THE BLOG
12/04/2013 08:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2015

Another Surprising School

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After visiting dozens of high-performing schools that serve significant populations of students living in poverty and students of color (I call them "It's Being Done schools") I have come to expect certain things:

  • Teachers who are happy to be where they are, doing what they're doing, and who can talk at length and in helpful detail about how their students are doing.
  • Students who are happy to be where they are, doing what they're doing, and who can talk about what they are doing.
  • Evidence of the systems in place to ensure that students, teachers, and staff know what they are doing and how they are doing it. Translation: master schedules that give teachers time to collaborate on instruction; data systems that let them know how their students are doing; procedures for identifying and solving problems experienced by students and teachers; and school-wide processes to encourage leadership among students and teachers.
  • A school leader who ties everything together, setting the expectation that all students will succeed and establishing the systems and culture that enable success.

All those things are reliably absent in low-performing schools and present in It's Being Done schools.

But I am also always struck by how each It's Being Done school has its own character and individual practices, which makes every visit fun and surprising.

Today I thought I'd tell you a couple of snippets about Arcadia Elementary School, which in October was presented the Dispelling the Myth Award by The Education Trust.

Our attention was drawn to Arcadia because its students did really well on state reading and math assessments in 2012. Just about all its third-graders (it only goes up to third grade) met state standards, and more than half exceeded them. Located in the great swath of Chicago suburbs known as Southland, 92 percent of Arcadia's students are African American and 65 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals. And in 2012, 52 percent of Arcadia's low-income third-graders exceeded state reading standards, compared with only 15 percent in Illinois; a whopping 68 percent of Arcadia's African American third-graders exceeded math standards, compared with only 21 percent statewide.

This is a school that demonstrates that schools serving primarily low-income students can achieve at very high levels and as such is very much in the It's Being Done school tradition. Thus, I was not surprised to find teachers and students who liked being there and could talk about what they were doing and systems in place to support them. Again, I have learned to expect this at high-performing high-poverty schools.

But it also had a few nice surprises. For example, first-grade teacher Patrick Korthauer used framed postcards of famous Impressionist paintings, such as Van Gogh's Starry Night and Monet's Water Lilies, to demark groups of desks. Many elementary school classrooms put desks into clusters or have kids sit at tables. It provides a handy organizing tool for teachers to call "the red table" to line up or "the blue table" to confer and provide an answer to a question.

But Korthauer reasoned that leaving the same designations all year was a missed opportunity to help kids build vocabulary and background knowledge. So he regularly switches the table labels, utilizing themes that connect kids to a larger world. The day I was there it was impressionist painters, but he said he also used postcards of famous historical figures, animals, and other things that help build general knowledge. The day the kids came back from art class thrilled that the art teacher had had them imitate Starry Night, he said, he knew he had helped them feel part of the world of art.

He also uses "morning meeting" to build knowledge and vocabulary. Morning meetings are another common practice in elementary schools teachers use to start the day, often by going over the calendar and the day's schedule. And I'm sure he does that as well. But when I walked in on his morning meeting, Korthauer had a big picture of Jesse Owens up on a screen as part of a series of talks about famous sports figures. He was talking about the stunning four medals Owens won at the 1936 Berlin Olympics -- and in the process connecting kids to history.

Here's another surprise I found at Arcadia -- their gym equipment includes a classroom set of plastic sleds. First of all, I should say that Arcadia is in a part of Illinois remarkable for its flatness. But just next to school grounds is a town park with an odd hump of a hill. There's a bit of a conspiracy going on here, because long-time principal Pat Ransford lives in the neighborhood and her husband is on the parks board. So they were able to take advantage of a school expansion to pile some dirt up, plant grass, and have a place where flatlander kids could have sledding parties, learning all the vocabulary (slide, slip, frosty, steaming, cocoa) that goes along with them.

To bring together the whole school, Arcadia holds a spring Expo in April that I would love to go back to see. Faculty members told me that each year has a different theme -- for example, 2008 was Night at the Museums, where one grade level created an art museum, another a children's museum, and another a museum of industry. This year it was "Arcadia Celebrates the World," where different grade levels created exhibits about different countries. When I was there, the faculty was still debating what the theme would be for the spring of 2014, but they were leaning toward Chicago, which would give teachers an opportunity to make sure their students know about their home town -- from the history to the architecture and music.

To me, Arcadia is yet another example of the creativity it takes to help all kids learn to high levels. Anyone who thinks they can get the kind of achievement Arcadia posts through dry, dull drill-and-kill should remember that one of the things Arcadia's principal, Pat Ransford, is proudest of is bringing Chicago's Lyric Opera school program to the school.

"When I moved to Arcadia, the Lyric Opera said the program would not work with second graders," Ransford said. "My reply -- 'Of course it will work!' Three years later, we were on the cover of the Lyric Opera education program!"

Last year Arcadia's second-graders performed The Barber of Seville, having not only learned the music and story but having written analyses of how each character reacts to different events in the opera and why.

Another It's Being Done school; another surprising school.