For years, Americans have been pounded by bad news about public education: Students can't do math as well as Japanese and South Korean kids, high school graduation rates are below those of most other developed countries, and many of the kids who do graduate need remedial courses before they're ready for credit-bearing classes in college.
The news is even worse for low-income and minority children, whose academic performance generally lags so far behind that of middle-class white students that the "achievement gap" is a staple of every school reform discussion.
So what about the schools where low-income students and students of color do as well as their more privileged peers?
Take, for example, George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Ala. Just five years ago, it was so low-performing that it was being threatened with state takeover. Not that anyone was surprised by its poor performance. Located in a high-poverty, high-crime neighborhood that is entered rarely and cautiously by outsiders, the students there—all of them African-American—are enmeshed in intergenerational poverty. They rarely travel beyond the bounds of their neighborhood, and they start school with limited vocabularies and background knowledge.
George Hall's performance led the school district to take control in 2004, replacing the principal and requiring the other staff members to reapply for their jobs. Today, under the leadership of veteran principal Agnes "Terri" Tomlinson, the school is one of the highest achievers in the state, outperforming much wealthier schools. "I knew academic achievement wouldn't be a problem," Tomlinson says. Her current goal is that all her students be "above average," and, according to the national standardized test that all Alabama students take, she is well on her way.
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Graham Road Elementary in Fairfax County, Va., is another example. As the children of low-income immigrants began enrolling at Graham Road in the 1990s, its white, middle-class students began disappearing into magnet and private schools. Academic achievement dropped until, in 2004, it was one of the lowest-performing schools in its large suburban school district just outside Washington. The school was so low-performing, in fact, that teachers remember thinking that it should be closed and the students dispersed.
Then Molly Bensinger-Lacy agreed to take the job of principal. A longtime educator, she knew her students could achieve. Today, Graham Road is one of the top-performing schools in Virginia. Almost every sixth grader meets or exceeds state reading and math standards, which is more than many wealthier schools can say.
Determination. Bensinger-Lacy doesn't want anyone to think that it's easy. "We sometimes think, 'How can we teach all we have to teach when our students come in so far behind?' " she says. But she and her faculty and staff have figured out how to make sure that their students' disadvantages outside the school don't keep them from achieving inside the school.
And George Hall and Graham Road are not alone. At P.S./M.S. 124 Osmond A. Church School in Queens, N.Y., where more than 80 percent of the students qualify for the free federal lunch program, a majority of the students are African-American or Latino; a substantial minority have parents who only recently immigrated from India and Pakistan. The school's academic performance is almost indistinguishable from that of schools with a much wealthier population.
The students there certainly are engaged. A couple of years ago, as one seventh-grade class discussed a Shakespeare play, the question arose: Did Shakespeare hate women? The debate became so heated that the students demanded that the Shakespeare unit be extended while they read additional plays to answer that question to their satisfaction. "It took on a life of its own," Principal Valarie Lewis said.
Arrie Goforth Elementary, located in the remote Arkansas Ozarks hamlet of Norfork, almost feels like a throwback to the pioneer days. Jobs are scarce in Norfork. People know that unless they get their gardens planted in the spring, they will be hungry in the winter. Faculty members there talk about the solemn responsibility of making sure that their students, most of whom are quite poor, learn a lot so that their lives will be less circumscribed than those of their families. For the past few years, the school has been one of the top-performing in the state.