A Successful Elementary School

The Los Angeles Times has an article on how Bunche Elementary School in the Compton Unified School District is doing what many thought impossible:

Bunche students have responded with remarkable gains, defying the conventional wisdom that poor and minority students are virtually destined to land on the downside of the achievement gap. And Bunche did this without the help of the state’s two major intervention programs for low-performing schools….

At this school, the primary mover has been first-time Principal Mikara Solomon Davis, who arrived in mid-2000. Some would say she’s done the near impossible.

Bunche has blown past the target score of 800 on the state’s Academic Performance Index. Its 868 compares favorably to the scores at schools in Beverly Hills and San Marino. A school would score 875 if every student scored “proficient” on standardized tests.

Visually, the school sparkles as well, with clean, recently modernized classrooms, well-tended grass and rose bushes.

The campus sits in what looks to be a solidly middle-class minority neighborhood in the city of Carson. But a closer look suggests the classic profile of a school with poor achievement: The student body is about half black and half Latino, most of the students speak limited English, and the entire student body qualifies for free lunches. Some students come from the surrounding neighborhood, but most are bused from Compton.

In 1999, the first year of the state’s current testing and improvement regimen, the school ranked in the lowest 10% of schools statewide.

So starting in 1999, the school was where all Compton schools tend to be, at the lowest 10% of schools statewide. So what changed? The article continues:

With qualified, experienced principals in short supply, the school system hired a smart, hardworking prospect.

Solomon Davis, in her late 20s, had just earned a master’s degree in education at Columbia University, which followed three years of teaching in Compton. There she impressed her own principal as one of the most gifted teachers she’d ever supervised.

Tireless, idealistic, demanding and at the time single, Solomon Davis critiqued daily the individual lessons of her teachers, including the veteran ones to whom she made clear: “It’s not an 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. job. And you’re going to be asked to do a lot of work.”

Only two of 21 teachers remain from before her arrival. About eight departed, she said, because they disliked the new regimen. Another half dozen or so made a strong transition but have since retired. Solomon Davis’ hires tended to match her own profile: young, energetic and relatively inexperienced. There’s been substantial turnover in these ranks as well.

Several, including Solomon Davis, were affiliated with Teach for America, which places virtually untrained recent graduates from top colleges in urban classrooms.

So what does the Bunche example say about the widely accepted notion that it’s experience that matters most in teaching effectively?

Solomon Davis has kept the academic rise going by hiring carefully and by developing, in essence, her own monitoring and training system. Her ongoing accountability measures are the state standards for each grade level, which specify what students are supposed to know. Top grades for students, she said, have to equal mastery of these standards…

There’s a sense that the staff knows it’s playing catch-up. Solomon Davis recounted a recent discussion with the principal of Vista Grande Elementary in Rancho Palos Verdes — where parents assume and demand academic excellence.

“There ‘the machine’ pushes her,” said Solomon Davis. “Here, you have to push it.”

And that means pushing parents, who adjusted to a principal who in her first year issued more than 100 suspensions in a school of 467 students.

“There was such an issue with discipline that you couldn’t teach. Disrespect for teachers and adults was the norm,” said Solomon Davis. When parents confront her over a suspension, “I begin by saying, ‘Our goal is college for your child. We’re not here to punish,’ ” Solomon Davis said.

Charter schools and some remarkable schools like Bunche Elementary School continue to prove what voucher proponents have said all along: even in a bad neighborhood, with low income minority students, a school can do remarkable things. The full article can be found here.

9 Responses to “A Successful Elementary School”

  1. Imelda says:

    I saw firsthand the success of a great charter school in an “economically challenged” neighborhood where kids are expected to fail. Our kids didn’t fail – they are so hungry for knowledge and take in everything that is taught. We were “recognized” by the state of Texas the first year of existence and “exemplarary” the 2nd year. (80+ aver to be regognized, 90+ for the second). The principal was amazing and so were the teachers… oh how I miss my lil’ school.

  2. Thanks for sharing Imelda! It’s true, charter schools around the country are doing what many in our public schools said was impossible, turning previously failing children into star students.

    Let’s not forget that the teachers union, fearing the competition that would ensue, vehemently opposed charter schools, they fought (and still continue to fight!) to prevent any charter school from opening. Yet, like vouchers via school choice, charter schools continue to prove the critics wrong – and the ones who most benefit are the children, those who were previously doomed to failing schools when school choice was not available.

    Thanks again!

  3. msondo says:

    Great article, thanks for sharing. 🙂

    A Columbia grad teaching in Compton? Man, she could have persued anything she wanted but I wonder what drove her to teach in Compton?

    I think the old addage is true that if you can’t “do” you “teach.” Teachers don’t make much money, even with their unionized salaries. I think if teachers made more the profession would become much more competitive and attract more high caliber people such as this Columbia grad who was able to do amazing things at her school. I still think most of the responsibility should fall on the individual students. Even the worse schools here are on par or better equiped than the best in many other parts of the world, and yet they still produce a higher percentage of graduates and motivated citizens. Regardless, as somebody who made it through and “became somebody,” I have to admit that much of my inspiration and energy came from the handful of good teachers and leaders I had.

  4. Agreed! Thanks for the comment msondo.

  5. Mike Hanson says:

    As a teacher working in an inner city school, I see the challenges facing our students. In my district (not LA), we have many of the same issues facing LA. High expectations are a must. Many students work hard to make excellent progress.

    With mostly second language learners, many students need extra language development. Further, lack of primary language development and other early cognitive development affect many of our students.

    Also, many of the teachers at my site are exceptional. We are not the incapable. We chose teaching because we have something to offer our students. I agree that we will never be rich in this profession.

    I take exception to the belief that charter schools or vouchers are the fix. First, in my district, several charters have opened and others have been discussed. It is the district school boards that run opposition to charters. They don’t like to lose the funding. As for vouchers, numerous studies have shown that these programs don’t succeed in their goals. As for the concept of competition, education is not the same as competing businesses. Businesses hire the best employees that they are willing to pay for. Poor performance by an employee results in being fired. If schools were following a business model, they would recruit the top students that they could “afford.” What woud be a school’s motivation for accepting a student with limited language skills or other academic difficulties? If testing determines success and funding, these students would be relegated to the “failng schools.” The so-called “failing” schools would spiral downward and never recover. The “good schools” would then be able to compete for the best. Again, a high achieving student isn’t going to a Compton school because it has high scores. Nor would a struggling student be recruited for a high achieving school.

    As for Bunche elementary, I hope they continue to have success. Other schools may not be successful just because they follow this school’s model. According to the California Dept. of Ed. API report(http://api.cde.ca.gov), 11% of Bunche’s parents are not high school graduates. At my site, 86% of our parents are not high school graduates. Parent education may have more of a link with student success than any other factor. To continue, Bunche has only 42% English Learners. We have 86%. Obviously, English fluency directly influences things like reading comprehension, etc. Bunche’s population is at least 50% primary English speakers (meaning English is the home language.) At my school, we have around 3% primary English speakers. My point is not to attack Bunche. Rather, each school must address student success individually.

    Having gone to CSU, Dominguez Hills in Carson, I know Carson is by no means environmentally similar to Compton. This also has an influence on a school. One last question I have is: has the principal’s heavy handed approach caused struggling families (student’s with learning disabilities, families with drug use problems, etc.) to leave the school? Has it attracted high achieving students?

  6. Mike Hanson, thanks for commenting. I agree with alot of what you say and you make some new and important observation.

    One quibble with your post though, you seem to be ill informed on vouchers and charter schools. For example, vouchers, where they have been used correctly, show remarkable gains in both the schools and the children who use the vouchers. The evidence is so overwhelming that even voucher opponents don’t argue against vouchers on the merits anymore, but on what vouchers would do to schools (less funding, more kids will go to religious schools, etc).

    Second, ‘test scores’ in the absolute sense will not be the metric of what makes one school better than the other, it would be test improvements and when you factor that in, that makes children in the poorest neighborhoods the most likely winners – precisely the group that is most harmed by the status quo.

  7. Mike Hanson says:

    I may not be aware of any specific research that shows vouchers to be effective. My last formal reading on the topic was about a year ago. At that time, the evidence wasn’t positive. In my quick search over the last hour, I have seen nothing pointing to great results. When results are noted, they seem to be anecdotal, not scientific. Let me know of what research, websites, etc. you are refering to so I may read up.

    I agree that school districts worry about loss of funding to a voucher system. Funding is and always will be a problem.

    Most “succesful” voucher systems probably attract students with more skills and supportive parents. Most evidence shows that private schools fail the needs of students with learning disabilities. Do you believe that a private school will compete for Student X with learning issues on a voucher or Student Y without these issues? Again, how do vouchers address this issue? The hard to teach student will be avoided.

    Charter schools are a little different. They have certain flexibilites not granted to regular schools. They still must follow state standards, but have more autonomy in how they reach these goals. I am not against charters. In fact, my own daughter attends one. This school serves a mixed population (approx. 54% Latinos/46% White, African American, and other ethnicities.) They still are under the umbrella of a local education agency (School District, County Ed. Dept.) Unfortunately, in my reading, charters are still a mixed bag of success and failure. Research Edison Learning and you will see a flood of negative news.

    The problem is applying any success to the whole. The factors I noted previously (parental education,etc.) are critical. One study that has been touted to death is the “90/90/90 schools (over 90 percent poverty, over 90 percent minorities, and yet over 90 percent achieving at high proficiency levels).” One point that they fail to mention is that none of these schools are 90% English Learners. They aren’t. Instead of claiming the school is broken, people refuse to address the real issue.

    Yes, some schools are ineffective and should be corrected. The real issues include the breakdown of families and the community. I find the fastest way to turn off educational idealists (this term I use to describe some, not you, so please don’t take personally) is to discuss what life really is like in my school neighborhood. (Incidentally, I live in the community that I teach.) Mention gangs and drugs and they claim you are making excuses. These are real problems. Last year, I had a ten-year-old boy who was used to carry drugs for the gang that lived on his street. If that is bad enough, his father also used him as a runner. Another girl in our fifth grade became pregnant by a 20 year old. How about the mother who allowed her daughter to be sexually molested by her stepfather because he made good money and could afford the rent on a house. I can’t tell you how many students are reared by single mothers, how many dads are in jail, how many students live in a 2 bedroom apartment with well over a dozen “roommates”,… You are probably aware of these issues. Don’t take this as not believing in my students. I have the greatest respect for students who persevere. I believe my students believe this, as numerous students return to visit and talk.

    It is important to note that most of our families are hardworking and responsible. Unfortunately, it is the small percentage that harms the community. If you want change, start before students enter school. Develop the child’s mind with language building. It is not uncommon for a third of our students to not even be fluent in Spanish, their primary language, when entering kinder. Round it to above 50% when you include limited Spanish speakers. This is probably more detrimental to academic success (and lifelong success) than any other factor.

    Please don’t take any points as not believing in my students. I have had tremendous success with my students and my classes have always scored well on state tests. But have I been able to reach all students? Honestly, no. Does this mean that I quit on them? No.

    Finally, if you measured student success by measures other than “test scores”, my school would be a success. In the time since the API has been in place, we have improved 241 points. One school in our district is a fundmental. Students must register to attend. If they don’t follow all school guidelines, they will be expelled and must return to a neighborhood school. This school has improved 51 points. Since they started at over 800, they are a success. We are a failure. (Another note: parental education over 80% high school graduates, with 35% having graduated from college; we have 80% ot high school graduates.) Will fair school assessments ever be used? Probaby not. (Ask a real estate agent about the local schools and they will give you test score info.)

    Until the problem of education is addressed holistically, we limit success for all students. Yes, some believe vouchers, charters, and other methods will fix the problem. But the problems start outside the school. Imagine punishing doctors because their patients are obese. If they don’t lose weight let’s not fund their medical office. Then let’s send the patient to a new doctor, who may have never been to medical school.

    Sorry for meandering all over the place. Just lots of thoughts. Please remember, teachers are not the enemy. Also, most people believe teachers have given up on students when they discuss our student’s reality. This is not the case. We must understand our students to assist them.

    One last point. One of the simplest educational fixes that seems to be ignored is for students to open a book and read daily. If this happened, the achievement gap would shrink. What a radical concept.

  8. Mike,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond, I respect your openness and passion and wish more people had such an interest in the topic.

    As far as studies supporting the success of vouchers, I would start with Caroline Huxby over at Harvard who has studied the issue intensively, see here and here. Also, I’d recommend you spend some time reading through this debate on the topic, it is between two highly knowledgeable people, and gives you a good overview of the reasons some oppose vouchers and their responses.

    You bring up a good point when you mention the fear that private schools will “probably attract students with more skills and supportive parents.” But remember, under a voucher program, every student, even the worst students, will have a voucher worth $$, and in the private industry, $$ is a hard thing to pass up. So built into the voucher system there already is a strong check to make sure those students with the worse grades, worse parents, or worse learning problems, are not left behind.

    If, however, this check is not strong enough, there are other things one can do. For example, in Florida and most other voucher programs, vouchers were given and students assigned to private schools based on a lottery method, where test skills, parents, and learning ability were not part of the criteria (only poverty and failing school). Another possibility is to prohibit all schools that accept vouchers from discriminating one student from another based on test scores, parents and/or learning ability. Yet another possibility, and one advocated by Economist Arnold Kling, see here, and one that was used by the Florida Voucher program is to give those with a learning disability a voucher worth significantly more money than vouchers of other students. This significantly increases the incentive for a private school to take him in and makes the student one that private schools will fight over instead of trying to prevent from joining. Any of these solutions is fine with me.

    As far as charter schools go, be careful how you read those studies, if you separate true charter schools from fake ones, the success of charter schools becomes much more apparent, see here, though charters certainly have their shortcomings too, see here.

    More importantly, we agree completely when you write, Yes, some schools are ineffective and should be corrected. The real issues include the breakdown of families and the community. I don’t know how long you have been reading my blog, but I grew up in Compton, Ca and completely agree with what you say. This is what I wrote in response to a commentator who made roughly the same comment you made, see here, “I believe strongly that most of the blame resides in the individual choices of the children. If all kids, for example, studied the hardest they could, attended almost all of the lectures, and used all of the resources afforded to them, our education problem would not be nearly as bad as it is”. And students are like this because of their parents – when you have a single mother having to constantly worry about putting food on the table, or a destructive home, or a community rot with gangs, drugs, and broken families, the students first priority will hardly ever be education and learning all they can. For the record, so you don’t get the impression that I am skirting the issue, let me clearly say that I completely agree that the primary problem with inner city schools and the inner cities themselves are gangs, drugs, and especially broken families. Vouchers and any other education reform will always be severely limited in its effectiveness so long as these problems persist, and anybody who thinks differently is an idealist who has no real idea of the true problems of inner city life.

    With that said though, I still return to my strong support for vouchers. Why? Well, first, how do you fix the above problems? You can’t pass a law – atleast not an affective law – that tells kids to study and try harder, so that becomes a nil point. My only point here is that some responsibility falls on the schools, and if I have a solution that improves test scores for all kids, more so for disadvantaged kids, improves public schools – again, more so for schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods – and at the same time is cheaper than the status quo, why fight it? Even improvements at the margin are improvements worth fighting for, IMHO, when dealing with kids in the ghetto.

    Second, there are other inner city problems a voucher system would help alleviate, see what I wrote on that here.

    I also agree with you on the shortcomings and inconsistencies of state tests, there certainly are other factors aside from sheer test scores, that should be taken into account in evaluating one school from another (for the record, I am no big fan of NCLB).

    Let me close by saying that I have enjoyed your comments, you seem to be someone who truly cares about the students, the community, and the improvement of education. I hope that you would continue to read my blog and post your thoughts on any topic – honest criticism (or agreement) is highly valued on this blog (I also plan to blog more on how vouchers would help alleviate some problems in the ghetto and would love to hear your thoughts on the topic).

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