Finding Help for Failing Schools is Literally in Your Own Backyard

04/23/2015  |  With Dr. Joni Samples

An inner city school of ethnic minorities and working-poor families at the bottom of the test score ladder is probably one of the types of schools we’re talking about in the failing school category. St. Hope in Sacramento, California was a school of that variety when I was asked to speak with them a few years ago. They were struggling with everything — test scores, attendance, behavior, everything, but they had already made some moves to turn the school around. Now they were looking for more.

Both the major players in the children’s lives, their parents and their teachers, are working together, saying the same things, and supporting them to become successful.

The first major change for the school was one of attitude. Under a new charter and new leadership, they changed their thinking, their attitudes and beliefs, and began to offer a new way of doing business. If you’ve ever been in one of my workshops, you’ll find the place I always start is with your attitude. Albert Einstein is given credit for this definition of insanity, “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” In my workshops I ask my audience to think differently, which means as you think in a different manner and new direction with new possibilities, you’ll create a new idea that will produce a different result. That’s what this school was doing when I arrived.

In my first visit the principal showed me around. Every student I met shook my hand and replied, “Hi, my name is Susie and I’m going to college.” From kindergarteners to eighth graders, that’s what I heard, “Hi, my name is Jose and I’m going to college.” Now that’s an attitude! And this was a school where the test scores were low and the average income of families was not able to support sending the kids to college.

An attitude like that starts at the top. Strong leadership is required, and that leadership must translate into a genuine belief. Belief, like the measles, is contagious, and pretty soon the entire administration, staff, and even the community will come down with a strong case of “yes we can.” St. Hope had strong leadership, and the principal, with the help of his entire staff, was able to infect his students, their parents and everyone around them with an attitude of success. Everyone knew, without a shadow of doubt, how great the kids really were, and that there was no reason they weren’t as capable and deserving of a good education, including college, as anyone.

I’d been requested to help with what I often come for, family engagement. After my morning tour, I was back at the school in the evening for a workshop with parents. Here, the parents said to me, “You do know our kids are going to college don’t you?” I assured them I did, and that’s why I was there. Attitude. The principal and staff had done their work well.

The parents were holding an attitude that reality might have said college wasn’t for them, yet they knew it was possible for their children and they weren’t letting go of that dream. The principal said it could be done, the teachers said it was possible, the kids believed it, and the parents were there to support it. Their children were going to college.

We, the St. Hope Parent Liaison and I, did a number of workshops to engage more families. The research is so clear that when you include parents in their child’s education the children do better in school, have higher test scores, better attendance, graduate and are more likely to go on to higher education (Henderson, Mapp 2002). Yet many of us don’t use this very close at hand resource. Often we don’t because our own attitudes, fears, and lack of knowledge as to how to engage families get in the way. It’s easier to look at what we know — new textbooks, technology, revising the tests, throwing out the standards.

It’s doing the same thing and not getting different results, but it’s comfortable and something we know. Engaging parents is unknown and often scary. Research may show it to be effective, but research doesn’t always look in the faces of parents. We may often feel we don’t have an effective way to reach them regardless of what the research says.

Yet this school pursued family engagement and made changes in attitude and approach in spite of what might look like overwhelming odds. Just looking at test scores alone would have been enough to stop them, but it didn’t. They started at a composite school score of 638 in their baseline year. In California at the time, the goal to be above average was a score of 800. The top score was 1000. A score on the state tests of 638 was about average for a school of their demographics. With their changes in mind as well as a policy of 40 hours per year of family engagement for each family in the school, they launched their effort. While the state scored tests in a like manner, their scores rose in the next few years from 638 to 737, 744, 749 and eventually to 802. Students began getting scholarships. They became eligible for funds. Their parents knew they were going to college and now they really were!

By 2010 their test scores were at 915, an unheard of feat for a school of their demographics in what a few years before was considered a failing school. St. Hope was no longer failing. They hadn’t moved locations. They hadn’t changed the student demographics. But they had changed their attitudes and their beliefs about what could be done, and they’d helped the families to change their attitudes as well.

Elizabeth Morgan, the St. Hope parent liaison at the time we were working on this project and I, would both agree that family engagement isn’t the only tool that will turn failing schools into successful ones. It takes leadership. It takes commitment. It takes time. Yet, we both know that engaging the families was a huge part of their success. When the families are committed to their child doing well in school, the students come to school ready to learn. Both the major players in the children’s lives, their parents and their teachers, are working together, saying the same things, and supporting them to become successful. The relationship between the school staff and the parents is a major key to the success of this school.

Can failing schools be turned around? Absolutely. I have the stories to prove it.

Dr. Joni Samples
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