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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.

Learning Communities Support Student Achievement

By Jennifer Klein on behalf of Fulton County Schools, Atlanta, GA

Story posted October 28, 2014.


  • The graduation rate is up 7%, with some schools seeing even greater gains
  • Overall test scores are up - for example, Tubman Elementary posted an 8% increase in reading, 13% increase in ELA, 14% increase in math, 12% increase in science and a 19% increase in social studies on the 2014 GA CRCT
  • At Westlake High School, SAT scores increased 130 points in one year among the students taking new SAT prep classes

The South Learning Community (SLC) group of schools in Fulton County Schools in Atlanta heard the same old song – increased number of students, poverty up, and greater accountability – but now has a different second verse: “Graduation rates are up 7%, more 9th graders are on track to graduate, and we’re seeing big gains in SAT scores,” says Dara Wilson, area executive director, who works alongside Dr. Donald Fennoy II, area superintendent, to support this group of 27 schools (4 high schools, 5 middle schools, and 18 elementary schools) in south Fulton County, all but one Title 1 with high poverty. These gains are being realized as part of Fulton County School’s district-wide goals of 90% graduation rate, 85% college readiness, and 100% career readiness by 2017 ...

Freedom Within Fences

By Merri Rosenberg on Behalf of Pewaukee School District, Wisconsin

Story posted September 29, 2014.


  • 97.4% graduation rate in 2012-13
  • All schools in the district met AYP under No Child Left Behind
  • 17 AP courses are now offered in the district, nearly double the number of four years ago

Consider the way student data are handled typically at many schools — often tucked away in a teacher’s folder or sequestered in a central-office file cabinet until it’s time to prepare student report cards or work on placements for the coming year.

That’s not the case in Pewaukee, Wis., where at Pewaukee Lake Elementary School there’s a student data wall displayed prominently outside of a staff development room. For each student there’s a three-by-two-inch card attached to the wall, color-coded by grade and complete with a photo, to capture how the student is doing on the Common Core standards, offering a quick visual report to teachers. ...

Finding a Way

NASSP Breakthrough Schools on Behalf of Alice Ott Middle School, Oregon

Story posted August 26, 2014


  • Currently an Oregon Model school, a designation reserved for the highest-performing top 10% of schools in the state (a significant change compared to 2008, when student achievement was lackluster with significant achievement gaps)

James Johnston asked teachers at Alice Ott Middle School in Portland, OR, “What would you want done if your child’s name was on this list?” The discussions that followed led to building a new reading program intended to bring struggling students to grade level and enrich the skills of those already on grade level. Gone was the large amount of time spent on sustained silent reading that had no purpose other than having students read material of their choosing with no direct instruction. In its place was a tiered program of interventions designed to diagnose and eliminate reading difficulties. Complementing this approach was a schoolwide focus on literacy development across content areas. Every student would have a specific plan to develop and enhance his or her skills. The vision was to have all students on or above grade level by the end of eighth grade. ...

The Long Turnaround

Bracken Reed, on behalf of Central Elementary, Roundup, Montana

Story posted August 27, 2009.  Results updated August 24, 2014


  • In 2013, 89% of students scored proficient or advanced in math, exceeding the state profiency rate by 4% while serving a larger proportion of disadvantaged students
  • In 2013, 69% of students scored proficent or advanced in math, exceeding the state proficiency rate by 4%

According to the numbers, Central Elementary School in Roundup, Montana, seems to fit the currently fashionable definition of a “turnaround” school. After many years of below-average test scores, the school has recently made double-digit gains in the number of its students meeting proficiency on the statewide assessment. In true turnaround fashion, that improvement appears to have happened in a very short period of time.

As recently as the 2005–2006 school year, for example, Central’s math score was nearly 20 percentage points below the state average. In the following school year that proficiency rate went up by 16 percent, and by 2007–2008 the school was six points higher than the state average in math. Meanwhile, the school’s reading score, while consistently above the state average, also rose by nearly 20 percentage points between 2003–2004 and 2007–2008. This fall the school received a National Title I Distinguished School award, based on “exceptional student performance for two or more consecutive years.”

Ask current principal Vicki Begin about the school’s success, however, and she’ll insist that it’s been anything but a quick turnaround. in fact ...

Inspiring Students to Do Their Best

Character Education Partnership, for Fox C-6 School District, Missouri

Story posted June 25, 2010. Results updated July 22, 2014

• The district's graduation rate consistently outpaces the state's: 88.7% compared to 77.6% in 2011, 92.2% to 83.7% in 2012 and 90.6% to 85.7% in 2013
In 2013, students in the district, in all grades tested, outpaced the state in math and ELA, with ELA students in grades 3 through 8 exceeding an average of 95% proficiency

"I’m just a hometown gal, born and bred in Arnold, Missouri.” The effervescent superintendent of schools for the Fox C-6 district, Dr. Dianne Brown, who has served in this district for her entire career in education, cannot hide her love of her hometown. She continues, “Arnold is really a special place. We don’t just have a district of character here; we have a whole community of character. We even have a parade for character.”

Brown, known as a passionate crusader for character, initiated a character program in 1999, the first year she served as an elementary school principal. But Brown’s passion for character education has a deeper, personal connection that dates back to her first year of teaching. Tim, one of her students, a transfer from the inner city, was shot as he alighted from the school bus. Tim’s brother, unaware that the gun he was pointing in jest was loaded, had killed him. “They never taught me how to handle this at college,” thought the young teacher as she prepared to ...

The Road from Good to Great

Jennifer Pyron, Alabama Best Practices Center, on behalf of Boaz Middle School, Alabama

Story posted November 6, 2008. Results updated July 22, 2014.


  • In 2013, 94% of 6th graders, 96% of 7th graders and 90% of 8th graders scored proficient or above on state standardized tests in reading (exceeding both district and state averages)
  • In 2013, 81% of 6th graders, 84% of 7th graders and 87% of 8th graders scored proficient or above on state standardized tests in math (meeting or exceeding both district and state averages).

The halls of Boaz Middle School are buzzing with energy. Students walk past bulletin boards displaying their work, as a visitor stops to browse the examples of graphic organizers and short essays. Teachers stand in the open classroom doorways, discussing students, strategies and the day's successes. Students stop to ask teachers for extra help with presentations and projects. Teachers stop students as they pass by just to ask how things are going. ...

The World Runs Through Oberlin

NASSP Breakthrough Schools on Behalf of Oberlin High School, Ohio

Story posted July 22, 2014


  • Oberlin High has been rated as Excellent by the state four times in the last six years
  • Each year since 2011, every Oberlin High senior has applied and been accepted to a postsecondary institution
  • In 2005–06, seven students were enrolled in the school's one AP course; in spring of 2014, students registered for 190 AP exams
  • In 2011, ACT Midwest named Oberlin High as a recipient of the Red Quill Award for increasing in both the number of students taking the ACT and the school’s composite score

Tucked into an appealing residential community, lined with majestic trees and well-kept homes, Oberlin (OH) High School serves the educational needs of approximately 400 students in this small city of 8,000. Located just 35 miles from downtown Cleveland, Oberlin is the home of the storied Oberlin College, one of the nation’s leading private liberal arts institutions, known throughout the country as the home of the oldest and one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the nation. Founded in 1833, this college is the longest continuously operating coeducation university in the United States. Currently, it has grown to include a 440-acre campus and offers more than 50 majors, adding nearly 3,000 college students and staff members to the city’s population during the school year. Oberlin College students have a reputation for being notably progressive, as demonstrated by their political activism and unshakable support of diversity, social equity and justice, and environmental sustainability. Coupling these ideals with the outstanding academic resources it offers to the community, the influence of Oberlin College on the city and school system cannot be overestimated. ...

Where Everybody Belongs

NASSP Breakthrough Schools on Behalf of Marshall Fundamental Secondary School, California

Story posted June 24, 2014


  • A 2012 cohort graduation rate of nearly 98%
  • 949 AP tests taken by 416 students in 2013, up from 578 AP tests taken by 261 students in 2010
  • 90% of Marshall students pass the California High School Exit Exam in English language arts on their first attempt, and 87% do so in math

There is a special energy at Marshall Fundamental Secondary School. Students exhibit a cheerful spirit and are clearly glad to be there; teachers are welcoming and energetic. As a result, demand to attend Marshall has grown in recent years and typically exceeds the number of spaces available with a waiting list that approaches 1,000 students. Although this grades 6–12 school, originally built in 1925, has been enhanced and the campus expanded over the years, there is no additional space to house an increase in enrollment beyond the current capacity of 1,950. The few available spaces are awarded through a districtwide open enrollment and random lottery process that ensures fairness. Consequently, Marshall’s students come from every corner of the Pasadena (CA) Unified School District, ensuring a widely diverse student body with one common characteristic ...

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 ...

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. ...