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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.

Gulf Shores Elementary: Empowering Teachers and Students Through Project Learning

By John Norton on behalf of Gulf Shores Elementary, Alabama

Story posted June 24, 2014


  • 99% of fourth grade students reading proficiently
  • Progress and development in K-1 writing

How does the principal of a large PK-6 elementary school – a former reading coach well-versed in ARI fidelity – learn to lead a schoolwide transformation to project-based learning?

With the help of some pushy experts, she says. Experts who happen to be teachers in her own school.

Julia Gordon "Julie" Pierce came to Gulf Shores Elementary School as principal in 2008, after 15 years as a teacher and reading coach and a three-year apprenticeship as an assistant principal. An Alabama native, Pierce had a relatively brief first career as an accountant ("my dad urged me to go into business instead of teaching"), then earned her masters degree from UAB and taught in elementary and middle grades for 13 years, some spent in Florida.
Most of the Alabama part of Julie Pierce's career has been spent in Baldwin County, where she was trained by the Alabama Reading Initiative in 2002 and coached at Summerdale School as it added 6th, 7th and 8th grades in just three years time. "I learned a lot about the progression of readers as they move up through the middle grades," she remembers. ...

Gulf Shores Elementary (Part II): Some Leadership Lessons Learned

By John Norton on behalf of Gulf Shores Elementary School, Alabama

Story posted June 24, 2014 


  • 70% of instruction in the intermediate and upper grades is now project-based
  • Developed network of teacher leaders and created a leadership team

In Part 1 of the story about the transformation at Gulf Shores Elementary into a project-based learning school, principal Julie Pierce recalled her own early resistance, based on concerns about maintaining a strong reading program, and how teacher leaders in her school convinced her both things were possible. In Part 2, Pierce reflects on the journey so far and offers some insights gained from the experience.
This spring, when a group of educators visited Baldwin County's Gulf Shores Elementary for an "instructional round" organized by the Alabama Best Practices Center, they compared the PK-6 school's one-page instructional target document with what they saw during their observations.
The target laid out the GSES educators' vision of "what we want to be doing and what we want the kids to be doing" in two years, says principal Julie Pierce.
The visitors, all participants in ABPC's school and district networks,  told the GSES leadership team that "you are living and breathing your one-page target. You are totally on track. You understand where you are headed and you are of a common mind about it."
ABPC director Cathy Gassenheimer, who participated in the instructional round, agrees. "The school is amazing. In my opinion, it is an exemplar of a technology-infused school where students are using the tools most of the time to do project learning in very powerful ways ...

Closing a Reading Gap in 17 Days

Brenda Alvarez on behalf of Quil Ceda and Tulalip Elementary Schools, Washington

Story posted June 24, 2014


  • The reading gap closed for almost every student in just 17 days
  • Readers recognized their own growth and increasing proficiency

Thirty-five miles north of Seattle sits the merged campus of Quil Ceda and Tulalip Elementary schools. The schools are on the Tulalip Indian Reservation and, together, serve just over 500 students, of which 63 percent are American Indian and a majority receives free or reduced-price lunch.

When about 50 percent of the schools’ second graders were losing ground on reading fluency, a decision was made to “flood” second graders with support. The results were a torrent of good news—the gap closed for almost every student in just 17 days.

Co-administrators of these schools, Anthony Craig and Kristin DeWitte, have a vision for their school community.

“We want to catch [achievement] gaps before they begin,” says DeWitte. “Our expectation is that each student makes a year or more growth each year.” ...

Every Student an Individual

NASSP's Breakthrough Schools on Behalf of Sleepy Hollow High School, New York

Story posted May 27, 2014


  • An 86% cohort and 94% senior graduation rate, as well as a 93% college-going rate
  • Each year since 2009, the number of students passing the English and Algebra Regents exams has increased
  • The College Board has recognized the school for Exceptional Achievement for AP participation and achievement

Both legend and history, dating back to when the area was settled in the early 1600s, surround Sleepy Hollow (NY) High School. Sleepy Hollow and its sister village, Tarrytown, bring to mind an idyllic vision of American life. Located on the banks of the Hudson River 20 miles north of Manhattan, the demographic and economic changes these villages have experienced over the last 30 years mirror the changes seen across the United States. This 900-student comprehensive high school serves to unite the two villages.

The school is racially, ethnically and economically diverse. Seventeen percent of the students are English language learners, and 17% of the students receive special education services. This diversity is celebrated and promoted for the richness that it brings to the community. Parents value their children’s experiences at the school because they feel that it is a “snapshot of the real world.”

The warmth and positive energy generated from so many different types of students working and learning together is genuine. Students know that they are not numbers; rather, they are individuals with very different needs that are attended to. Students feel that no group gets preferential treatment and speak passionately about how all the adults at the school are devoted to their academic and personal success. According to the students, this begins with the principal and assistant principal knowing each of them by name and continues with ...

Mac Mentors: Combining Apprenticeships and a Technology Initiative

NSBA Magna Awards on Behalf of Maplewood Richmond Heights School District, Missouri

Story posted May 27, 2014


  • For three out of the past four years, the district has achieved the top score in the state's Annual Performance Report and received the Distinction in Performance Award
  • Multiple students have become "Apple Certified," and some have been hired to work in the school district 

Maplewood Richmond Heights launched a one-to-one Mac laptop program for the middle school in 2005 and for the high school a year later. The Mac Mentors/Help Desk Technology program was created out of the need for an on-site help desk. The help desk is partially staffed by high school students, who are known as Mac Mentors. These students identify and solve everyday technology problems that arise. Under the supervision of a full-time staff technician and a teacher, the Mac Mentors assist their peers and faculty. These volunteer positions are highly sought-after by the students, who are looking for real-world job and career opportunities. Mac Mentors get in-depth training by district IT staff in order to be able to fulfill their duties ...

Soaring with the SkyHawks

Character Education Partnership, on behalf of Skyview Elementary, Georgia

Story posted January 22, 2009. Story updated April 22, 2014.


  •  In 2013, students in grade 5 met or exceeded average state proficiency rates in all subjects.
  • In 2013, students in grade 4 met or exceeded average state proficiency rates in all subjects but one.

Although it opened only six years ago, Skyview Elementary School in scenic Lizella, Georgia, has already gained a reputation as an educational star. As a member of the National Basic Schools Network, which focuses on the four building blocks of community, curriculum, climate, and character, Skyview has a sound framework. But it is the passion, dedication, and wonderful vision of its dedicated former and present staff that has made this Title I school, where 50% of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, soar to great heights in academics and character. ...

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. ...