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At-risk school success stories

Succeeding where many have failed: How administrators turn districts arounds
Pomona USD in California has raised its graduation rate to 88 percent. The turnaround began when Pomona formed partnerships with several community organizations and nearby colleges.
Pomona USD in California has raised its graduation rate to 88 percent. The turnaround began when Pomona formed partnerships with several community organizations and nearby colleges.

No matter how cutting-edge the technology or advanced the curriculum, students have a hard time mastering essays and equations if they’re hungry, traumatized or feeling marginalized by a textbook’s inaccurate portrayal of their ethnic group.

“If you came to work and hadn’t eaten for a day or two, you wouldn’t be prepared to work,” says Jennings School District Superintendent Tiffany Anderson, who has received national attention for progress that her St. Louis-area system has made since she took over in 2012. “So why would we expect adolescents to come prepared to function mentally and physically without their basic needs being cared for?”

To boost academic outcomes for “at-risk” students—and turn entire underperforming districts around—school leaders now operate social services like food pantries and homeless shelters. In the classroom, teachers lead mental and physical exercises to help students focus on instruction designed to be more relevant to future career aspirations.

Level the playing field

The rate at which Jennings students meet academic standards has soared from 57 percent in 2012 (when the district’s accreditation was at risk) to 81 percent in 2015. The district, in which all of its students are served free or reduced-price lunch, opened a student homeless shelter near one of its elementary schools in a home refurbished by community members. It also operates a hospital at one of its high schools and donates 8,000 pounds of food a month to its families.

Each school also has washers and dryers that parents can use for free, in exchange for one hour of volunteer work, such as monitoring the cafeteria.

Such services remove the barriers that can hold students back academically, Anderson says. But it doesn’t stop there—the district, among other services, also provides free academic tutoring and free musical instruments, and pays for students to take the ACT at least four times.

It also follows a mastery learning model in which teachers—rather than handing out failing grades—work harder to reteach lessons until a student grasps the concepts. There’s even a college prep academy that gives students a chance to earn an associate’s degree while still in high school.

Anderson has also dedicated funding to restart arts programs such as the orchestra and drama departments.

“The arts have become a language for students, whether in poverty or not. Young people will share emotions through art that they can’t always express verbally,” says Anderson, who will leave Jennings in July to be chief of Topeka Public Schools. “It’s really about leveling the playing field. We believe the cycle of oppression can be interrupted if you provide students with the same opportunity and access to resources that individuals from privilege have.”

Too often in struggling urban districts, curriculum is watered down in hopes that easier content will lead to higher performance, says Kathleen Budge, an author who writes about high-poverty schools and is director of the educational leadership development program at Boise State University.

“Way too much of what we do in high-poverty schools is pretty low-level,” Budge says. “Too often it’s low-level thinking, it’s too much drill and practice, too many worksheets and not enough creativity.”

Turn districts around

In Pomona, California, a city long plagued by gang violence, the murder rate is rising again. At the same time, the state’s prisons are releasing inmates who were arrested during crackdowns in the 1980s and 1990s.

Yet the city’s 25,000-student district, Pomona USD, has raised its graduation rate to 88 percent, which is above the state average. Last year, expulsions at the district fell to zero. In recent years, Pomona USD has also increased attendance, the number of minorities taking and passing AP classes and enrollments in four-year colleges.

The turnaround began when Pomona formed partnerships with several community organizations and nearby colleges to provide students with services—such as mentoring and mental health care—that couldn’t be provided effectively by the district alone, Deputy Superintendent Stephanie Baker says.

“All of these partners came together and we said, ‘No one entity can make this happen,’ ” Baker says. “Schools can’t do it alone, churches can’t do it alone, Boys and Girls Clubs can’t do it alone.”

Considering that 70 percent of Pomona’s students are now or were initially designated English language learners, and 81 percent receive free and reduced-price lunch, work had to be done inside and outside the classroom to raise achievement, Baker says.

Several years ago, the district developed a wide-ranging Youth and Family Master Plan, which starts with an early childhood program that offers full-day preschool. With the help of nearby Western University and other organizations, the district provides health, dental and vision care to preschoolers.

District leaders also expanded after-school programs to keep students in enriching—and safer—school environments for longer periods. Classes are taught by fully credentialed teachers and local colleges help develop the curriculum.

For instance, the Claremont Colleges provide computer coding instruction, Cal Poly Pomona offers theater production, and Western University introduces high school and middle school students to health careers. Sixth-graders can begin following a health career pathway that will ensure they take the proper math and science courses in middle and high school so they can get into college.

Turning a district around also requires changing educators’ mindsets on the abilities of at-risk and minority students, Baker says. Pomona has the California Teachers Association union conduct PD sessions on racial bias. The training is more effective because it comes from teachers’ union leaders, rather than from the district, Baker says.

“You have to have those difficult conversations around what we believe about race and culture, and illiteracy and language and bias,” she says. “If you don’t do that, you can make changes but they won’t be sustainable.”

In Jackson Public Schools in Mississippi, Superintendent Cedrick Gray has raised graduation rates in an urban district that just a few years ago was experiencing a financial crisis and almost lost its accreditation. Last year, 22 of Jackson’s 61 schools rose by at least one letter grade on Mississippi’s A-through-F rating system. Seven schools jumped two grade letters and five schools now rank in the top 10 percent of the state.

Gray has focused on improving relations with a school board that used to hold late-night meetings that were difficult for the public to attend. The meetings now take place in the evenings, and Jackson regularly meets with board members to ensure their goals become priorities. In turn, the board has been more agreeable to fund district initiatives.

Gray has also installed the district’s curriculum in the city’s day-care centers to better prepare students for kindergarten and first grade.

In higher grades, the district launched career-themed academies to steer students toward their future profession. It starts with a career fair that ninth-graders attend to get an idea of professions they might be interested in—such as law, medicine or education. Then, the instruction they receive in high school is structured around those fields. And it has evening high school classes for students who have to work at jobs for their families. 

The district also operates a full-service bank and a medical clinic to give students experience in those industries. “People may say youth in urban areas are disinterested,” Gray says. “That’s an excuse to me, and we have to find a way to make things right for these students.”

Connect curriculum to students

Black students in Minneapolis Public Schools did not see positive images of themselves in the daily curriculum, says Michael Walker, director of the district’s Office of Black Male Student Achievement.

When the office opened in August 2014, Walker also found black students felt that their opinions didn’t matter and the instruction wasn’t relevant, he says. “They wanted to know their history—and not the history that starts in 1619, which is what’s mostly taught in our schools, which is around slavery,” Walker says. “We have given our black students the foundation of being oppressed, so it’s going to be hard for them to think otherwise of who they are and what they’re capable of.”

Walker launched a class called BLACK, which stands for “building lives, acquiring cultural knowledge.” The class, which is offered at eight middle and high schools, offers instruction in traditional subjects three days per week.

One day is reserved for tutoring and Fridays are an “open mic” where students can have robust discussions about issues on their mind, ask each other challenging questions and receive guidance from teachers. Walker says early data indicates attendance has increased since classes began.

“I don’t sign on to the achievement gap, I sign on to the belief gap,” he says. “That has nothing to do with young people. That has to do with adults and what we believe these young people are capable of.”

Walker’s office also works on strengthening relationships with parents. Teachers in his program will discuss a student’s strengths the first time they contact parents. It creates a willingness in parents to work with teachers when students struggle with school work.

And rather than relying on parents and other caregivers to come to school conferences, he and his staff visit a range of community organizations that have already earned the parents’ trust.

“It’s not like we just figured out that black males and students of color are not graduating at the same rate as white students. It’s not like we just found out that students of color are suspended disproportionately,” he says. “So why don’t we think that their parents went through the same educational experience—and if they did, why would they want to come back to a space where they didn’t feel valued or connected?” 

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.