Harsh Words of Experience

06/17/2015 12:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

"Even a great school can still have a group of students not achieving. And if you don't make them count, no one will care about them."

Those harsh words were said by long-time educator Sharon Brittingham, who has seen how indifferent some in schools can be to the needs of some students. For the past few years she has been coaching principals throughout Delaware, but her formative experience was as principal of Frankford Elementary School in rural Delaware.

When she arrived at Frankford in 1997, she found a school that had long identified many of its African American children as needing special education services -- and then separated the special education students from the other students. This practice, plus the disproportionate discipline of African American students, had been identified by the federal Office of Civil Rights as discriminatory and part of a pattern in its Indian River School District as well as in nine other districts in Delaware.

"When I got to Frankford," Brittingham said, "every excuse was used."

'I had their parents and they were dumb.'
'You can't imagine where they live.'
'They can't do homework -- their parents are too dumb to help.'
'Dumb is dumb is dumb. We're doing everything we can.'"

Brittingham was shocked. "If you don't believe that you can teach all students, why are you taking a paycheck?" she said she would ask teachers.

But she was facing a culture of indifference and neglect that had grown over years. The first thing she did was integrate the special education classes in with the regular classes, sending special education teachers in to help classroom teachers. She set up classes before school, after school and during lunch for those kids who needed more instruction. She provided all teachers a lot of professional development in how to teach reading, how to teach math and how to manage classrooms. She did not allow excuses.

"You have to believe the students can meet high standards; but you also have to believe the teachers can meet high standards," she said years later. Some teachers ended up leaving; others found themselves stunned at how much higher students could achieve than they had ever expected when they changed their practices.

"We saw phenomenal results when special education students' scores were disaggregated and they were expected to achieve," Brittingham said. Within a few years, just about every student at Frankford -- just about all of whom met the criteria for free and reduced-price meals -- were meeting state reading and math standards, making it one of the top-performing schools in the state and winner of Education Trust's Dispelling the Myth Award. The school never had trouble meeting the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) targets.

And that remained the case for as long as Brittingham was principal. (For more about Frankford when Brittingham was principal, see It's Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools, Harvard Education Press, 2007.)

The school faltered a bit under the next principal, but has rebounded under the current principal, Charlynne Hopkins. In fact, it was recently awarded the National Blue Ribbon Award. "All our children can do very well and will do very well," Hopkins said, with the same spirit as Brittingham.

Today not only is Frankford (now named John M. Clayton Elementary) toward the top of the state in terms of achievement, but all the elementary schools in Indian River School District are collectively at the top of the state. And that with 60 percent of its students coming from low-income families.

"I still say the partnership between Indian River School District and the federal Office of Civil Rights, together with NCLB, led to Indian River's current success," Brittingham said. "The district could no longer ignore the children of color, the low-income and special needs students."

All of which is why Brittingham is very concerned about the direction the Senate appears to be going in its reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Right now, the bill that left the committee doesn't say that states have to do anything if a group of students in a school fails year after year to achieve state-set expectations.

She saw what that meant at Frankford, and she is worried that schools could revert back to a time when teachers didn't bother teaching a group of students because they just consider that "dumb is dumb is dumb."

For Brittingham, there is no such thing as "dumb" kids -- there are just kids who need to be taught.