trap when it comes to our country's education system. It's certainly easy to focus on the things we do wrong. But we have a lot to celebrate as well. And leveraging those reasons to celebrate offers an important angle on how to improve our nation's schools.

Schools identified as high-poverty or high-needs often pose the biggest challenge to educators. They can also evoke the most pessimism. How can kids learn, people ask, when they lack adequate food, clothing or safety on the way to class?

Still, some schools are doing it. In fact, nine high-poverty, geographically diverse schools throughout Ohio offer case studies for how such schools can and do achieve remarkable results and become beacons of hope.

This is not to say that these schools answer all of our questions or challenges as we seek to improve educational opportunities for all students. We can't throw considerations like funding, class size, teacher quality and access to technology out the window. But we can look to these nine examples for attributes and practices that schools everywhere can learn from and adopt for improvement from within.

In focus groups and interviews with principals, teachers, students and parents at these schools, certain qualities were mentioned with remarkable consistency. Among the lessons these schools provide:

Leadership matters. The principals at each of these schools earn trust and respect, and they inspire achievement through their attitudes and behavior. They lead with a strong vision, engage teachers in decision-making, take responsibility for their school's continued success and hold teachers and students accountable for the same.

Principals care deeply about the success of their students and their schools. Some even go so far as to call students at home when they're late or to remind them to study for a test.
"He's trained us to be a family," a high school teacher at one school said. "He models that. He shows a very deep respect and deep caring for all of the people that he works with."

Collaboration improves teaching and learning. At each of the schools, principals provide real and diverse opportunities and incentives for teachers to collaborate. For example, they designate regular planning times with set agendas, encourage team teaching, and make sure teacher collaboration is fun and includes downtime.

Collaboration also goes beyond sharing a successful lesson plan. Teachers work together to interpret standards, plan and align instruction, share and analyze data together, and discuss the issues their students are facing.

Teachers say that collaboration and sharing best practices are keys to their effectiveness. "I love the team that I work with... If I have a problem and I'm uncertain, I can turn to anybody here and say, 'I need help,'" said one high school teacher.

Student data has its place. Teachers at the nine schools regard student data as helpful and clarifying. They use it to plan instruction, approach test preparation and design interventions. Data analysis allows them to intervene immediately if a student falls behind.

Principals and teachers hold high expectations. In these schools, all students are expected to achieve academically and behave appropriately. The educators in the building accept no excuses for why a student cannot do work or does not care about grades. Leadership and staff also follow consistent procedures when responding to negative behavior. At some schools, teachers spend time at the beginning of the year practicing with students the type of behavior they expect.

At the same time, administrators, teachers and support staff model this behavior. They do not resort to excuses when their classes do not meet benchmarks or when their students fall behind. They strive to model punctuality, hard work and ambition as well as the collegial, cooperative and respectful behavior they expect from their students.

Caring is just as important as high expectations. Across all of these high-achieving, high-poverty schools, students state that they feel loved, valued and challenged. They are confident that their teachers will help them and be at their side if they hit a rough patch. Many emphasize the personal connection they have with teachers and other staff. They are also encouraged to think of their paths forward, beyond their present school days.

"They can be your friends," said one high school student. "You can go to them for advice. They help you individually, too. If you're having trouble learning something, you can just go to them personally, and they will help you to figure out like what your problem is."

At these nine Ohio schools, the interplay of these and other important practices produces a school environment in which high achievement becomes the norm. Yet what the individuals at each of the schools do is replicable -- it is not magic. They say themselves that their success can be achieved elsewhere.

Hopefully, such high-achieving, high-poverty schools can stimulate a fresh and constructive dialogue on how we can help all kids learn, regardless of the obstacles they face.