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An innovative program out of Boston College is making a big difference for children in 11 Boston elementary schools. City Connects (CCNX) works with the schools to link each child to a "tailored set of intervention, prevention and enrichment services located in the community."

Its efforts have gone a good distance towards closing achievement gaps between the low-income children in the program and children who meet state averages. CCNX's results offer powerful support for what should be common sense: When we address the challenges poor students face both within and beyond schools, they flourish.

A rigorous study (PDF) of the program's outcomes tells a pretty stunning story:

  • The beneficial impact of BCNX [the former name of CCNX] on student growth in academic achievement (across grades 1 to 5) was, on average, approximately three times the harmful impact of poverty.
  • By the end of grade 5, achievement differences between BCNX and comparison students indicated that the BCNX intervention moves students at the 50th percentile up to or near the 75th percentile, and the students at the 25th percentile up to or near the 50th.
  • For multiple outcomes, the treatment effects were largest for students at greatest risk for academic failure. For example, English language learners experienced the largest treatment benefits on literacy outcomes, by third grade demonstrating similar report card scores to those proficient in English in comparison schools. In fact,as a result of BCNX, there was no longer an achievement gap between these students.
  • After grade 5, the lasting positive effects ofthe BCNX intervention can be seen in middle-school MCAS scores. The size ofthe positive effect of BCNX ranged from approximately 50% to 130% as large as the negative effects of poverty on these scores.1

We recently caught up with two of the program's leaders: Dr. Mary Walsh, its Executive Director, and Patrice DiNatale, its Director of Practice.

Public School Insights: What is City Connects?

Walsh: City Connects is a systemic, evidence-based approach to school-based student support. It involves assessing, in conversation with teachers and other school staff, each child in the school at the beginning of the school year and then developing a tailored student support plan based on that student's strengths and needs in four areas: academic, social emotional/behavioral, health and family.

That support plan involves accessing services, supports, resources and enrichment for the child, both school-based resources as well as, and importantly, community resources. A trained professional with a Master’s degree—either ...

Back in 2005, Idaho’s Sacajawea Elementary School was struggling. The school had had four principals in four years, had never made Adequate Yearly Progress and lacked direction. But that changed with the arrival of Greg Alexander.

Now in his fourth full year as principal, Alexander presides over an award-winning school. After making AYP the last two years and seeing tremendous growth in its Limited English Proficient students' reading scores in particular, Sacajawea was named one of only three Distinguished Schools in Idaho for 2009. What are the keys to its success? A focus on recruiting and retaining excellent teachers, a consistent discipline strategy, a strong reading program and a host of other efforts designed to meet students’ individual needs. Principal Alexander recently told us more.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Sacajawea Elementary?

Alexander: Sacajawea Elementary is located in Caldwell, Idaho, a suburb of the capital city of Boise, just a good 20 minutes away. I actually live in Boise and commute to this community. We have a neat facility. We are up on a hill, overlooking what is called the Treasure Valley. There is a story about a young boy sitting on the edge of a cliff off beyond our school, looking over the valley as the wagon trains came through. The sagebrush was so high that you could only see their canopies. And we look up at the Cascade Mountains. It is just a really beautiful campus.

On this beautiful campus we serve 500 students from pre-K through fifth grade. We are 60% Hispanic and 23% ELL, or LEP [Limited English Proficient], students. We are about 36% Caucasian students, and then just a few percentage of a variety of other students. We have 7% that have special education needs, and we are 90% free and ...

Ricardo LeBlanc-Esparza rose to national fame for turning around a classic hard-luck school. A key ingredient of his success? Parent engagement. Yesterday, he told us about his work to bring the parent engagement gospel to schools around the country.

The Current State of Parent Engagement in Public Schools

Public School Insights: As people who've read our website before know, you've gained national prominence by helping turn around Granger High School in Washington State. What lessons did you learn from that experience that you really carry around with you now?

Esparza: There are so many lessons. It's hard to say. Public education is so big when you talk about instruction, curriculum, discipline and motivation. The piece that I really want to talk about is the whole family involvement/engagement piece.

I have traveled across the country, from Pennsylvania to Florida to Iowa to Arizona to Texas. Our public schools truly are lacking true public or parent involvement, engagement—whatever you want to call it when parents are active participants in the whole educational process.

Public School Insights: Exactly problems are you seeing in the schools that lack this engagement?

Esparza: I guess I need to frame that question…Because when I look at public schools, I see they typically meet the needs of the middle class and above population.

My wife is a principal of a K-8 magnet school for gifted and talented students. She told me a story that ...

Granger High School in Washington State has garnered national attention for its remarkable journey from bad to great. Most Granger students come from low-income families working on farms in the surrounding Yakima Valley. Many are children of migrant workers. In 2001, Granger was plagued by gang violence, low morale and an astronomical dropout rate. Now more than 95% of Granger students graduate, and almost 90% go on to college or technical school. (See our story about Granger here.)

Granger principal Paul Chartrand recently spoke with me about the critical work of sustaining the trend. The overriding message I took away from our conversation: Forge strong personal connections with students and their families.

Sustaining the Turnaround Trend

Public School Insights: Granger High School has been described by quite a few people as a real turnaround story. Do you think that is a fair description?

Chartrand: I do think it’s a fair description. My predecessor, Richard Esparza, really started the turnaround. I took over last year, and we are trying to continue the trend. We have been successful in a couple of areas, and we are still working on it in ...

Principal John O'Neill has earned his chops as a turnaround expert. In the past ten years, he has helped turn around two schools in two different states--no mean feat for a man who once struggled in school.

As principal of Forest Grove High School in Oregon, he has presided over a dramatic surge in test scores and graduation rates. In addition, many more low-income students have been signing up for challenging AP courses since O'Neill arrived in 2002. (Read our story about Forest Grove here.)

O'Neill recently told us about his school's journey from mediocrity to distinction. Some big lessons emerge from his story of school turnaround:

  • Create a climate of personal attention to student needs.
  • Do not remediate. Accelerate.
  • Build broad commitment to change.
  • Go for early, visible successes.
  • Create reforms for the long haul.

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of talk recently about school turnarounds. I understand you have actually turned around two different schools. Is there some kind of a broad prescription, do you think, for a successful turnaround strategy?

O’Neill: I think you need to have a clear plan of action and clear targets that you want to impact. For myself, in ...

Frankforddictionaryweb.jpgFrankford Elementary School in Frankford, Delaware has garnered national attention for bringing almost all of its overwhelmingly low-income student body to grade-level proficiency in reading, mathematics, science and social studies. In fact, Frankford far exceeds state averages for students reaching proficiency. (See our story about the school here).

We recently caught up with Frankford principal Duncan Smith, who described what’s been working in his remarkable school.

Public School Insights: I understand that Frankford Elementary continues to exceed state standards by a long shot, but that wasn’t really always the case and that in the mid-1990s, there was a very different picture. What happened?

Smith: The change came along with my predecessor, Sharon Brittingham. She came to Frankford and really set things in motion, bringing higher expectations for kids and higher expectations for teachers.

In the past, the school had a reputation of having a high percentage of minority students and a high percentage of low-income students. The expectation was that those kids couldn’t know things at the same levels as the students at other ...

A decade ago, Interlake High School was the lowest-performing school in the Bellevue, Washington school district. Now, students thrive on a rich diet of demanding core courses. Student achievement rose steadily as more and more students opted for challenging AP and International Baccalaureate coursework. (See our story about Interlake here)

Principal Sharon Collins chalks her school’s success up to the ambitious de-tracking effort she launched when she became principal. The school eliminated the lowest-rung courses and urged students into the more challenging AP and IB routes. Key to this strategy was early and sustained support for struggling students.

We recently chatted with Collins by phone:

Public School Insights: I understand that about ten years ago, Interlake was the lowest-performing school in the district. What changed?

Collins: Well, there were quite a few components that came into it. One of them [is that] the school went through huge remodel. We got an opportunity to reinvent ourselves when we moved into the new building.

When I first came there, I met with every staff member for a 20-minute interview. We talked a lot about curriculum and climate. Those two things were the focus for the school. I instituted a whole committee to work on the ...

With school turnarounds near the top of the administration's agenda, one turnaround model is getting the lion's share of attention: Close the school, get a new principal, hire a new batch of teachers, and start from scratch. Unfortunately, it is not clear that this model is more feasible or effective than any other.

Evidence on effective turnaround strategies is scant, to say the least. To favor any one model is, at least to some degree, to fire a shot in the dark. School reconstitutions will founder if few qualified teachers and leaders are waiting in the wings to replace those who have been dismissed. This is no trivial problem as ...

Many educators speak at a frequency inaudible to pundits' ears. Perhaps that's why pundits almost always prefer broad, simple solutions to the nitty-gritty processes of improving schools.

The venerable education pundit Jay Mathews recently exhibited this tendency in his review of a book about the success of Montgomery County Maryland. Leading for Equity, he opines, is all about process, and process is too often ponderous, impenetrable and uninspiring. For Mathews, exhibit A is the cryptic set of lessons the book outlines in its first chapter. For example: "Implementing a strategy of common, rigorous standards with differentiated resources and instruction can create excellence and equity for all students." Poetry it's not.

Still, I have to agree with Elena Silva's judgment that Matthews' "critique of the book as too process-oriented is wrong. Process has tripped up many a reform, and understanding what sequence of events and efforts leads to change is key to ...

When Daniel P. King came to the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district in 2007, the district’s dropout rate was double the Texas state average. Now, it is half the state average.

How did the district do it? Dr. King and his colleagues created a College, Career and Technology Academy to steer dropouts--some as old as 25--back onto a path towards graduation. Not only do those students gain the skills and course credits they need to graduate, they also gain college credit along the way. (See a story about the Academy in our success stories section).

King recently spoke with us about the district’s remarkable success.

Public School Insights: What prompted you to create the College, Career & Technology Academy in the first place?

King: I was entering new into the district. I was moving from a small district to a large district, and I was overwhelmed when I saw that the district had a dropout rate that was twice the state average. The prior year had seen approximately 500 dropouts.

When I asked for an analysis of the 500 dropouts from the previous year I found that not only was there the typical freshman bubble (where students don't make it past the ninth grade, get stuck there and ultimately drop out), but there was [also] a relatively new phenomenon that I call the “twelfth grade bubble, ” [caused by] exit testing and rising standards.

In a small district I had dealt with [the dropout problem] very successfully, simply through ...

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