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Building Individual and Collective Expertise to Help Kids

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Every year at its national conference, The Education Trust recognizes a few schools that demonstrate the power schools have to help students overcome the barriers of poverty and discrimination. Last month, four schools were presented with the Ed Trust Dispelling the Myth Award. Last week I wrote about Pass Christian High School in Mississippi. This week I'm writing about Dr. Carlos J. Finlay Elementary in Miami-Dade. I'll be writing about the others in future columns.

Even before arriving at Finlay Elementary in Miami-Dade earlier this fall, I knew I was going to be impressed with the school.

In the spring, I had talked with Maria Del Castillo, Finlay's reading specialist, who told me that she and other teachers at the school regularly engage in "inquiries," which they define as investigating a solution to a particular problem.

For example, she had wanted to know how the school could help students to be better writers while they were still learning English. She and two other teachers took a group of 25 of the lowest performing first graders and kept them for an additional hour once a week, working with them through carefully chosen texts, building vocabulary and background knowledge, and providing individual mentoring. "That allowed them to become better writers," she said. They shared their results with the rest of the faculty.

Del Castillo told me that this was only one of many such inquiry projects conducted each year that, bit by bit, have built the teachers' collective expertise in which instructional methods and programs work best for their students. When they find that something doesn't work, they jettison it or change it, guided by carefully gathered data so that teachers don't have to rely solely on hunches and guess work. Some of the teachers formalize these inquiries as part of coursework they do at the University of Florida, which helps provide an external assessment of methodological rigor, but they all share their work with their grade-level teams and their subject area teams.

As I have written before, the highly successful, high-poverty schools I have visited all engage in some version of the scientific method in order to do more of what works and less of what doesn't, but Finlay has systematized the way it uses the scientific method in a way that sets it apart, even among the other schools I've visited. They keep the inquiry process simple enough to be managed by a busy classroom teacher but powerful enough to help inform a whole school community.

Needless to say, I was very anxious to visit; and when I did, the school didn't disappoint.

The school sits on a corner of Florida International University not far from the sprawling Li'l Abner Mobile Home Park where most of Finlay's students live. It certainly qualifies as high poverty -- about 86 percent of the students meet the qualifications for free and reduced-price meals, and 90 percent are Hispanic, mostly new immigrants from Central and South America and the Caribbean, which means that the school has many children who arrive not knowing any English at all. This makes it even more impressive that higher percentages of Finlay's students meet state reading and math standards than in the rest of the state.

Many of the faculty are themselves children of immigrants, which gives them an understanding of their students' experience. "We see ourselves in them," Principal Cecilia Sanchez says.

My colleague Christina Theokas and I observed classroom after classroom buzzing with instruction in both English (60 percent of the time) and Spanish (the remaining 40 percent), with the aim of ensuring that all students are literate in both languages -- that is, able to read with comprehension and write with clarity.

Clearly, the teachers work hard -- that is taken as given. But there was also a sense of energy and enthusiasm that seemed to come from a collective level of intellectual engagement that is part of the scientific process of developing new knowledge.

All of that, however, was underlain with a profound sense of mission that begins with staff understanding how important school is to the lives of their students. They said over and over again that what they do every day makes the difference between a student facing a life of poverty and a life with opportunity.

As Sanchez said, "There is no other job when the day you decide not to do your job you are harming a child."