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Karin Chenoweth Headshot

Step One: First You Must Believe

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To run a high-performing school where many of the students live in poverty requires, among other things, believing that all kids can learn.

But talking with many leaders of high-performing, high-poverty schools has convinced me their beliefs are even stronger.

Jeffrey Litt, who was the founding principal and is now superintendent of the Icahn Charter Schools in the Bronx, put it this way in a webinar earlier this year:

"Many people say all children can learn. Well, that's true. But a parakeet can learn, too. We look for people who believe that children can excel."

You may not have heard of Jeffrey Litt or the Icahn Charter Schools. It doesn't get a lot of press attention, but his small network of schools in the Bronx vies for the top spots in academic achievement among New York charter schools -- in fact, all New York public schools -- most years.

They do so with a student population where 80 percent of the students come from low-income families.

There is no question that part of the reason for their academic success is that Jeffrey Litt hires principals, teachers, and staff who believe their students can excel.

Belief alone is not enough. Educating kids isn't like Peter Pan where, if you just believe hard enough, you can save Tinkerbell.

What belief can do, however, is give you the heart to keep working.

Because educating all kids to high standards takes a lot of work.

Heck, it's a challenge to get every middle-class child of college graduates to master standards -- for proof, listen to the angst of middle-class college graduates talk about their kids.

For kids living in poverty, all the issues kids face are intensified and sometimes educators can become overwhelmed; they may start thinking that it is unfair to expect children who live in difficult circumstances to struggle at school, too.

But that isn't how the principals and teachers of high-performing, high poverty schools think.

They think that schools may be the only possible avenue for their students to break out of poverty, and they are determined that they have that opportunity.

To hear for yourself how a few teachers and principals of high-performing, high-poverty schools talk about the work they do, there is a wonderful new resource culled from interviews organized through StoryCorps.

Here's one small example, from a teacher at George Hall Elementary School, one of the highest poverty -- and highest achieving -- schools in Alabama. "Sometimes you really think you're very hard on the students and you have such high expectations for them. But really it's what they need and it's what they appreciate, and they'll work up to those expectations." (Click here to hear the audio recording, which will lead you to similar recordings. Or go here for an archive: