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Success Stories

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 ...

Every Student College Bound

NASSP’s Principal Leadership Magazine, on behalf of Withrow University High School, Ohio

Story posted September 3, 2009. Results updated February 24, 2015.


  • 86.6% graduation rate in 2013, compared to 82.2% for the state as a whole and 73.6% for the district
  • The ACT participation rate for the class of 2013 was 100%

“A college education is the key to a bright future." That's the message that Principal Sharon Johnson sends to prospective students in an introductory letter. "It's also a serious commitment that requires focus, preparation, and support," she continues. "Join us and reach for your college dreams!" With that introduction and the school motto--"Where every student is college bound"--there is no mistaking the goal for graduates of Withrow University High School in Cincinnati, OH.

Here, high expectations mean that every student is expected to attend college or a postsecondary program. In fact, all seniors must apply to the University of Cincinnati and are expected to complete four college applications before winter break. Even the school's architecture, which bears a likeness to a university campus, seems to echo the message that if a student can buckle down and focus, then the future will indeed be bright.

Since the opening of the school in 2002, Johnson has been steadfast in her belief that creating an atmosphere of success and high expectations is key to helping students achieve their college dreams. While most students arrive at Withrow lacking in some skills, the school quickly begins to ...

Caring for the Future

NASSP's Principal Leadership Magazine, on behalf of Isaac Young Middle School, New York

Story posted November 13, 2008

• Once designated "in need of improvement," the school has recently been commended by the state of New York
• 80 students enrolled in high school-level courses in 2007, up from 30 in 2001
• 28% of students participating in high school-level courses in 2007 were minorities, up from 10% in 2002
• 99% of staff approve of administrators' efforts to empower educators

"Built by the Past-Ready for the Future" is more than a school motto at Isaac E. Young Middle School in New Rochelle, NY. Built in 1925, Isaac became the iconic U.S. secondary school when Dick Sargent's painting of it appeared on the cover of the October 17, 1959, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. The changes that the school has experienced over the last 55 years mirror changes in the suburban United States. ...

Energizing Children's First Teachers

Scott Ebright, Ohio School Board Association Journal

A story about Canton City and Minerva Local (Stark) School Districts, Ohio

Story posted August 27, 2008

Spark Ohio Nwslttr 1 WEB.JPG

• 84% of participating parents are now at or above the national median in terms of engagement in academic stimulation
• SPARK kids do significantly better on the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment for Literacy (KRA-L) than non-SPARK kids

"Who doesn't want their students to come to school ready to learn?" asked Joni T. Close, senior program director at the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton. What parent, what principal, what superintendent and what school board member would disagree? But what influence do public schools have on their future students before they enter the schoolhouse door?

A lot, if you ask folks at the Canton City and Minerva Local (Stark) school districts. ...

Teachers Learning Together

Mary Russo, The Richard J. Murphy K-8 School, Massachusetts

Story posted July, 2008

• In 2005, 89% of students passed the Massachusetts math exam, up from less than 50% in 1999
• Now ranked in top 5% of Boston public schools on reading and math scores

In 1999, shortly before principal Mary Russo arrived at the Richard J. Murphy K-8 School in Dorchester, Mass., more than half the students failed the state math exam. Russo's mandate was to boost student achievement. To do so, she focused on establishing collaborative professional development practices that would help teachers learn from each other and work toward a common goal. With better instruction, she reasoned, those test scores would go up.

Teachers at Murphy now spend three times as many hours on professional development as the district requires. Every public school teacher in Massachusetts must ...

Community Helps Struggling School Reopen to Success

Coalition for Community Schools, on behalf of George Washington Community School, Indiana

Story posted July, 2008

• 10-15% average annual increase in standardized test scores for 4 years
• 100% of the school's first graduating students passed the math portion of the state Graduate Qualifying Exam and 90% passed the language arts portion (both district records)

It's hard to imagine that George Washington Community School was once struggling so badly that the school district had to close it. Today, the school is alive with activity and its students are thriving.

The transition did not happen overnight-and it would not have happened at all if it had not been for the powerful commitment and intensity of support from the community. The work to reopen the closed high school grew out of a grassroots desire by the community to provide an environment where young people, and their families, could succeed. Neighborhood residents envisioned a center of community collectively focused on improving graduation rates and preparing young people for post-secondary education. ...

Working and Learning Together as a Team

WestEd, on behalf of Granby High School, Virginia

Story posted July, 2008. Results updated May 27, 2014.


  • 92% of participating students passed the end-of-course test in Algebra II in 2013, up from 25% in 1998
  • The school meets or exceeds state's proficiency rates in many subjects, despite serving a more disadvantaged population

Granby1web.jpgGranby High School is a large, urban, and diverse high school in Norfolk, Virginia, serving over 2,200 students, nearly half of whom are considered economically disadvantaged. Here students are enrolled in and passing high-level math classes including Calculus and Statistics. However, 10 years ago, few Granby students were taking advanced math cours­es, and of those who did, few passed. The school was described as "a high school in distress with low academic achievement and a high incidence of behavioral problems." Granby needed a change. School leaders recognized the need to push all of their students to reach higher levels in math, not only to be successful in postsecondary education, but to prepare for career opportunities as well.

At this same time, Norfolk Public Schools instituted a whole-system overhaul and dramatically increased the focus on professional development. Since then, Granby students have made tremen­dous growth, especially in higher-level math courses.

Building strong math teachers: a challenging and important task
Granby High School offers a prime example of a school with a powerful approach to professional development that provides teachers with opportunities for ongoing learning where they can develop and maintain skills and content knowledge. The school's purposeful teacher education is ...

Promoting Academic Success through Community Partnerships

Coalition for Community Schools, on behalf of George Middle School, Oregon

Story posted June 6, 2008

• 79% of students improved their academic performance
• 87% of students increased state benchmark scores in reading
• 76% of students increased state benchmark scores in math

Historically, George Middle School (a very diverse school with 87% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch) has been known as one of the lower performing schools in the state. Now, after becoming a community school, the school is showing steady growth on academic indicators. In particular, student test scores are at or above the state average. Multnomah County's Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) initiative, together with the school's lead agency, Metropolitan Family Service (MFS), have been instrumental in providing the supports and resources necessary to make this happen. ...

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