Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child


Success Stories

Reconnecting Neighborhoods with Schools in Nebraska

Coalition for Community Schools, on behalf of Lincoln Public Schools, Nebraska

Story posted June, 2008, Updated December, 2011


  • 71 percent of students enrolled in Lincoln CLCs met or exceeded state writing standards
  • 74 percent met or exceeded state reading standards
  • 84 percent met or exceeded the math standards

The story of Lincoln's community school movement begins in 1999, when the notion of "community learning centers" (CLC), synonymous with community schools, peaked the interest of the Foundation for the Lincoln Public Schools (FLPS), a local education fund affiliated with the Public Education Network (PEN). This interest grew with a visit that key Lincoln stakeholders took to the Local Investment Commission in Kansas City to look at their Caring Communities work, another model of community schooling. ...

E2—To Exceed Expectations

NASSP Breakthrough Schools 2011, on behalf of Franklin Middle School, Champaign, Illinois

Story posted July 25, 2011


  • Over the past five years, the percent of students meeting or exceeding standards on the ISAT has consistently increased
  • The number of students in honors courses is steadily increasing: In the 2009-10 school, 62% of the student body was enrolled in one or more honors class [34% of whom were Black and 37% of whom were low income]
  • Attendance at parent-teacher conferences and other contacts are above 90%

Franklin Middle School is located in the heart of an economically challenged neighborhood in the small urban city of Champaign in central Illinois. Though staffed by dedicated adults and attended by hardworking students, Franklin is recovering from a difficult past.

As a result of years of racial discord, segregation, and lawsuits, in January 2002, the Champaign Unit 4 School District adopted a judicial consent decree outlining an educational equity agreement. Key points included establishing processes for parental choice of schools and increased community involvement. ...

At-Risk Four-Year-Olds Are Target of Attention

Joyce Levey and Wanda Fisher, Tuscaloosa City Schools, Alabama

Story posted March, 2008
Story updated February, 2011


  • The program is popular and each year more parents apply their children. 
  • It likely reduces the number of students referred to special education.
  • The program acclimates at-risk children to the school environment, fosters     development, provides health attention and two balanced meals per day, and  allows students to safely socialize with peers. 

TuscPreK2.JPGTuscaloosa, Ala.--Tuscaloosa City Schools and community organizations have joined efforts to provide pre-kindergarten education to help at-risk children get off to a quick start when they begin school. Tuscaloosa was named the Alabama winner in the 2008 National Civic Star Award competition as a result of the program, and the program continues to thrive. ...

A Culture of "We"

AFT's Great Public Schools, on behalf of Louisa May Alcott Elementary School, Ohio

Story posted December 9, 2010

• In both 2009 and 2010, Alcott's students outperformed their peers in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District
• In 2010, Alcott's fifth-graders outperformed their peers across the state in reading, math and science  

Louisa May Alcott serves a challenging population: 100 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and about a third are designated as special education. Students often enroll with emotional and social problems, difficult family issues and low academic achievement. But thanks to an outstanding faculty and staff, these hurdles are by no means insurmountable. On the 2009 state assessment, Alcott students outperformed Cleveland students in general: 77 percent scored proficient in reading, compared with 49 percent districtwide. Similarly, 75 percent of Alcott students were proficient in math, compared with 41 percent of students who were proficient districtwide. The results for special needs students were just as impressive—in both math and reading, Alcott students significantly outperformed their peers districtwide.

Regional superintendent Cliff Hayes Jr. has lauded the leadership of the school, noting its “culture of ‘we.’”¹ Alcott principal Eileen Stull is known for consensus building and collaboration, as well as her open-door policy for continued conversations about curriculum and instruction. Yet Stull is hesitant to take credit; she attributes the school’s success to students’ families and her staff. She says, “Honestly, I have the most fabulous teachers here.”² Parents appreciate the community atmosphere, saying that Stull seems to ...

Leveraging Resources to Transform a Struggling School

Teresa Pitta, John Muir Elementary School, California

Story posted November 17, 2010

• Once the lowest performing elementary school in its district, now one of the highest

• Over the past five years, the school has shown significant growth on every state test administered

John Muir Elementary is the oldest of the Merced City Schools. Just five years ago, we were the lowest performing elementary school in the district. Today, we are one of the highest.

Our school serves about 500 children in preschool through Grade 5. 86% of our students receive free or reduced price lunch. Most live in rentals, low cost apartments and multi-family dwellings within walking distance of school; however, approximately 200 children are bused to Muir daily from the “unhoused” Loughborough area.

Our families are not only stricken by poverty, but they also experience generational gangs, drug use and violence. We have an abundance of grandparents struggling to parent their children’s children and students in and out of foster care.

Yet we at John Muir believe our students can learn, and we work to develop relationships with our students and families so they believe that as well. And we celebrate our students. We celebrate Perfect Attendance, growth on formative assessments and ...

When "City Connects" Helps the Whole Child, Achievement Gaps Shrink

Dr. Mary Walsh and Patrice DiNatale, City Connects, Massachusetts

Story posted June 18, 2010

• The intervention moved students at the 50th percentile up to or near the 75th, and students at the 25th up to or near the 50th
• While the intervention ends in 5th grade, positive effects continue to be seen in middle-school test scores

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 ...

Calling for Excellence with One Voice

NASSP's Principal Leadership Magazine, on behalf of Westwood High School, Tennessee

Story posted September, 2008.  Results updated April 2, 2010.

• Now one of the top high schools in Memphis, outperforming the district as a whole on nearly all End-of-Course exams in 2009
• In 2009, 99% of students met or exceeded proficiency standards in reading and 95% of students did so in math, outperforming the state as a whole despite serving a population that is much more economically disadvantaged

What does shared leadership look like? At Westwood High School in Memphis, TN, it is evident when teachers and staff members talk with students in the halls between classes; when students demonstrate pride in themselves and their school by being fully engaged in their classes; when parents participate in their children's school life; and when community members are regular partners in the school. ...

Motor City Miracle

Carstens Elementary School, Michigan

Story posted March 17, 2010. Results updated August 27, 2010.

• One of the top-performing elementary schools in Detroit
• 3rd and 4th graders outperformed the state as a whole on both reading and math standardized tests--and 100% of them scored proficient or above on math tests

When Principal Theresa Mattison came to Carstens Elementary in 1997 “achievement was zero.” Student behavior was a problem. Some staff seemed uncommitted. As parent liaison Abby Phelps puts it, “This school was in the middle of chaos.”

Today Carstens is a beacon of light for the surrounding community. It is one of the top-performing schools in Detroit and in 2009 third graders at this school—where 98% of students are from high poverty homes—outscored the state as a whole on all tested subjects.

How did the school turn itself around? School staff points to the leadership of Dr. Mattison. Dr. Mattison points back to her incredible staff. And everyone recognizes the importance of meeting more than just the academic needs of students.

Members of the Carstens community recently told us the school’s story. In on the conversation were Principal Theresa Mattison, parent liaison Abby Phelps, school social worker Gail Nawrock, and teachers Barbara Haug, Vannessa Jones, Rebecca Kelly and Violet Kiricovski.*

Public School Insights: How would you describe Carstens Elementary?

Violet Kiricovski: Carstens shares the Comer philosophy. And we all work together. Teamwork really is our strong point.

Rebecca Kelly: The way I would describe Carstens is that it is actually more than a school. I just saw a presentation in which they described it as a “beacon of light.” And the parents, the families, the students and the businesses are all working together.

Abby Phelps: Carstens incorporates a city philosophy. We offer all services. We have it all.

Public School Insights: What kind of a population does the school serve?

Barbara Haug: We serve a deserving population. Statistically, they are considered high poverty—98% of them come from high poverty homes. And our population is about 98% African-American. But we do not think that statistics are something that describes somebody’s potential. It just describes the situation that needs to be considered when you look at the needs of the individual child or the children. What it boils down to is that they are children who deserve a ...

Getting Buy-In from Everyone in the System

Adapted with permission from "Seeing is Believing: Promising Practices for How School Districts Promote Family Engagement," by Harvard Family Research Project and the National Parent-Teacher Association

A profile of Prince George's County Public Schools, Maryland

Story posted December 22, 2009

• Attendance at district welcoming events has increased from 500 parents to 20,000 parents in only three years
• In 2008-2009, the district logged over 70,000 instances of fathers' involvement in nonsports-related events 
• District staff have observed that schools with higher family participation rates show greater gains in AYP

There is widespread consensus that family engagement is a critical ingredient for children’s school success “from cradle to career.” Research suggests that family engagement promotes a range of benefits for students, including improved school readiness, higher student achievement, better social skills and behavior, and increased likelihood of high school graduation.

Even though it is clear that family participation in education matters, many schools and districts struggle to develop engagement strategies that work. There are, however, a number of districts across the country that are actively working to develop comprehensive, systemic family engagement approaches that stress shared responsibility, involve a full range of school and district personnel in designing and implementing strategies, and deliberately link family engagement to student learning. One such district is Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland.

Prince George’s County represents a diverse district, serving a student population that is 73% African-American and 18.5% Hispanic, and where more than 50% of elementary and middle school students receive free or reduced price lunch. The district is particularly strong at creating “demand parents” who can navigate the educational system and demand the best from ...

Beyond "Heroes and Sheroes": The Success of Montgomery County Schools

Jerry Weast, Montgomery County Schools, Maryland

Story posted December 2, 2009

• District students graduate college at double America's overall graduation rate 
• About 65% of the graduation class has taken an AP exam 


Editor's note: Dr. Jerry Weast has presided over a decade of strong and steady gains in Montgomery County, Maryland. How did his district do it? Not by using any of the cure-all strategies that have captivated the national media.

Weast recently told us the story of his school district's success. Several big themes stand out:


  • Stop the blame game and start collaborating. Big fights between administrators and teachers are catnip to reporters, but they don't do much for children.
  • Set common goals and figure out how to reach them. In Montgomery County, everyone could agree that students should leave high school ready for college.
  • Create a system that helps everyone be successful. It's not enough to let 1000 flowers bloom.
  • There's more to equity than equality. Weast describes a "red zone" where most of the county's low-income children live. It's not enough to treat those children and their wealthier "green zone" peers equally. The children in the "red zone" need much more systemic support.

There's much more to Dr. Weast's vision than I can sum up here. Here's the story as he told it to us in a phone conversation last week:

There are some structural issues in the way that we are thinking about American education. You see little Kindergartners come to school, and they believe that they can learn anything. Their parents do too. And so does everybody else who meets them. But a few years later, because of the sorting process and the type of structure that they are in, a lot of that belief is taken away and there are huge achievement gaps.

Then you see beginning teachers. They come in and they feel like they can take on the world and do anything. But within ...

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