THE BLOG
10/07/2014 04:04 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2015

Expecting Excellence

All over the country are schools that demonstrate the power they have to help students from all backgrounds learn to high levels. They don't often attract attention, in part because they are busy doing the work. They often aren't doing anything terribly innovative -- at least in the sense that word has come to be used. They are just doing school. But they're doing it well.

This spring I visited one such school -- Menlo Park in the David Douglas School District in Portland, Oregon.

"This is a tough staff," Elise Guest, who was then principal of Menlo Park Elementary School, told me. "They expect excellence and let you know when you're falling short."

Menlo Park's staff members need to be tough. With 75 percent of the students meeting the qualifications for free and reduced-price lunch and 125 students -- one-quarter of the school -- officially considered English learners, they face a significant challenge. To ensure that all their students learn what they need to learn requires that the school be organized to a fare-thee-well and that everyone pull her weight.

The schedule demonstrates the school's priorities. Every day, students have 90 minutes of literacy, 60 minutes of math, and 30 minutes of English-language development. This last class was mandated by the district as a way to support the many English learners, but it has proven helpful for the native English speakers as well. For 30 minutes a day, students learn about the structure of the English language -- what used to be called grammar -- and students are expected to speak in full sentences at least 15 minutes of that time.

According to staff members, this structured language class has proven to be a key element in the school's success in ensuring that, for example, 73 percent of the school's Hispanic fifth-graders met or exceeded state reading standards -- compared with only 48 percent in the rest of the state.

But it is not the only thing.

That 90-minute literacy block is also carefully used to build vocabulary and background knowledge around particular schema important for students to incorporate in order to read fluently and master the district curriculum. Schema is a concept from cognitive science that refers to categories of information and the relationships among them. If you are learning about a topic and master the basic concepts and vocabulary, it is easier to add to that knowledge and learn new vocabulary about that topic.

Teachers plan what they will teach for the next week, developing assessments, materials and lesson plans to ensure that instruction is as strong as they can make it, during weekly professional learning team meetings held by each grade level. And because some students will falter, even with strong instruction, the school has implemented a Response to Intervention (RTI) plan, which has been adopted by schools around the country. Developed at nearby University of Oregon, it has been around so long at Menlo Park that it has become almost second nature.

Every quarter, during extensive data reviews, the lowest performing 20 percent of students are identified, and at subsequent "20 percent meetings," staff diagnose individual problems that kids might be having and prescribe an intervention. Interventions might include support from a reading specialist, a Title I instructional aide, or time on a computer program that teachers think might be helpful. For example, some of the English learners use Rosetta Stone's English-language program.
With such interventions, some students are able to accelerate their learning and get out of the bottom 20 percent. Others need even more intervention, and that's when a Student Support Team is assembled to meet and work on more intensive interventions.

This careful attention to the learning of every student is reflected in the school's data.

For example, in Oregon, 49 percent of African American fifth-graders meet or exceed reading standards; at Menlo Park it is 75 percent. In the state, 50 percent of low-income fifth-graders meet state reading standards; at Menlo Park it is 70 percent.

"They are just numbers," said Guest, "but the teachers here know that every number represents a kiddo's face."

One fifth-grader put it this way: "The teachers here work together and really help you learn important stuff."

This fall, Menlo Park got a new principal, Kellie Burkhardt, who herself graduated from David Douglas High School and has worked her whole career in the district. She knows Menlo Park well and told me she is determined to nurture the school's strengths even as she works to continue its improvement.

For Burkhardt, Menlo Park is part of demonstrating what is possible when systems are built to ensure that students don't fall through the cracks.

"Every student deserves a good education," she said.