Lessons From High-Achieving Low-Income Schools

Mar 12, 2014

Why do some low-income schools succeed where others fail? That’s one of the questions that authors Sonia Caus Gleason and Nancy Gerzon set out to answer in their book, “Growing Into Equity: Professional Learning and Personalization in High-Achieving Schools

The education experts focused in on Title I schools, which receive federal funding to close the achievement gap in low-income areas. They profiled four schools that are performing at high levels by personalizing learning, focusing on professional development and creating outstanding school leadership.

Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks with Gleason about the shared traits of high-achieving Title I schools in the U.S. She also speaks with two remarkable teachers: Jose Navarro, founding principal of the Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles, and Stacy King, a school coach at the Tusculum View Elementary School in Greeneville, Tenn.

Navarro and King are two of the educators featured in the book. They weigh in on the challenge of achieving academic excellence in low-income communities.

Book Excerpt: ‘Growing Into Equity’

By Sonia Caus Gleason and Nancy Gerzon

Chapter Two


Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Well, this year we've been marking the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's war on poverty, Looking at different programs that came out of it for instance the Department of Education's Title I program. It provides additional federal funding for schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families to help them close the achievement gap.

It's a tough challenge for most low-income students' schools, which is why the authors of a new book, "Growing into Equity," focused in on Title I schools that are achieving at a high level. What are they doing? We're going to hear from one of the authors, but first let's go to the Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles, that's a district where the teacher-student ratio is 40 to one.

The average per capita income is $15,000, and close to 70 percent of the students are eligible for free lunch. Jose Navarro is the principal, and Jose, with those challenges and low expectations in mind, what is your graduation rate?

JOSE NAVARRO: I believe last year we were 92 percent.

YOUNG: Oh come on.

NAVARRO: The district average was 54.

YOUNG: A lot of people might hear that statistic and say yes, but are they really educated. Are they? I mean, I don't want to ask do they test well, because some people reject that, but are these kids who have really taken it in?

NAVARRO: They are given quality education, but it's not about test scores. I met a lot of bad people who had great test scores, had great grades. I want my students to be good people. So the combination of the two, building their social capital, as well as their humanity, is very important to us. So when they go out in the world, yes, they're prepared for college. That's absolutely the default.

You know, at my school, preparing them college, a quality education, that's default. Making them reflective and compassionate, empathetic people is really what makes our kids special.

Well, let's take a look at what you do. First of all, across the board you say all of your students are treated as if they're on the college prep track, no exceptions. We know in education there are individualized programs, say for kids with special needs. You say expand that to any student who's at risk. And by the way, what do you call those students?

Well call them VIPs because that's - they're the most important people. And we sit in a circle when we meet with them, the student, the parent, the counselor, all their teachers and the principal, and we start by saying one positive thing about that student. Then and also now the change that we would like to see.

And it's a paradigm shift because I think a lot of my parents were used to coming to school and just having the teachers and the principal tee off on them or never talk to the principal. And it's just a shift that, you know, your grades are a symptom. They're not the problem. And blaming you and your parents, that's not a solution.

We all had a hand in on this. You've been passed along. This system has been against you since the beginning. So how do we break through? I need your help, you need my help, so let's work this out.

YOUNG: You say teachers each adopt three kids a month for this special treatment?

NAVARRO: Every five weeks, every grading session my teachers, we fill out what we call an individualized personalized education plan. And my teachers fill those out for all the students that are in their advisory that are on the red list, you know, a 2.0 and below. But then they adopt three of them.

Many of our students with special needs, their situation has been heavily documented. It's a lot of these other students that fall through the cracks. I asked a student the other day, I said, you know, a teacher asked me to talk to her, and she didn't turn her homework in again. And I said why didn't you turn your homework in?

And I asked her, I said this is, you know, this is your job. I'm doing my job, you've got to do your job, blah, blah, blah, we went back and forth, and she seemed a little exasperated. She said the batteries ran out. And I said what you mean the batteries ran out? She said we're living in our car, and the battery just ran out. And I couldn't finish my homework. And that shifted the paradigm completely for me. That happens daily when you ask kids what kept you instead of why didn't you.

You try to address those things that are causing this, not the grades. Those are the symptom. And we look at that, look at the whole child. We look at parent development. And then we adopt them, and we set goals for them. And we meet with them. It could be something as simple as you're going to turn in your homework every day this week. You're going to show up on time. You're not going to hit anybody. You're not going to ditch school.

Whatever the goals are, we're going to try to attack it a little bit at a time. but the most important thing is that the students know that they have advocates, that they're not anonymous. And that's very easy to do in L.A., is to become anonymous.

YOUNG: Well, I can hear teachers listening to this and thinking I'd much rather do that than just suspend a kid. By the way, do I understand you have a no suspension policy?

NAVARRO: I can't say that anymore. I had to suspend somebody this year.

YOUNG: Whoa.

NAVARRO: And it was a student that threatened a teacher. And I don't want to go into too many of the details, but it was heartbreaking. It really bothered me. But there is a point where somebody does have to be sent away. To me, it was my failure just as much as anyone else's, just as much as that student's.

YOUNG: Well because we should explain, you have restorative justice model, an almost complete refusal to suspend students. It's part of the idea that everyone does better when nobody's allowed to fail. And we know that President Obama and the Justice Department are saying that schools are too easily going to the suspension instead of working with kids.

So you've had that one sounds like heartbreak, having to suspend someone. But other than that, your goal is really to do this work with kids that you talk about. But I can hear a teacher listening to this and saying I would love to do that, but I can't. I have too much of a load. If a child is at all a problem, it's almost like I have to remove the child. What would you say to someone who says I can't do that?

NAVARRO: I would tell them to have a little more faith in themselves. I would tell them have a little more faith in the students. I would tell them that people are amazing, that you're the decisive factor, that don't dis-empower(ph) yourself, disenfranchise yourself as a teacher. I hear way too much I'm just a teacher. No, you're a teacher. You have tremendous amount of power. And use it.

I made a lot of mistakes. I was a very - I was a bad boy. I was the one being sent out. And when people had the will to stand between me and my bad decisions was when change really happened. That was when I was able to, you know, in a very blunt way pull my head out of my butt and do better.

I understand there are people that are naysayers. They want to program. This is much more nuanced than a program. Teachers want to be treated individually, they need to treat their students individually. I would tell them to try harder is what I would tell them. I would tell their leaders to provide cover fire so they can do their jobs. Break rules if you have to, but lower class size so that teachers can do that. It's an investment.

Spending that time, pulling a kid aside and trying the restorative justice model, it's an investment.

YOUNG: Jose Navarro, principal of the Social Justice Humanitas Academy in the Sylmar District in Los Angeles. He's featured in the book "Growing Into Equity." And as we just heard, he says tell teachers try harder. Tell at risk kids and their parents that the system has failed them. He also said, though, tell kids they have a responsibility, a job to do to better themselves and their education. Your thoughts on what you just heard at hereandnow.org, and we'll have more after the break, HERE AND NOW.


YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and today we're spending a few minutes looking at high-performing schools in low-income areas. Authors Sonia Gleason and Nancy Gerzon set out to find out what sets them apart in their book "Growing Into Equity."

Before the break we spoke with Jose Navarro. He's a principal in Los Angeles. His school personalizes learning for every student. And now we want to go to Greenville, Tennessee, in Appalachia, to Tusculum View Elementary, where lower-income, minority and special ed students have all, across the board, consistently performed well. That's the mark of a high-performing school.

Stacy King is a school coach at Tusculum. Stacy, what is a school coach?

STACY KING: Well, my job is to work with teachers, providing resources, providing professional development, to be their sounding board. I support teachers in order to show growth within students.

YOUNG: Give us an example of what you might see a teacher needs improvement in and then how you might approach that.

KING: Sure. Well, for example over the past few years we've had a real emphasis on math. Our scores a few years ago were not where they needed to be, not where anybody wanted them to be. And so a teacher would come to me and say, you know, I'm really frustrated. I don't know exactly where to go from here. And they can trust that it's OK to say that to me.

And I'm going to come alongside them, work with them. You know, I ask the questions that really make them think and think ooh, I wonder if I tried this, I wonder how that will be. And then we'll talk about that, and then we'll adjust. We'll see what happens and adjust from there.

YOUNG: So a teacher might come to you and say look, I'm just, I'm not, I'm having trouble communicating this math principle to my students, they're not scoring - yeah, they're not getting it. Can you help me do that? Overriding all of this is this notion that teachers, and God bless them, would have every right to think I put in the time, I did my studies, I'm the teacher, that's the end of the line.

But the thinking I'm hearing from you is it's not. Teachers have to constantly be learning, too?

KING: Most definitely. I'm fortunate to work in a school and a school system where the teachers that I work with are, for the most part, Type A teachers who we really have to sometimes say, you know, chill, take a minute, it's OK. You know, we need to breathe for a little while. And continued learning for our teachers is very much a part of what we do not only at my school but within the system.

I think that we've learned that having a coach in the building is one of the best methods of professional development. It's on a day-to-day basis, and we're also able to follow up where so many times teachers go to professional development, they go to some wonderful workshop or seminar or conference, and they come back, and they're so busy just trying to survive and do what they normally do that finding the time to implement any new learning sometimes doesn't happen.

And so with me in the building, I think many times change happens, and learning does happen, and it's sustained because there's somebody there that's holding teachers accountable and asking those questions.

YOUNG: Stacy King, hold on a second there, Stacy King a school coach at Tusculum View Elementary School in Greenville, Tennessee, because I want to bring in one of the co-authors of the book you were featured in. It's "Growing Into Equity. Sonia Gleason, we've been hearing a lot of things from two educators that you featured. Overall, what did the best schools, the best low-income Title I schools, do best?

SONIA CAUS GLEASON: We went looking for the schools that really out-performed their peers and not just getting one little group of kids to do well or certain grades, we were looking for schools that had every subgroup outperforming their peers. And they had three things in common. One, you could hear it in both Stacy and Jose's voices, equity was absolutely front and center, everyone not necessarily treated the same, everyone held to the same expectations with the assumption that they would need different things.

Then you need to start having the conversations that Jose was talking about with his VIP meetings, talking with your colleagues about how a particular student is doing. Hey, he seems to be having a little bit of trouble in my class. Is happening over in the other class, too, yes, or no?

YOUNG: And for those who missed it, the VIP meetings were for the kids who are at risk. They called them VIPs, very important people, and would hold meetings just for them.

GLEASON: Yes, and students felt honored rather than punished for that because they saw all of the teachers who have them, who care about them, rallying to think about how to help them make the next step so that they can go to college.

YOUNG: Let me - devil's advocate here. You know, it sounds so wonderful. But I can hear a teacher who feels that they're confronting something harder than you're explaining. What do teachers do when there's a child who for whatever the reason can't grasp what his schoolmates are grasping?

GLEASON: Well, the thing is that in schools that don't have the professional learning that Stacy and Jose are talking about, it's frightening, and it's frustrating because you're isolated. In these schools, they over time created a culture where you're not alone. If a teacher has a classroom of 20, 30, 40 students, they're all different learners. No one person can know how to help each one of those children at every turn.

But when you can call upon the expertise of your colleagues, together there's usually a way to come up with a solution and how then to move groups of students along as you learn from those individual cases.

YOUNG: You said there were three things. It sounds like the first is you have the same expectation of every kid. The second is collaboration, teachers to...

GLEASON: Professional learning.

YOUNG: Professional learning. The third?

GLEASON: The third is leadership and systems to make sure this happens, right. Another featured schools is in Vermont, and the principal there, Beth O'Brien(ph), was offended when somebody told her that she just happened to have the best teachers. She said teachers in general are good and thoughtful people who want to do well. What we do in our school is that we think smarter about how we use all of the resources that we've got.

YOUNG: So give us an example.

GLEASON: Well, in Stacy's school there was an example of a child who was three or four years behind. Nobody could get the child to read. The principal comes in and is observing. The principal also brings in a special education teacher. So now you've got a team of people observing this child. Suddenly somebody figures out that the child like airplanes.

They start bringing in books about airplanes. The principal goes and finds an older students who's in ROTC, who's interested in aviation. That child is brought in to be a peer tutor to help the child with reading. And the librarian was brought in, right, because then you needed the books.

YOUNG: To find the books.

GLEASON: Exactly. So it took a team effort. And sometimes the principal is pulling on the resources to help the problem-solving around the one child. Sometimes if someone may express low expectations about a kid, a leader, it could be a peer leader or a principal, saying that's not OK. It's not acceptable. It's not good enough.

Other times the leadership work is celebrating because as Stacy was talking about, the Type A teachers who are always pushing and pushing and pushing in this very hard work where sometimes it feels like there are so many children, and it's never done, to really pause and lift up the successes and look at them as learnings so that you then incorporate them into the next year's work.

YOUNG: Oh, I hope that entire team that was involved with getting a child to read because he loved airplanes, I hope they had a party. That's Sonia Gleason, co-author with Nancy Gerzon of "Growing Into Equity: Professional Learning and Personalization in High-Achieving Schools." Sonia, thanks so much for talking to us about it.

GLEASON: Thank you.

YOUNG: Again, Sonia Caus Gleason, and before that, Stacy King, school coach at Tusculum View Elementary in Greenville, Tennessee. And Jose Navarro, a principal in Los Angeles. So how about you? Weigh in especially if you teach at a low-income area school, one that may be dependent on those extra Title I federal funds. Let us hear from you, hereandnow.org. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.