On paper, the schools appear troubled: low-income students, low state test scores. But a closer look reveals 13 are doing better than expected.
The challenges are not uncommon at schools such as Dayton’s Bluff that serve mostly low-income students. But Siedschlag had faith in the teachers she said nurtured students, and she thought things would get better.
They did. A new principal arrived in 2001 and renewed the school’s energy. Expectations became clear. Students respected teachers. And staffers now go out of their way to support parents.
School visits and interviews showed that the factors seen as critical to success at Dayton’s Bluff also are found at many of the other schools: They have strong principals and a cohesive staff who offer students consistency and structure. They emphasize reading and writing above all else. And they focus instruction on the needs of individual students rather than trying to reach some average child.
These successful schools have focused on basics — reading, writing and math — as they educate their at-risk students. They also have shifted to small-group learning and one-on-one instruction.
“We used to teach to this mythical middle student,” said literacy coach Paul Wahmanholm, who has taught at Dayton’s Bluff for eight years. Now, “we got away from this one-size-fits-all approach and focused on individualized instruction.”
So shouldn’t the level of poverty be taken into account when determining how well schools teach kids?
No, say educators and researchers who contend that doing so would create two classes of U.S. schools and eviscerate the No Child Left Behind federal education law, which aims to have all students proficient in reading and math by 2014.
“Changing that would create a two-tier system of education — one with high expectations for the wealthy and a set of lower expectations for low-income students,” said Diane Piché, executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights.
“It’s simply not fair for students born into poverty to expect less of them when we know what’s possible,” she said. “That’s what we should focus on, rather than what’s likely.