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Learning from Success: Love Meets Best Practices at a New Orleans Elementary School

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Each year at its national conference, The Education Trust honors schools that serve large numbers of children of color and those from low-income families that educate their students at high levels. The organization's 2010 "Dispelling the Myth Award" went to four schools that, like those honored in previous years, demonstrate that schools can help children overcome the barriers of poverty and discrimination.

Such schools serve as an inspiration to educators around the country. But I would argue that they need to be more than just heartwarming, inspiring stories -- they should be sources of information that can help all schools succeed as they do.

The overall context, after all, is that most high-poverty and high-minority schools fail their students. I believe that most failing schools fail not because the adults in them want to fail but because they don't know how to succeed. Successful schools can help point the way and provide practical examples of how to overcome the challenges of educating all children.

Each Dispelling the Myth school is unique and complex, and yet each one also has lessons for other schools, if only we pay attention.

Bethune Elementary, for example, is a small elementary school (about 325 students from pre-K to sixth grade) in a tough neighborhood in New Orleans. Just about all the children are African-American and from low-income families. I have visited a lot of schools in some dangerous neighborhoods around the country and never, before visiting Bethune, has anyone said it was necessary to walk me to my car in broad daylight when it was parked within sight of the school building. But that's the kind of neighborhood where Bethune sits and the children live. Yet, just about all the students meet or exceed state standards.

The building itself is quite old: It's one of those three-story brick buildings that says "school," from the front steps to the tall windows with paper decorations. Inside it shows its age, but its floors gleam. A few days before the school year began this fall, inspectors found massive termite damage to the first floor, meaning that every classroom in use is crammed with materials that were hastily moved from downstairs. One of the kindergarten teachers now teaches in the library and a third-grade teacher took over the music room. In other words, educators are not working in ideal conditions. But they soldier on -- because they know what they do changes their students' life trajectories.

I will confess that, at least initially, I was a little suspicious of Bethune's success. For example, 62 percent of Bethune's sixth graders read at an advanced level in 2010, compared to only four percent of sixth graders in the state. Asked about her school's results, Principal Mary Haynes-Smith first said, "We love our children."

To questions about instruction, she would say, "Oh, well, of course we teach them. That's natural." But she kept insisting that the key to success was that they loved the students. In too many schools, when teachers and principals talk about loving their children that means they feel sorry for them and don't expect much of them. And that is why I approached Bethune a bit warily.

Once I walked into Bethune, however, it became clear that teachers and administrators at Bethune love their children enough to teach them.

Here's a tiny example -- a little girl was leaving a classroom to go to the bathroom, and needed to navigate the fact that Ms. Smith and I were in her way. She started to walk between us, and Ms. Smith put her hand on her and guided her around, saying in a very loving way that walking around was more polite. It's hard to explain why that moment was indicative of what goes on at Bethune, except to note that educating without humiliating is not an easy combination -- but that's what Ms. Smith was doing.

She and the other adults in Bethune know that children -- particularly children who grow up in poverty -- are easily shamed and humiliated. Ms. Smith herself says as a young girl from a poor family she didn't hear a kind word in school from kindergarten until sixth grade, and felt shamed by everything from her clothes to what her teachers said was her lack of intelligence. She is determined to give her students a very different experience at Bethune.

For that reason, if a child wears dirty clothes to school, adults at Bethune wash them. If a student doesn't have a uniform, they get him one. If a child doesn't have a bicycle, they ask the Police Athletic League to donate one. If a child seems as if he is nearing the end of his rope and about to explode, they invent an errand for him to do to demonstrate his ability to be responsible and give him a break.

They know depression and anger stalk their city -- particularly after "The Storm," which is how they refer to Hurricane Katrina -- and they constantly think up ways to keep their students motivated and engaged, from taking them to a mock trial at a federal courthouse to a tour of New Orleans.

But they also know that their students -- if taught well -- can achieve at high levels. So the reading specialists and the math specialist soak up as much information as they can from the research literature, workshops, and conferences and then bring that information to teachers. "The last 20 years have helped us really understand reading instruction," says Maxine Cager. She is absolutely right, but too many educators around the country have not availed themselves of that understanding in the same way teachers at Bethune have.

To walk into the pre-K through second-grade classes is to see the kinds of lessons that help students hear the sounds of English, map them to letters, and build fluency and comprehension. And I will never forget one first-grade teacher who demonstrated "walking" versus "ambling" as she helped her students develop a robust vocabulary.

I also loved watching a third-grade teacher hand out biographies to her students, clearly gearing them to their reading level and interest. "I want you to read this one on Thomas Jefferson," she said, as she handed a book to a student, and "I think you'll be really interested in this" as she handed another student a biography of Sojourner Truth. I asked a student in that class if she knew who the person was she was reading about, and she was able to tell me, adding, "My teacher last year was a history nut."

Bethune is one of the schools around the country that demonstrate that if schools do everything right, they can get extraordinary results. Getting everything right isn't easy, but it's what we need schools to do.