This week I was lucky enough to visit Garfield Elementary in Southeast Washington, D.C., where just about all the students meet the requirements for the free and reduced-price federal meal program.
Two years ago, Garfield was one of the lowest performing schools in the city. At the beginning of last year, Kennard Branch, who had been assistant principal, became principal and is bringing with him all the lessons he learned in North Philadelphia as a teacher under the redoubtable Barbara Adderley.
One of the first things he tackled was the lack of books at Garfield. Teachers had been making paper photocopied books for kids to read. "When you see a fifth-grader reading a book made of folded paper," he said, his words trailing off at the painful memory.
He proudly displayed two small classrooms crammed with books -- one room for the younger kids and their parents; one for the older kids, bought with a grant from the Target Foundation. He then showed off the newly stocked book room, packed with books for teachers to use as part of their lessons.
Last year, Branch's first year as principal, the school reduced the percentage of students who were reading below the basic level from 40 percent to 28 percent, a significant accomplishment in one year; this year he's hoping that many of his students will be reading at a proficient level -- now that they have books. (Branch said he thinks of basic as being one or two grade levels behind where the students should be; proficient is about at grade level.)
Not that the presence of books is enough. Branch's main work has been helping teachers improve instruction.
Here's an example: He has made sure that teachers have time to work together every day, and once a week he meets with the teachers from one grade level, the school's instructional coaches, and the special education teacher for two hours. During that time they plan six weeks' worth of instruction. "We begin with the standards and then build an assessment," Branch said. They then plan the lessons together, gathering the necessary materials, searching out resources, and planning assignments. Branch has one of those meetings every week as he works through the cycle from kindergarten through fifth grade.
I asked him how the introduction of Common Core State Standards has changed things for him and his teachers. For many educators around the country, Common Core has come as a bit of a shock, but Branch has been using state standards to plan instruction since his Philly days. His point is that, although Common Core introduces more rigor, it's not really a radical change in how teachers should be working -- teachers need to understand their state's standards and then build their instruction to help students meet them.
As Branch put it: "Standards work is standards work. And I've been doing standards work for a long time."
Some people are inspired by heroic deeds in extraordinary circumstances; I'm inspired by the everyday competence and thoughtfulness of folks like Branch and the hardworking teachers I saw at Garfield.
I can't wait to see how the kids do this year.