National Blue Ribbon Schools Program
This year Blue Ribbon Schools site visitors visited eight exemplary schoolstwo high schools, two elementary schools, one middle school, and three schools that combined elementary and middle schools. As always, we urge you to contact any school whose practices and achievements seem relevant to your own situation. The school website address appears in the Student Demographics box on the first page of each report.
The 2008 Blue Ribbon Schools profiled here are all high-achieving, high-poverty schools. Measured by eligibility for subsidized meals, no fewer than two in five of all students at these eight schools live in poverty; in two schools, the ratio rises to three in four children growing up in low-income households. The schools present a rich cross-section, from tiny Lora B. Peck Elementary School (390 students) to Clovis East High School (2,640 students). One schoolMasada Charteris located in deeply rural Arizona, while Robert A. Black Magnet School and Robert Treat Academy Charter school are in the hearts of Chicago, Illinois and Newark, New Jersey, respectively. Pin Oak Middle School and Ocean View Elementary School are in a suburb and a small city. In two schoolsJohn Marshall High School in West Virginia and Masadastudents are overwhelmingly White, while students at Robert A. Black are overwhelmingly Black.
The differences fade in the face of student success rates at these schools: the number of students who score "proficient and above" regularly exceeds 90%. The achievement gap between low-income students and their peers is no more than ten percentage points at any school and the average achievement gap is considerably lower.
Further, only one school (Pin Oak Middle School) has entry requirements; students at all the other schools enter by random lottery or the luck of where they live. These students could be anyone's studentsexcept that under these conditions, they thrive, succeed with challenging academic materials, and face their futures with confidence and even enthusiasm.
All eight schools offer lessons in good educational practices: deeply personalized environments, intense parent involvement, curricula aligned to high standards, ongoing formative assessment of student learning, and engaged, collaborative leaders and teachers. And they hold every student to high expectations. This year we focus on this deceptively simple feature.
While student learning is determined by immensely complex factors, none of which in isolation can bear causal scrutiny, studies suggest that having high expectations for all students, coupled with appropriate support, is correlated with higher student achievement. This finding appears to be particularly true for students of low socio-economic status.
The commitment to every student's fulfillment of high expectations is front and center. At Clovis East High School, expectations of student success are written into the school's eight core beliefs, and at Lora Peck Elementary the affirmation "I can do all things" papers classrooms and hallways. Ocean View Elementary minces no words; its goal is: "100% proficiency by all students in all tests in all grades." Students at Robert Treat are expected to leave first grade able to readtwo years ahead of the national expectation.
Students are intensely aware of the expectations placed on them. Robert A. Black Magnet School focuses intently on the future. An upper school student says, "Even from kindergarten, this school prepares you for high school." "Our teachers are very encouraging. We work our butts off but it's worth it," notes a student at Clovis East. A student at Robert Treat Academy says, "They pushed me harder than at my old school."
Parents are also aware of expectations, not only of their children but of themselves. The principal of Lora Peck Elementary set parents straight about not treating their children's education laxly: Students need to be at school at least 90% of the day to be counted as present and parents who dress inappropriately or use unsuitable language are sent home. "I know you want your children to grow up and be successful and the only way they can do that is to learn what is appropriate to wear and say," the principal tells parents. Parents of students at Robert A. Black and Robert Treat have to apply for their students to enter the school, and know from the beginning that they too will have to work hard. "They let you know what it's all about early on," says a parent of a Robert A. Black student. "You can decide if it's not right for you." Parents at Masada Charter School attend academic meetings with their children and parents at Ocean View meet regularly to talk in small groups about how students are doing and help prepare educational materials for classes. Recognition programs at several schools show parents that student accomplishments are noted and rewarded.
Student Ownership of Learning
The details of how each school guides students toward high achievement play out somewhat differently at each school but a common practice engages students in charting their own learning. At Masada, for example, all students formulate Student Education Plans and evaluate their progress toward meeting their goals each trimester. Pin Oak administrators maintain a student data brochure for each student and an advocate meets regularly with each student to review his or her results, set new goals, and articulate a path to those goals. At Ocean View, students track their individual monthly assessment results, reflect on what they did well on and what they still need to work on, and confer with teachers to set personal achievement goals.
"There is one very special thing in our school. The teachers never leave a student behind," a student says of Lora Peck, "They do whatever it takes so we can succeed." All of these schools have supports in place for students who struggle to meet high expectations in one area or another. Many leaders shifted school schedules, even extending the school day, to accommodate student electives and interventions. Grade-level and vertical teams, common to all of these schools, enable teachers to identify and trouble-shoot student learning problems, with re-teaching, additional instruction, options to re-take tests and assessments, and school assistance teams among the tools schools can apply. "I want to give students the power of knowledge, thinking, and reasoning," says a Lora Peck teacher, "I want them to know they are good, that they can do it."
Discipline also supports academics. Pin Oak, for example, makes a "mandatory opportunity" available to students who forgot or were unable to do their homework, and John Marshall now staffs the "resource room" with special education teachers and content-area specialists who can help students with behavioral issues focus on academics.
Co-teaching provides additional assistance to struggling students. At Robert Treat Academy, two teachers, either both certified or one certified and one highly qualified assistant, teach all classes, allowing small-group instruction and extra attention within the general classroom for students who need it. Even students who require more extensive intervention don't leave their regular classrooms for more than an hour a day. In addition to classroom interventions, Lora Peck Elementary School offers afterschool hours and Saturday tutorials for students who can use more academic time. Students at John Marshall High School who fail a course can recover credit through individualized computer courses available after school. At Clovis East, arriving 11th graders who need math remediation now receive a double math period so they can access the full range of high school math options in preparation for college.
The focus on expectations shifts teacher attitudes, too. At Clovis East, teachers asked themselves, "How can you put kids in lower division [remedial] geometry if we truly believe that all kids can learn?" And a teacher at Robert Treat maintains, "When a kid doesn't do well, it's the teacher's fault." At John Marshall the principal discarded a policy of no finals for "good" students. "What message did that send?" he asks.
The other part of student support is emotional and cultural. "We treat everyone as if we are part of a family," an administrator at Robert Treat says, and a Robert Black teacher says, "We care enough to be in their business," describing the close minding teachers do of students at all these schools. A student at Ocean View says, "They take a long time to get you to understand stuff so you don't fail."
None of this comes easily. Teachers work their "butts off" at these schools, too. "It's about sweating the small stuff," explains the principal of Robert Treat. The key, says the principal of Lora Peck "is not being afraid to roll up your sleeves and do what needs to be done, whatever it is."
Fables like The Music Man aside, expectations alone will not move a student from mediocre to high achievement. Without high expectations, however, many students will never begin to experience what they are capable of.