Learning From Success: Hard Work Propels High Performance at Albuquerque Elementary School

Every year The Education Trust, where I work, honors high-performing schools that do well by students of color and students who live in poverty.

I have been fortunate to visit more than two dozen of these wonderful schools since 2005, and I never know what I'll find when I go. Each one has its own atmosphere and individual ways of doing things. I've come to understand that there are a lot of ways to approach helping kids learn -- as long as adults in the school have a fierce commitment to ensuring they do.

Griegos Elementary School serves students who, for the most part, live in a working-class area of Albuquerque, N.M. About half the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, which is another way of saying that their families are low-income. About three-fourths of them are Latino. Lately a few affluent families living nearby, who had been sending their children to private schools, enrolled their children at Griegos, attracted by the school's academic success. They noticed that much higher percentages of Griegos students meet or exceed state standards than do students in the rest of the state.

The school has a strong, professional, and unusually stable faculty -- some teachers remember teaching the parents and even the grandparents of their current students. They are, for the most part, quite experienced and tremendously proud of their instruction -- and with good reason.

Until recently, Griegos was a comfortable neighborhood school, but not especially high achieving. When the state standards and accountability mechanisms were put in place, however, Griegos teachers responded with a kind of empirical practicality: they identified the standards students needed to meet and then provided the instruction needed to get them there. In particular, they found out who needed extra help and thought deeply about how to provide it.

As news of Griegos's success permeates the city, teachers say they are often asked for the school's secret. Fourth-grade teacher Loretta Casaus mentioned that when one teacher left Griegos to teach at another school, she was besieged with questions from educators about how a Title I school could be so successful. "She said, 'They work long hours, they work hard to get the kids ready, they teach the standards.'" To which Casaus added, "We work together as a staff, and if someone's not pulling their weight, we let them know."

The results have been impressive. In 2010, for example, 91 percent of Griegos's fifth-grade students met or exceeded state reading standards, compared to only 59 percent of the fifth-graders in the rest of the state. Similarly, 89 percent of fifth-graders met state math standards, compared to only 45 percent of students in the state, and 95 percent met state science standards, compared to 52 percent in the state.

That doesn't mean Griegos teachers are satisfied. They are always looking to improve because, as they say, "we don't care if you're rich or poor; you're going to learn."

The overall atmosphere of the school is clearly set by the man who has been its principal for the past nine years, Tom Graham. Graham's first career was as a Marine attack-jet fighter pilot. After his 20 years in the military, he decided to go into education, and -- after teaching for a few years -- became a principal.

At the risk of over-stereotyping, there are two kinds of ex-Marines, in my experience: drill-sergeant types, very precise and sometimes a bit overbearing; and unflappable types who exude an amused attitude of there's-not-a-lot-you-can-do-to-me-that-others-haven't-already-tried. Tom Graham falls into the latter category, which means he couples a cheerful awareness of the messiness that surrounds kids' lives with an unwillingness to let that messiness derail an education.

"We keep you safe, make you warm or cool, and give you a meal; then you have to learn," Graham said. "I'm sorry if your mom's in jail, but this is your escape route. You're as good as anybody when you're here."

He has set a very simple expectation, embodied in the school motto: "Do the right thing at the right time." Although easy to memorize, it isn't easy to do -- Graham admits that, even for him, it isn't always easy -- but kids understand it and aspire to it, and so do teachers and staff.

The result is a school where everyone is learning just about all the time and where children - no matter what their background -- have a fair shot at taking advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead of them.

For more information about Griegos and other Dispelling the Myth Award winners, visit The Education Trust's website.