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Learning from Nine High Poverty, High Achieving Blue Ribbon Schools — 2006
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Like members of a family, Blue Ribbon Schools share certain features. There is always a sense of order. Dedication to “time on task” is fierce. Student work covers walls, and parents feel welcome. Every student is known by name. Schedules accommodate time for teachers to confer, plan, and learn themselves, and principals are hands-on learners and leaders. Assessment data target students’ needs and drive new plans. Everyone, at every level, is expected to meet the highest possible standards.

Such qualities appear in all Blue Ribbon Schools, a kind of basic genetic structure from which, like members of a family, each Blue Ribbon School generates its unique character, the product of its local context, leadership, and staff members.

For example, how best to meet the needs of English language learners is extremely pressing today: some educators predict that half of all students with limited English proficiency will not complete high school, severely limiting their life and work prospects. Four of this year’s featured elementary level Blue Ribbon Schools—Routh Roach, Ira Harbison, and Maple—and Clark High School—address the issue in different, but equally successful, ways.

Routh Roach Elementary School, in Garland, Texas, uses an “additive, late exit” model, in which students with limited English proficiency learn early elementary school content in their native Spanish. Only once students are strong readers in Spanish and are on or above grade level in core subjects are they transitioned into English-speaking classrooms.

At Ira Harbison Elementary School in National City, California, English language development activities are embedded through the language arts (and increasingly, math) programs. The three hours of literacy instruction offered to all are supplemented by strategic English Language Development (ELD) instruction for students who are learning English; sheltered instruction and specifically design instruction programs are also available, and teachers are certified to teach English language learners.

The student body of Maple Elementary School, in Seattle, represents more than 17 different languages; all teachers are trained in GLAD (Guided Language Acquisition Design). Maple’s literacy program, which uses writing as an entry point, immerses students in keeping journals from Kindergarten on. Bilingual instructional assistants supplement the school’s literacy program, drawn from the Seattle Literacy Initiative. These assistants deliver instruction and support to students both within the classroom and by pulling out English language learners for small group instruction.

Teachers at Clark Magnet High School in La Cresenta, California, have all met district requirements for multi-cultural education. Students arrive at Clark with strong literacy skills in their native languages. Much of the student work is hands-on and language-neutral, due to the school’s science and technology focus, but Clark also offers support in the form of ELD courses, which English language learners take in addition to their core classes. Students test out of ELD when they can independently understand content-area material.

Technology is increasingly a presence in U.S. schools: Clark is designed to accommodate digital advances and the school’s curriculum is focused on technology. Samuel Hill-Freedman Middle School Elementary School in Philadelphia, is also rich in technology—computers outnumber students at this school—but the technology arrived almost “under the radar” rather than by plan, much of the hardware installed by the principal herself, armed with a screwdriver and a growing knowledge of electrical wiring.

Hill-Freedman’s low profile has also allowed it to continue teaching its students material a full grade level above that of their middle school peers. That’s the starkest evidence of high expectations among this year’s featured schools, but it is a strong theme in all schools. At Watson Williams Elementary in Utica, New York, entering Kindergartners are given something to read the first week and taught three sight words. That instant immersion in print begins to acclimate students to print—and to the school’s high standards. In order to offer students the kind of support they need to meet high expectations, staff members at Watson Williams use assessment data to target weaknesses. Borrowing a page from sports coaching, school leaders look for patterns in student errors and analyze how best to teach content students are struggling with.

Leaders at Laurel Hill Elementary, in Scotland County, North Carolina, looked to the achievements of its Special Education students to leverage schoolwide improvements and make theirs an inclusive school. They reorganized the school day, moved Special Education students into mainstream classes, raised the teacher-student ratio, and changed teaching practices. In 2006, 90% of Special Education students reached proficiency on state reading tests; the total for all students was 91%. Another kind of whole-school approach took root at Lincoln Elementary School, in Mount Vernon, New York. “Capture them in the arts and the academics will follow,” declares Lincoln’s principal, creating a rich, interdisciplinary curriculum that binds literacy and jazz, physics and physical education.

Leadership may be the single most powerful characteristic of Blue Ribbon Schools. Each of the nine schools profiled this year bear their stamp of committed, often visionary leaders who have created pathways for their successors as they transformed their schools. It is fitting to close with Belle Chasse Primary School, in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, where the principal, a former high school librarian, used her own research background to transform herself into an exemplary instructional leader. On her retirement this spring, two Belle Chasse teachers stepped into leadership roles. They are building on their predecessor’s strong culture of caring, her resourcefulness, and her challenge to students and teachers alike to look hard at their work, and find ways to make it better.

The 2006 Blue Ribbon Schools site visited and profiled this year are:

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Last Modified: 07/21/2009