Two-thirds of the Amarillo Independent School District’s 33,000 students enrolled on 53 campuses qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Undaunted by the academic and societal challenges commonly associated with such a statistic, 10 of Amarillo’s lower-income schools have recently joined the No Excuses University (NEU) network. This fast-growing collective of 117 elementary and middle schools scattered across the United States is a brain trust of principals and teachers who promote college readiness from kindergarten up, especially for children living in poverty.
The No Excuses University model was developed by Damen Lopez, author of Turnaround Schools: Creating Cultures of Universal Achievement and No Excuses University. A former principal who inspired his staff to transform San Diego’s once-struggling Los Penasquitos Elementary School into a National Blue Ribbon Award winner, Lopez now lectures widely and conducts traveling institutes for principals and teachers eager to raise expectations for themselves and their communities.
Potential for Growth
“We really like the No Excuses core beliefs—that we ought to expect every student to become proficient in reading and math and writing, and that it’s the responsibility of adults in the school to make that happen,” says Amarillo Superintendent Rod Schroder. “No Excuses is not a program per se; it’s a belief system. This can’t be a top-down thing. We want staff [in each school] to own it. So we give exposure to these philosophies and examples, and let the hunger for transformation come from within.”
Schroder points to remarkable shifts in morale and achievement at San Jacinto Elementary School in Amarillo, where 95 percent of the student population is considered economically disadvantaged. In 2007, when San Jacinto became the first in Texas to join the NEU network, it was one of the city’s lowest-performing K5 schools. Proficiency rates on state tests for exiting fifth-graders, for example, were stuck at 52 percent in science, 77 percent in math, and 68 percent in reading. In 2008, after one year as a No Excuses school, San Jacinto’s proficiency rates for the same tests had risen to 90 percent in science and 94 percent in math and reading.
“No Excuses was a gift when we had no other answers,” says San Jacinto Principal Doug Curry. “Our teachers were tired of watching their kids leave the school and die, or go to jail, or drop out, or get pregnant. No Excuses means that you’re committing to saying and doing and acting in ways that are always full of hope for every child. When you walk in our school, we’re going to knock you down with what we stand for: Our kids are going to college.”
The Six Systems
Curry says San Jacinto’s successes, which have inspired nine other AISD schools to join the NEU network in recent years, are due to an intense focus on what Lopez calls “six exceptional systems”: creating a culture of universal achievement, collaboration, alignment of standards, assessment, data management, and academic interventions tuned to student needs.
Intervention is also offered to San Jacinto parents, half of whom have no high school diploma. Thanks to the school’s partnership with nearby Amarillo College and assorted grants, 47 parents are working on attaining their GEDs at the elementary campus. “We have software and people to help them here,” Curry explains. “Coming back to school takes courage, and it is harder than anything I’ve ever done in my life. It’s a great example for the kids.”
Amarillo (Texas) Independent School District
- Superintendent: Rod Schroder, 11 years
- Students: 33,024
- Schools: 53
- Staff: 4,283
- District size: 72.5 sq. miles
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunches: 66.6%
- Per-pupil expenditure: $6,928
- Web site: www.amaisd.org
Mary Johnson Patt is a freelance writer in Fair Oaks, Calif.