The Power to Change Lives

Walking into a school is always an adventure. You're never sure exactly what you'll find. Will you find bored kids, angry teachers, neglected hallways, and overwhelmingly cluttered or barren classrooms? Schools, in other words, that make you despair that schools can help kids prepare for their adult lives.

Or will you walk into a vibrant environment where complicated systems interact to produce engaged, connected kids, enthusiastic teachers, and hallways and classrooms filled with books and evidence of serious preparation for lives of purpose and dignity?

Those aren't the only two possibilities, of course. Most schools are not at one extreme or another, and even the most dismal of them usually has pockets of classrooms buzzing with energy and purpose. But there's something about a high-performing school that is energizing and invigorating. And it doesn't take long to sense it.

When my colleague Christina Theokas and I were writing Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools, we ran across a quotation that seemed to sum this up:

What is the essence of a "good climate" that promotes esprit and gives birth to "high-performing units"? It is probably easier to feel or sense than to describe. It doesn't take long for most experienced people to take its measure. There is a pervasive sense of mission. There is a common agreement on what are the top priorities. There are clear standards. Competence is prized and appreciated. There is a willingness to share information. There is a sense of fair play. There is joy in teamwork. There are quick and convenient ways to attack nonsense and fix aberrations in the system. There is a sure sense of rationality and trust. The key to the climate is leadership in general and senior leadership in particular.

That paragraph was written about high-performing military units by Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer, an expert on military leadership (thanks to Tom Ricks' blog, The Best Defense, for bringing it to our attention), but it could just as easily have been written about high-performing schools.

I've been lucky enough to walk into several schools this year that could have been described by Lt. Gen. Ulmer as "high-performing units," and I'll be writing about them here for Huffington Post. Four of them will be honored this week by The Education Trust as "Dispelling the Myth" schools -- schools that dispel the myth of the powerlessness that schools have to help students overcome the barriers of poverty and discrimination, and I just want to say that these schools are hitting it out of the park:

  • Arcadia Elementary, in what is called "Southland" -- that is, the broad swath of suburbs south of Chicago, is a kindergarten through third-grade school where 92 percent of the students are African American and 65 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Almost all of the students meet state standards and about half exceed them.
  • Chadwick Elementary in Baltimore County, Md., is a pre-K through fifth-grade school where about half the students are African American and the rest are new immigrants from all over the world but primarily the Middle East and South Asia. Almost 80 percent of students come from low-income families, and 80 percent exceed state math standards and almost all the students exceed state reading standards.
  • Dr. Carlos J. Finlay Elementary in Miami-Dade, Fla., is a pre-k through fifth-grade school where almost all the students are Hispanic and low-income. They have completely closed the gap with Florida's non-low-income students. That is, the same percentages of Finlay's low-income fifth-grade students meet and exceed state reading standards as Florida's non-low-income students.
  • Pass Christian High School in Pass Christian, which is along the Mississippi Gulf Coast devastated by Hurricane Katrina. About half the students come from low-income families, and it performs above state averages in graduation rates, ACT scores, and scholarships and aid for college and other postsecondary opportunities.

The data just shared might seem dry and lifeless. But I have seen how those data translate into the excitement and eagerness with which children approach learning.

One young woman -- a junior at Pass Christian High School -- told me that for most of her childhood spent moving from home to home in the Seattle area, she thought she would always remain poor. "College was never in my sights," she said. After coming to Pass Christian High School, she saw that college was possible and that a life she had only dreamed of was in her reach.

She told me she cried in the counselor's office when she realized that a good job, travel, and helping her family weren't just for other people but for her as well.

That's the power a "high-performing unit" -- er, school -- has to change lives.