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Public School Success Stories

Across the Country, public schools and districts are transforming themselves to prepare students for success in a 21st-century democracy and global society. Take a look at what educators and communities are doing right now to meet this challenge.

Or tell us what's working in your own school or district.

A Global Generation

Partnership for 21st Century Skills in collaboration with Muscatine Community School District, Iowa

Story posted April 22, 2014

This story is part of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills' 21st Century Learning Exemplar Program.


  • In 2012, the district had a graduation rate of 85%, up 15% from 2008

As of 2008, Muscatine Community School District’s leaders faced two challenges: only 70% of students were graduating and students’ test scores, and achievements in early grades did not seem to predict or lead to success in secondary school.

Educators held a series of strategic conversations, reached out to successful schools in other regions and began to introduce competency-based education, a new instructional framework and one to one computing to address these challenges. Today, the district has a greatly improved graduation rate of 85%. ...

Collaborative Effort Empowers Teachers, Raises Test Scores in South Lane

Krista Parent, South Lane School District, Oregon

Story posted December, 2007. Results updated April 22, 2014

• In 2013, students in grade 11 exceeded state proficiency rates in math, science and reading.

  Ten years ago, Cottage Grove High School, named for the Oregon lumber town in which it's located, was little more than a pit stop for many teenages who'd eventually drop out and work in the mills.  Today, most of those mills are shuttered, and the 900-student school--brimming with AP and professional-technical courses and equipped with robotics, plastics and computer labs--graduates more than 95 percent of its students. ...

From Fire Trucks to the Federal Court: An Academic Edge for Low-Income Students

Alabama Best Practices Center, on behalf of George Hall Elementary, Alabama

Story posted October 30, 2008.  Results updated March 25, 2014.

• In 2013, 100% of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders scored proficient or above in math
• In 2013, over 95% of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders scored proficient or above in reading

"There's not a minute to be lost." That's the mantra in many high-needs schools today, where the pressures of high-stakes accountability have reduced the time spent on "untested" subjects and activities like art, music, drama and physical education. And perhaps no brand of school fun has taken the drubbing given to the venerable Field Trip in recent years. Trips away from school often take most or all of the day, and a day lost from intensive instruction (and test preparation) is no small matter to the principals of high-needs schools, where children often have a lot of catching up to do. ...

iGRAD: An Individualized Graduation and Diploma Program

Magna Awards on Behalf of Kent School District, Washington

Story posted March 24, 2014


  • Enrollment has nearly doubled since the program started in 2002 with 225 students
  • So far, 92 students have earned credentials with 18 diplomas, 73 GEDs, and one technical certificate.

Kent Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas stopped at a gas station recently, where a young man told him he used to attend one of the district high schools, but he’d dropped out. Vargas asked him: Why? The school was too big, the young man answered. “There were too many distractions. Things moved too slowly. I stopped coming, and no one ever called me.”

However, he’d heard from a friend about iGrad, Kent’s program to bring dropouts back to school. There, he said, “I can work at my own pace.”

That, says Vargas, is “a powerful testimonial on why we need in education to adapt our services to our students.”

The Individualized Graduation and Diploma Program (iGrad) is a partnership between Kent and nearby Green River Community College, which brings 16- to 21-year-olds back to school and helps them earn high school diplomas, GEDs, college credits, or professional certification. ...

A Partnership Focused on Leadership

By Cathy W. Gassenheimer of the Alabama Best Practices Center, on behalf of Tarrant City Schools, Alabama

Story posted August 11, 2011. Results updated February 25, 2014.


  • Students continue to perform well in both reading and math, with 91% at or above proficient in reading and 92% at or above proficient in math on the 2013 Alabama Reading and Math Test (ARMT), despite serving a student population with 96% of students eligible for free and reduced lunch

Sandwiched between interstates, industrial plants and a 2.3-mile Birmingham International runway sits the small urban community of Tarrant, Alabama. Tarrant City serves about 1300 students in four schools: elementary (K-3), intermediate (4-6), middle (7-9) and high (10-12). Many of Tarrant’s children grow up in poverty, live in substandard Section 8 housing, and breathe air tainted by industrial pollution. The district has one of the highest eligibility rates for free or reduced-price lunch in the Birmingham metro area.

The city has an aging population with little space to develop new middle-class homes. Over the past decade and a half, Tarrant has experienced a dramatic demographic shift as traditional blue-collar and industrial employment began to disappear and ...

Designing an Exemplar: University of Pennsylvania and the Penn Alexander School

Penn Alexander School, Pennsylvania

Story posted March, 2008. Story Updated February 25, 2014.


  • Students at Penn Alexander outperformed the state in all subjects across all grades in 2012.
  • Students also outperformed the district and state in all grades in 2013.

When the University of Pennsylvania decided to revitalize their surrounding West Philadelphia neighborhood of University City in the late 1990s, they knew they had to start with an outstanding neighborhood school. Together with the Philadelphia school district and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Penn designed and created the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School (otherwise known as Penn Alexander). The initiative has been a resounding success: Penn Alexander has showed some of the highest test scores in the city (in 2007, at least 80% of its students scored proficient or higher in state reading and math tests). What's more, the school has become a bridge connecting the neighborhood community with the university's vast resources.

Opened in 2001 with grades K-2 and 5-6, Penn Alexander has now expanded to serve over 500 pre-kindergarten through eighth graders. Students must live in the local catchment zone ...

Strategic Staffing Helps a Title I School Succeed

Jennifer Pyron, Alabama Best Practices Center, on behalf of Indian Springs Elementary, Alabama

Story posted November 19, 2009. Results updated January 28, 2014.


  • Although Indian Springs serves a significantly higher percentage of low-income students than the state, they met or exceeded the state average on standardized tests in most grades and subjects and came within two percentage points in all others.
  • In 2013, grade 4 outperformed the state by 4 points in reading and 14 points in math.
  • Grade 3 outperformed the state in math by almost 10 points in 2013.

Indian Springs Elementary is located along one of the many rural highways that crisscross northern Mobile County, in territory marked by signs of poverty and under-development. There’s no interesting history behind the name of the unincorporated community the school serves—Eight Mile is just the distance down U.S. 45 to the city.

The exterior of Indian Springs shows the wear and tear of a building that has housed students for many decades. The school comes alive only after you cross the threshold, where you find a physical space that is clearly well-loved by the faculty, staff and students.

Just inside the front doors, a small sitting area decorated with potted plants and flowers welcomes visitors. The walls are bright and the floors shine. Bulletin boards and student work cover every inch of the hallways. Teachers decorate the entrances to their classrooms with personal touches, like the kindergarten teacher whose door resembles a front porch with columns, shutters and an awning.

The school serves 451 students in grades pre K-5. It has a 50-50 ratio of white and African American students—87% of whom meet federal poverty guidelines. About 14 percent are classified as having special needs. The demographics offer few clues about the school’s academic performance. But in fact ...

Transforming a School Step by Step

Melissa Glee-Woodard, Lewisdale Elementary School, Maryland

Story posted April 7, 2010. Results updated January 28, 2014.

Lewisdale outperforms average state proficiency rates in all grades and subjects except one, with a significantly higher population of low-income students.
In 2013, 80% of 5th grade students scored proficient or above in science, up from 49% in 2012, and outperforming the state by 13 points.

When Melissa Glee-Woodard became principal of Maryland’s Lewisdale Elementary School four years ago, it was struggling. The school was in the dreaded “school improvement” process because of the performance of multiple subgroups of students, and it needed change.

Change is what it got. But not the dramatic “fire-all-teachers” change that has been making the papers. Rather, Glee-Woodard inspired teachers, parents and students with a new vision. The staff began focusing on student data in a meaningful way. Targeted professional development addressed areas of weakness in the instructional program. And new summer programs ensured that students kept their academic success going even when school was not technically in session.

As a result, Lewisdale has made AYP every year Glee-Woodard has been principal. The National Association of Elementary School Principals recently honored her for her transformational leadership.

She joined us for a conversation about the school and its journey.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Lewisdale?

Glee-Woodard: Lewisdale Elementary School is located in an urban setting in Prince George's County, Maryland. We are in the backyard of the University of Maryland, College Park. It is a working-class neighborhood. 80% of our students are ...

Helping Students Demonstrate Their Math Knowledge

WestEd, on behalf of Fenway High School, Massachusetts

Story posted June, 2008.  Results updated January 28, 2014.

Fenway's MCAS performance continued its uphill trend in 2013, with 95% of students scoring proficient or above on ELA, up from 91% in 2012.
In 2013, for math, 84% of students scored proficient or above, up from 82% in 2012.
The school had a 92% graduation rate in 2013, up from 83% in 2007.

Fenway High has a unique history.  It was founded in 1983 as a program for students in at-risk situations who were failing in the more traditional high schools.  Fenway became a pilot school in 1995 and is now open to all students, serving a diverse population that is 44% African-American, 36% Hispanic, and 15% Caucasian, with 46% receiving free or reduced lunch.

Fenway has an innovative approach to student learning, most notably in math, and has seen significant improvement in test scores over the past few years. Fenway's principal and math chair both agree that their continuous improvement in mathematics is supported by three key elements:

  • Developing students' deep understanding of math
  • Using formative assessments to gauge student performance
  • Providing resources that both enhance and support students' math knowledge

Developing students' deep understanding of math
Because the ability to demonstrate or explain math knowledge is at the core of Fenway's math program, opportunities to communicate math concepts are critical. While performance on quizzes and exams is vitally important, a student's ability to communicate mathe­matical understanding to others is ...

Stuart Elementary Handles Children, Community with Care

U.S. Department of Education's Achiever, on behalf of J.E.B. Stuart Elementary, Virginia

Story posted January 29, 2009. Results updated December 17, 2013


  • In 2012, J.E.B Stuart outperformed the state in almost all subjects tested across all grades, while 82% of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch compared to 33% for the state.
  •  79% of 3rd graders tested proficient or above state standards in math compared to 64% for the state, and 98% of 3rd graders tested proficient or advanced in science compared to 90% in the state.

"Today, class, we're going to cover SOL 3.1, scientific investigations," says Frenishee Smith, a third-grade teacher at J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School in Richmond, Va., referring to Virginia's Standards of Learning. "What do you have on your body that helps you make observations?"

"Your brain," answers one student.

"Exactly, because your brain tells everything what to do. That's our computer. What else?"

After each student called upon names the five different senses, Smith pulls out from her desk drawer an empty food can covered with a black sock and little colored pom-poms. "Before we go on, I want to introduce you to my field can," she says, which is met with ...