Dr. Joseph Johnson on successful Title I schools
In some of the nation's poorest and most challenged school districts, dynamic public schools are helping students to succeed against the educational odds. In Ohio, the Department of Education has not only identified and recognized the progress of these high-performing schools, it has set out to determine what characteristics set them apart and to explore concrete strategies for replicating their successes in other low-income communities.
Unfortunately, as in too many states, Ohio educational trends generally show that in schools where the percentage of low-income and minority students increases, the level of academic proficiency decreases. In recent years, however, state policy makers have started paying more attention to the notable exceptions to this pattern.
"We are talking about those schools that have high levels of poverty and often high percentages of African-American students, but also have high levels of academic achievement," says Dr. Joseph Johnson, Jr., a professor at San Diego State University formerly with the Ohio Superintendent's Office.
Designated by the state as "Schools of Promise," these 113 high-achieving schools include those in which more than 40% of the student body is considered low-income. Despite economic challenges, the schools also comply with all state and federal yearly academic progress requirements.
Even more impressive, 75% or more of its total student body are proficient in reading or math, including 75% of students in each of the following educationally at-risk groups: economically disadvantaged students and minority students.
In addition to demonstrating two years of strong academic achievement, Schools of Promise also graduate 73% or more of their students, a higher rate than the national average for schools in other disadvantaged communities across the country.
In exploring the qualities that make these schools so successful, the Department of Education found that ambitious academic goals and standards-based instruction are at the top of the list.
"What we see when we go into these schools is a level of instruction that is similar to what you see in very affluent schools--a very literacy-rich, numeracy-rich curriculum that has been integrated into every aspect of the school day," explains Johnson.
High academic expectations often spill over into the personal expectations of educators who assume that students "can and will excel" and celebrate their potential for success. Along with strong, well-defined standards also come strong school administrators.
"Educators often tell us that they truly feel supported by their leaders. They have the administrative supports and the materials they need to do a great job with their students," says Johnson. "They know how to win and they get the support they need to do it."
In addition to providing structure and support, school administrators in the Schools of Promise often bring a hands-on approach to their work, spending substantial time - sometimes as much as 50% -- in the classroom with their teaching staffs focused on the nuts and bolts of instructional issues. Extensive professional development opportunities and a dynamic culture of collaboration and peer support are also common.
"Professional development is not simply a workshop," explains Johnson. "It occurs on a daily basis as teachers learn from each other. There is this continuing process of adapting instruction and perfecting their craft."
Another common mark of success for these exemplary schools is teachers who are dedicated to trying new and creative teaching methods to engage students from all different backgrounds and cultures.
"Instead of just saying 'turn to page 22'," notes Johnson, "teachers seem to be asking themselves 'what is the standard I want to teach and how do I present it in a way that comes alive for them?'"
Grounded in prior knowledge, experience, culture, or language, learning in successful schools is generally structured in a way that makes the unfamiliar familiar and suits a range of different learning styles and developmental needs.
Schools that succeed also share a unique ability to foster cooperative relationships that allow all stakeholders to share in both the responsibility and credit for children's success. In particular, these schools have "figured out a way to connect deeply with parents," explains Johnson, "and in some ways, to create hope for parents where perhaps there wasn't hope before." Such a meaningful connection with parents means that there is actually a school culture - and not just school activities or meetings - that consistently promotes a positive connection between school and home.
Based on the positive outcomes achieved in its 113 Schools of Promise, the Ohio Superintendent's Office is currently exploring new ways to share the most promising practices with similarly -situated schools in the state's other low-income regions. By offering an extensive range of resource tools and exemplary case studies on its website, the state's education leaders are able to share best practices broadly and relatively inexpensively.
In addition to a widely available CD Rom that offers a variety of professional development tools for administrator and teachers, the state also sponsors an annual conference in which Schools of Promise have an opportunity to share their most effective techniques with other effective schools.
In the final analysis, Ohio's Schools of Promise succeed where other similarly-situated schools leave off because they are able to create and sustain a "culture of value."
In these schools, "children of all ages often tell us they are treated with respect and that learning is fun," says Johnson. "To make a difference, a school has to be a place where everyone - students, teachers, parents, and the community - feel like they belong."