It's not just elementary schools that are overcoming challenges. Just a few years ago, Imperial High School in California, where most of the students are working-class Hispanics, was in the bottom third of the state academically. Few in the community outside the school were alarmed, says Barbara Layaye, who served as superintendent there for several years. "No one expects a school like Imperial to be an academic powerhouse," says Layaye. "When your football team is winning and the marching band is good, life is good." Today, after years of improvement, the school is in the top third in the state. Just about every student earns a diploma, and almost all of the graduates enroll in a two- or four-year college. Student Adrian Juarez, whose parents are school maintenance workers, said he noticed that at other high schools, it was clear who the smart kids were. "Here," the senior said, "we're all the smart kids."
Not a gangster. Elmont Memorial Junior-Senior High School in Nassau County, N.Y., continues to confound all conventional expectations for its students, who are mostly working-class African-Americans and Latinos. In sharp contrast with the rest of the state, where only about half of African-American and Latino students graduate, 99 percent at Elmont graduate, and 97 percent go on to college. "There are a lot of doubters," said one student. "They expect me to be a gangster." But, he said, "I don't let it bother me." He is planning to enroll in college next year and study physical therapy.
These schools dispel the notion that low-income students and students of color can't achieve at high levels. Their students might arrive with disadvantages, but they leave reading, writing, computing, and achieving at high levels. And their culture of success seems almost palpable.
The existence of high-performing schools where low-income students and students of color do as well as their middle-class peers raises pivotal questions: Why don't all schools succeed? How did these schools turn challenges into triumphs?
Probably the most common thing heard from the educators in these schools is "There is no magic bullet." Rather, they have all developed complex approaches to the complicated task of educating all students. But there is one thing they do share: the deeply rooted belief that all their students not only can learn but will learn—and that it is up to the adults in the building to figure out how to make sure of that.
For example, Graham Road started with its district's "balanced literacy" reading instruction program, meaning that it incorporated both a wide array of literature and phonics instruction into lessons that teach students how to read. "We have a good balanced-literacy program," says Principal Bensinger-Lacy. "But we were finding that it wasn't sufficient." Even though good teachers were teaching a good program, some students were still unable to decode, even when they knew the words.
In some schools, teachers and administrators would throw up their hands and say, "Well, what can you do?"
But at Graham Road, teachers observed their students and their students' academic work closely and realized that many of them (80 percent speak a language other than English at home) were still too unfamiliar with the sounds of English to decode words fluently. So the kindergarten and first-grade teachers focused on helping students recognize the sounds within words. Students play rhyming games, learn nursery rhymes, and play the occasional game of "I'm packing my suitcase, and in it I put . . ." where every item needs to start with a particular letter.
Similarly, in the older grades, teachers noticed that many students didn't have the background knowledge that would allow them to read anything more complex than simple stories. The teachers set up classroom computers where they cue up short documentaries on specific topics as preparation for specific readings. If the class is going to read a book that mentions earthquakes and dump trucks, students watch films on both before reading the book. These approaches at Graham Road helped tackle two of the major obstacles low-income children bring to school: small vocabularies and limited background knowledge. Other schools have different approaches.