High hopes for low-performing schools

By Bob Chase,
President, National Education Association

In 1997, Wyandotte High School in Kansas City was plagued with low test scores, high dropout rates, and discipline problems. To its dismay, its entire school district was considered low-performing.

But both the school board and the school’s staff refused to accept this label. And so, they did some soul-searching. Administrators and teachers decided that if the school was going to shine, they had to work together as a family instead of as a hierarchy. Their goal became: “Create a school you’d want to send your own child to.”

The staff began to share decision-making. They reduced class sizes, provided teachers with weekly professional development, and reorganized classes into “learning communities” so that students would have the same teachers for all four years of high school. This enabled teachers to get to know every student personally and give them individual attention.

Wyandotte’s staff also set high academic standards, engaged parents, and coached students to work collaboratively.

Four years later, the school is thriving. It has gone from an average of 1,000 tardy students a day to 27. Suspensions are down, test scores are showing gains, more students are graduating, and the overall atmosphere is one of “respect and cooperation.”

Social studies teacher David Cland confessed, “Before, we had lockdowns. I was struggling. I almost left over the discipline problems. Now, we use discipline issues to build relationships with the parents. The familial atmosphere has kept me here.”

But while Wyandotte may be unique in its approach, it is hardly unique in its commitment to reform – or in its success.

This past July, I pledged to NEA’s 2.6 million members that I would seize every opportunity to visit low-performing schools. Since then, I have toured troubled districts from Oakland to Atlanta, Milwaukee to Omaha.

Many of them have been as inspiring as Wyandotte. Everywhere I’ve gone, teachers and administrators are valiantly committed to the idea that every child in America can learn – and every school in America can succeed – given the right conditions and resources.

The biggest education question facing America is not whether struggling schools can improve, but how?

Last month, at a conference titled “Priority Schools, Priority Students: Making Public Schools Great for Every Child,’ 500 principals, school superintendents, education experts, and teachers – including some from Wyandotte – convened in Atlanta to address this very question.

They recognized that one size does not fit all in school reform. Many low-performing schools, like Wyandotte, have turned around through creativity, tailoring programs to the specific needs of their communities.

Yet like Wyandotte, most “turnarounds” have also instituted the same common sense improvements: Small class sizes. Strong parental outreach. On-site professional development for teachers. High standards. Testing used diagnostically, not punitively. All have drawn upon data-driven reforms, not pie-in-the-sky experiments.

At the conference, Harvard Education Professor Pedro Noguera summed it up best:

“It’s not rocket science. In many districts, we know what works and we know what schools need.”
To improve low-performing schools, “what works” must become the cornerstones of education policy.

Yet we ourselves must also take a page from the staff at Wyandotte. If we are truly going to lift up all public schools, then we must all work together as one family – and regard all children as our own.

For as a wise man once observed, “in communities where men build ships for their own sons to fish or fight from, quality is never a problem.”