The title pretty much sums it up. But if you need some proof that children in poverty can learn at high levels, read on.
The common belief is that children who live in poverty are unable to learn and perform as well on standardized tests as children in families not in poverty. It’s kind of like the conspiracy theories that folks just won’t stop believing in. Even locally, we perpetuate the stereotype that children in poverty just simply are unable to learn at high levels.
But it is just not true. It is a lie that continues to be perpetrated by those who want to make excuses for why children in Alabama, children in poverty, are not learning at high levels. You will learn of many examples of schools right here in Alabama that are filled with children in poverty and yet are very high-performing, even out-performing some of the schools filled with traditionally high-performing students.
Case in point: Hudson K-8 in Birmingham City Schools compared to Brookwood Forest Elementary in Mountain Brook schools. Here is a chart looking at what percent of children in poverty in Hudson K-8 compared to children not in poverty in Brookwood Forest scored at Level IV (the equivalent of “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress) on the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test (ARMT) in Math.
Let’s look at Reading scores: Mobile County Schools’ Council Elementary’s students in poverty compared to the same Mountain Brook school.
The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA), in a presentation to the League of Women Voters of Greater Birmingham in February, shared this chart of all schools’ gains in percentage of students performing at Level IV in Grade 3 Reading over a five-year period correlated with the percentage of students in poverty.
At the near-100% poverty level, there is a 109-percentage point spread in the gains these schools have made. Which means some schools are making great gains with the same population of students….poor students….while other schools are losing ground. What’s up with that? Why the difference? Why are some schools more successful than others with the same level of poverty? Why the wide range? Doesn’t it make you question whether it’s the students’ abilities that are really the variable?
If students’ abilities are the variable, then I guess there are just dumber kids in those schools that are in the lower range of improvement. I mean, it must be, right? Maybe just certain parts of the state have dumber kids.
I hope that statement infuriated you as much as it infuriated me to type it. Of course that’s not true. All children can learn at high levels. Say it with me: all children can learn at high levels.
Demographics do not determine destiny. Repeat: Demographics do not determine destiny. We must stop making excuses for schools that are filled with students in poverty. Here’s a presentation from The Education Trust, a national organization that advocates for children in poverty. Start around slide 72 for a look at schools that are high-performing, high-poverty schools. These schools are getting it done. Their students are learning at high levels. EdTrust even highlights George Hall Elementary in Mobile County Schools as an example of a school that is dispelling the myth that students in poverty cannot achieve at high levels.
And now, for the bestest examples we have here in Alabama. You see, there is this fabulous group of schools known as Torchbearer Schools here in Alabama. The Torchbearer Schools have been recognized each year since 2004. The students, teachers, principals, and members of the community in these schools have proven year after year that all students can learn at high levels. All students. All of them. Regardless of poverty status, race, ethnicity.
There’s no denying that it’s hard work. But no one ever said that teaching would be easy, did they? Isn’t that why it requires some type of college degree and certification and training? Did anyone say that learning would be easy? If learning is easy, shouldn’t it be harder? Aren’t we here to challenge our children to reach their potential?
Back in 2005, I read a study called “Inside the Black Box of High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools”. This study looked at eight schools in Kentucky that continually performed at high levels to see what characteristics they shared in common. The idea was to document these characteristics so that they could be replicated. In 2004, the ALSDE took a look at Alabama’s then-13 Torchbearers to determine what they may have in common.
“The most striking similarity found at all of the schools was their complete commitment to the educational process and the well-being of their children.”
From the 2004-2005 Torchbearer Schools booklet:
“Now is an appropriate time to point out that all 13 principals of the Torchbearer Schools used the term ‘family’ or ‘extended family’ at some point when discussing their schools. In fact,at Huxford Elementary School, the principal told every class and every teacher how deeply she cared for them. Such a sense of community and shared responsibility was palpable in all Torchbearer Schools, and the benefits of such an attitude were evident wherever one looked.”
From the same publication, here are the “processes” the Torchbearers seemed to share:
- Autonomy – Principals of Torchbearer Schools enjoy a degree of autonomy that allows them to address student achievement issues specific to their school. Couple that autonomy with shared leadership, a process used extensively in Torchbearer Schools, and the result is schools in which student achievement decisions are highly influenced by the adults with the most knowledge of the challenges present…the teachers.
- Goals – The goals in Torchbearer Schools are both tangible and measurable. The goals of Torchbearer Schools are objective and specifically measurable because they are used to appraise the schools’ progress.
- Faculty – If one thing sets the Torchbearer Schools apart from other schools, it is the strength and commitment of their faculties. Such a statement is not meant to shed a less than favorable light on other faculties, but simply to point out the difference that an energetic and committed faculty can make in the lives of children. Every Torchbearer principal praised his/her school’s faculty and staff. Each emphasized that the success of the school was directly attributable to the personnel within it. Each also emphasized that his/her faculties were filled with leaders who saw ALL students as THEIR students and who sought to work with other teachers to benefit everyone. Such individuals truly take ownership in the educational process.
- Leadership – The faculties of the Torchbearer Schools are all examples of excellence. The same can be said for the leaders of the schools. Though the Torchbearer principals are extremely effective, each accomplishes tasks in his/her own unique way.
- Assessment and Achievement – all Torchbearer Schools rely heavily on assessment to determine student achievement and to drive student instruction. What differentiates the Torchbearer Schools from many others is the amount of time they spend analyzing their assessment data and the extent to which they discuss that data with their students.
- Culture and Climate – The culture of the Torchbearer Schools revolves around children, and it is evident wherever one goes.
The Torchbearer As a Model for Replication
Last year, when charter schools were on the legislative menu, State Board President Pro Tem Ella Bell continually asked why we couldn’t just implement the “Torchbearer Model” and forget about charter schools. Mrs. Bell’s district had been redrawn, and she was introduced to nationally-renowned George Hall Elementary and other Torchbearers in her new district. “Don’t tell me it can’t be done, because I have seen it with my own eyes,” Mrs. Bell stated at a board work session. The “it” she was referring to was successful educational outcomes for children in poverty. Throughout the 2012 legislative session, Mrs. Bell kept asking for the Torchbearer Model to be utilized. While all stated that there was no “Torchbearer Model” to implement, I couldn’t help but question whether no model really exists.
We have the model. We have been writing about it since 2004. And many of the findings about Torchbearer Schools have no doubt been woven into strategic plans across the state. No doubt much lip service has been paid to trying to do what the Torchbearers have DONE.
What is different about the Torchbearers, then? Do they have more money? No. More community support? Not usually. More support from their business community? Not necessarily.
They just work hard and truly care about the outcomes for the children they educate. The adults in the school buy in to the student’s success and feel responsible for that success. And no, I’m not saying that those schools who perform poorly are necessarily filled with adults who don’t care. But I am poking them to ask them to care more.
If one of the “failing” schools is in your community, there is work to be done. Work that can only be initiated by those who are willing to actually do the work.
The folks in Montgomery…in the legislature and at the ALSDE and other government agencies…can only do so much for our children. They make laws and rules and have attempted to provide a framework within which success can be had. And yet, through all of the rules and framework that exists, “failing” schools still exist.
The Torchbearers have proven that it really doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, Black or White, tall or short, from single- or dual-parent homes….children can learn at high levels if the right methods are employed and if the adults in the school truly invest themselves in the success of the children within their walls.
We know what it takes. Let’s create that Torchbearer Model that Mrs. Bell talked about.