In a never-ending quest to find schools to learn from, I found myself flying into the Sault St. Marie airport in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and driving north and west, parallel to Lake Superior. For all intents and purposes, I felt I might as well be in Canada: Residents use some of those telltale Canadian vowel sounds, and the weather is pretty intense.
I was drawn there by the lure of a particular school -- Brimley Elementary -- where 59 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and where a larger proportion of students met or exceeded state reading and math standards than those in the rest of the state.
For example, 82 percent of the school's fifth-grade students from low-income families met or exceeded state reading standards, compared with only 59 percent in the rest of the state. In fact, they are proficient at roughly the same rate as non-poor fifth-graders who met state reading standards in the rest of the state.
The school serves a substantial population of American Indian children, most of whom live on the Bay Mills Reservation just west of the town, and 53 percent of the school's American Indian fifth-grade students met or exceeded the state's math standards, compared with 52 percent of the state's white students -- and 36 percent of the state's American Indian students.
"It is a proud fact that Native students outperform non-Native students in some subjects and some grades," says the principal, Pete Routhier.
This is a school that has improved over the last decade -- slowly, incrementally, but very steadily -- until achievement gaps with other schools in the state have narrowed almost into non-existence.
Mind you, Brimley is hampered in many ways. It is part of a tiny district (its superintendent only works three days a week) that has been subject to a series of budget cuts and serves a remote part of the country where you wouldn't necessarily think that great teachers would be thick on the ground.
And yet the data speak a story of capacity.
And that's what I found. Brimley is a school full of thoughtful educators who have worked hard to understand how to help all students read, write, and compute at high levels and who think in very sophisticated ways about how to improve instruction.
It is an example of how resourceful educators overcome obstacles when a school operates with the idea that all its kids are capable, and the educators work together to figure out how to teach them.
When Routhier and the teachers talk about how they do what they do, one of the first things they talk about is the "curriculum review teams" that have been organized by what is called the "intermediate school district." Every Michigan district is part of an ISD, and for smaller districts like Brimley they provide a way to collaborate with teachers and principals in the area, looking at data and developing curriculum and professional development. This is part of what has provided a structure for improvement, countering what could otherwise have been extreme isolation.
Another thing they talk about as helping them improve is a process mandated by federal law. Because Brimley gets federal funds earmarked specifically for American Indian children, they are obligated to report to the Bay Mills Tribal Council once a year on how their children are doing. Routhier says that those are powerful conversations, grounded in data, in which one of the school's key constituencies is able to ask deep questions about what the school is doing to make sure that American Indian students are learning a great deal. Out of those conversations come many ideas on how to ensure that kids and parents feel connected to the school and feel invested in its success.
Brimley is a school that helps dispel the myth that there is little schools can do to help students overcome poverty, isolation, and discrimination. But such schools can't be reduced to just a couple of practices. They do a lot of things right, not just a few. As Routhier says, they look at what they need to do and then make sure all their resources are aligned to support that.
It's a powerful story that should give hope to all educators and parents.
(By the way, if you are free Nov. 13 and 14 for the Education Trust national conference in Baltimore, you could see a team from Brimley talk about what they do.)