National Blue Ribbon Schools Program
As the rest of the world educates ever-greater numbers of scholars, scientists, and engineers, pressures on the U.S. to remain globally competitive mean that leaders must bend every effort to educating all students to the highest levels possible—to graduate high school and succeed at colleges and universities to master the rapidly evolving 21st century skills.
Can it be done? It is being done. Every year approximately 300 schools, led by extraordinary principals, meet the rigorous Blue Ribbon Schools criteria for excellence, and every year we profile a handful of schools that have truly beaten the odds. This year's profiled schools include two schools in the Southwest that use Spanish as a lever for content-area learning (Bracker Elementary School in Nogales, Arizona, and Johnson Elementary School in Bryan, Texas) and a third in Chicago (Horace Greeley Elementary School), which conducts programs in English, bilingual education, and bilingual gifted educated. Glasgow Middle School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, finds itself recalibrating its curriculum and program every October when, as a public "choice" school under No Child Left Behind, it accommodates an influx of students from schools in need of improvement—and Glasgow students outscore their peers on state achievement tests.
Madison Elementary School, in Spokane, Washington, has focused intently on math teaching and learning over the past several years, and now mathematics thinking permeates school life. At Golda Meir Middle School, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, students are immersed in an arts-rich learning environment and curriculum. And at K. J. Clark, a magnet middle school in Mobile, Alabama, the emphasis on science and technology means that students regularly excel in advanced courses such as high school Honors Biology.
Ultimately, schools succeed or fail on the strength of the moment-to-moment teaching and learning that transpires in their classrooms. Each year, themes emerge among the visited Blue Ribbon Schools. This year's Blue Ribbon Schools support classroom teaching, and teachers, in three compelling ways: leadership, rigor, and professional community.
It is widely acknowledged that retaining good teachers is a clear way to maintain high-quality classroom teaching and learning. In exploring what keeps good teachers in school, researcher Richard Ingersoll reported that administrative support is a key determinant. How do leaders support teachers? They might bring experts into their schools, as Brent Perdue of Madison Elementary did, immersing the whole faculty in a learning experience, rather than sending small numbers of teachers off-site to bring new information back from professional development sessions. Or they may bring in specialists, such as the tap-dance teacher Principal Tom Hanley brought in to Golda Meir Middle School, to give students a highly structured, cognitively demanding physical outlet that returns them to their classes invigorated and ready to learn. All of this year's profiled schools bring new teachers in under seasoned mentors.
Academic rigor is the second element of the triad supporting high-quality teaching and learning. Researchers Monica Martinez and Shayna Klopott found that "academic rigor and strong social and academic support were the most crucial predictors of a student's successful enrollment in, and completion of, postsecondary education." Instances of academic rigor among this year's profiled schools include K. J. Clark's decision that all students study the math curriculum one grade level (or more) above their grade, or Bracker Elementary’s deft response to state mandates that all students, including the school’s large population of English language learners, take the standardized state tests in English. High expectations pervade every aspect of these schools—even, for example, the families of future students whom Johnson Elementary visit at home to get the whole family on board with the expectation that Johnson students will persist through college graduation.
Professional community, the triad’s third element creates, in the words of researchers Fred Newman and Gary Wehlage, "shared purpose, collaborative activity, and collective responsibility," factors that lead to greater school coherence, teacher commitment, and student achievement. Such efforts among this year's profiled schools may resemble "professional learning communities," as they do at Horace Greeley Elementary, or be less structured opportunities to consult and strategize with specialists, as they are at Lancashire Elementary, or to engage in conversation following feedback from classroom visits by the principal and other faculty and administrators, as they are at Glasgow Middle School.
We invite you to read each of this year's profiled school reports for a deeper look at these inspiring, extremely diverse, schools.
* Teacher Turnover, Teacher Shortages and the Organization of Schools, available at http://depts.washington.edu/ctpmail/PDFs/Turnover-Ing-01-2001.pdf