Principals make or break a school

May 23, 2000|By Linda Chavez

WE'VE ALL heard the excuses as to why schools attended by mostly poor, black and Hispanic children fail to measure up. There's not enough money. There aren't enough good teachers. There isn't enough time in the seven-hour school day to undo the influence of chaotic families and dangerous neighborhoods. Et cetera.

But not everyone is making excuses.

The Heritage Foundation in Washington has established the "No Excuses" campaign to mobilize public pressure on behalf of better education for the poor. The campaign has now produced a small book by Samuel Casey Carter, "No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools."

The one thing that all of these schools have in common -- in addition to low-income student populations -- is a strong principal committed to educational excellence. The principal is generally the linchpin in any school. A mediocre or bad principal can ruin a good school. But by the same token, a great principal can sometimes overcome even the worst obstacles, as this book proves.

Take Nancy Ichinaga, who became principal of Andrew Bennett Elementary School in Inglewood, Calif., in 1974. When she took over the school, 95 percent of her elementary school students were illiterate.

Within four years, she raised school-wide reading scores from the third the 50th percentile. In 1992, the school merged with another elementary school attended by low-income students, many of them non-English speaking. Today, the median school reading score for Bennett/Kew Elementary is at the 62nd percentile, and the math score is at the 74th.

Ronald Williams, principal of Newberry Elementary School in Detroit, performed similar miracles. Most of the kids who attend Newberry come from families where no one works. The school itself is situated in the middle of a barren landscape of vacant lots and boarded up houses in southwest Detroit. But in 1998, the Newberry fourth-grade class scored at the 80th percentile in reading and the 82nd in math in the Metropolitan-7 achievement tests.

Portland Elementary School in rural Arkansas experienced a similar turnaround under the leadership of Ernest Smith. When Mr. Smith came to this remote area of the Mississippi Delta farmland five years ago, half of the students in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades were scoring two years or more below grade level. Today, 100 percent of the students are at grade level or higher. Last year, the first- and second-graders scored at the 78th percentile in math, and sixth-graders scored at the 72nd percentile in reading and at the 84th percentile in math.

These principals seemingly share little in common; they come from different parts of the country. One is Asian-American, another African-American, another white. Even their education theories and strategies differ.

Mr. Williams says, "If a child can't learn the way I teach, then, I must learn to teach the way she learns." Mr. Smith, on the other hand, uses a highly structured teaching method known as "direct instruction," which sorts students into small, homogenous groups based on skills levels.

Ms. Ichinaga uses the "Waterford Early Reading Program," a multimedia program that attempts to compensate for the pre-reading experiences most poor children lack; and she gives the neediest children an extra year of kindergarten before promoting them to first grade.

Nonetheless, "No Excuses" author Carter believes he's found seven traits that all 21 schools and their principals share.

Among them: Principals themselves must be free to decide how to spend their money, whom to hire, and what to teach. Principals must set measurable goals and hold teachers accountable to meeting them. Principals must scour the country for the best teachers and then design school curriculum around these teachers' strengths.

Principals must ensure regular testing of all students, and personally monitor and hold teachers accountable for the results. Principals must set an example that self-esteem anchored in achievement are the means to success.

Principals must work with parents to encourage them to check their children's homework, read to them and help turn their homes into centers of learning. Finally, principals must demand that students work hard; knowing that time on task is the key to success in school.

"No Excuses" is short on frills and jargon but rich in experience. Parents and educators looking to turn failure into success might begin by modeling their efforts on the schools described here.

Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist.

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