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Yes, there are high-poverty public schools that operate at a high level in Alabama. Here’s how high flyers succeed.

The Education Lab team at AL.com is supported by individual donors and grants. This story was supported by the Education Writers Association. learn more And Donate today.

Principal Becky Williams describes the “Sweet Water Way” at a K-12 rural school in Marengo County—a high-performance, high-poverty school—simply: “An effective teacher, a bell bell.”

But this is easier said than done. For decades, educators, researchers, and policymakers have struggled to determine what makes schools like Sweet Water—with more than 60% of 580 students eligible for free or reduced-price meals—successful, in the face of local shortages of student resources and school funding. In statewide exams this past spring, 60% of Sweet Water’s students were proficient in English language arts and 33% proficient in math.

But while Sweet Water stands apart from other extremely poor schools, it doesn’t stand alone: ​​Some Alabama schools—with lots of poor children and not a lot of local tax support—are beating the odds.

These high-performing schools defy expectations, with students getting better grades than their peers and many of their wealthier peers.

Students and staff walk through the hallway at Sweet Water High School, a K-12 school in Marengo County, Alabama, identified as a high school flying in a recent analysis by the Alabama Education Laboratory. Trisha Powell Crane / AL.com.

In the Alabama Education Lab’s analysis, we used poverty, achievement, and local tax support metrics to find 43 schools we call “outstanding students.”

We took into account the geographical location, the number of students, along with known facts about the schools. With concerns about learning lost and incomplete learning due to school interruptions during the pandemic, a closer look at how Alabama’s top pilots are accomplishing this may reveal lessons other schools can learn from.

Hundreds of miles and dozens of hours of visits to five VIPs later, we compiled what we found in the high-flying schools, which have sprung up across the state:

  • Teachers expect a lot from students and invest in the academic success of their students.
  • Teachers control the things they can control.
  • Plenty of support to help teachers improve what they know and how to teach it.
  • Continuous assessment of where students are standing and what they need help with.
  • Benefit from strong community support.

Can’t see the map? Watch it online Here:

These may seem obvious to high-quality schools, but researchers have debated their importance — and how to implement them — for decades. And every school needs something a little different.

“I wish I could say ‘You do this’ and it’s all better,” said Melissa Shields, who oversees school improvement for the Alabama Department of Education. “but you are [have to] Start with this mindset, this belief “I can change the rules of the game in this school. I think a child can learn, and I think we all can.”

This doesn’t mean that every high-achieving school is perfect—or that there are no reasons to question why some schools perform better than others. Among the best 2021 flyers in Ed Lab’s analysis, the majority of people were white except for one, and no more than 75% of the poor students were made a list.

Research has shown that when schools have an extreme level of student poverty, described as 75% or more, overall achievement is lower than schools with lower levels of school-wide poverty.

Experts debate why. A 2006 study of the impact of concentrated student poverty in schools nationwide found that high-poverty schools—which the author defined as schools with more than half of the students in poverty—are 22 percent less likely to be high-performing. Once.

In Alabama, the vast majority – 80% – of schools experiencing an extreme poverty level are black.

Penn State University professor Erica Frankenberg studies the impact of segregation on student and school achievement. She said that schools where the vast majority of students live in poverty face challenges beyond academics.

“I’m starting to get a really big number [of students] who may not have adequate nutrition or stable homes.” “They may be fleeting and moving. They may not have space and help with homework. So all these different ways they might not get the same support that richer or middle-class kids can get.”

These kinds of challenges help explain why so many schools in extreme poverty do not make this list—and illustrate the level of changes at the state and community levels that, beyond school support, might be needed to help more students succeed.

Research and reality

For decades, researchers have tried to elicit a magic formula that explains why some schools are more successful than others.

Often at the State Department, distinguished people are often really good at bringing forward and evaluating strategic initiatives and programs along the way, Shields said.

“They bring it up, they know who’s in charge, and they have a schedule.”

But experts and researchers have also spoken of the kinds of intangibles that are hard to measure and track: beliefs that all children can learn, even children who face the great challenges that poverty brings, and teachers can make a huge difference in children’s lives.

They generally come to the same conclusions about what works well in high-performing, high-poverty schools: high expectations for students and teachers, work systems to support everyone in school, and strong accountability measures.

Karen Chenoweth has taught high-performing, high-poverty schools across the country since the early 2000s.

“It’s very simple in some ways,” Chenoweth said. “They teach the kids. That’s what they do. It’s not difficult. But the details are actually quite complicated.”

It is the details that make it difficult to replicate the success, she said. High schools don’t do everything right, and some of the things they do won’t work in other schools. “The point is that there is experience within these schools that can be leveraged and learned from, not replicated,” Chenoweth said.

“So the work is really hard,” she said. “It requires a deep belief in children that has been undermined for 60 years not only by racism and classism, but then we got the Coleman Report that said well, game over.”

The Coleman Report, published in 1966, said that schools should consider a child’s family background when assessing achievement gaps, and that race and income explained most of the differences in achievement between black and white students.

The relationships between household income and test scores still exist today, but subsequent research has shown that schools can have a positive effect on student outcomes—and some schools appear to have a greater impact than others.

Alabama has documented similar initiatives in successful schools before. In 2004, the state Department of Education conducted a study of very poor schools with high levels of math and reading proficiency, which they called Torchbearer Schools.

After the study was published, Alabama annually began to identify torchbearers.

Tony Thacker led the program for many years before retiring in early 2020. Thacker said the tape set by Torchbearers inspired others to reach new heights, and he regularly received calls from principals and supervisors asking how to become a torchbearer.

As accountability procedures changed, along with the state’s standardized testing, the torchbearer’s confession was abandoned. It was replaced by the new State Recognition Program. The Legislative School Performance Program rewards improvement—without taking into account the percentage of poor students—on the state’s A through F report card.

Efforts to evaluate high-flying schools, both nationally and statewide, are not without their critics. But research programs, such as Chenoweth’s EdTrust, say there is value in trying to measure success, not just failure, in struggling schools.

Like the previous Torchbearers campaign, many of the five schools we visited went through top notch, deciding to try new things and provide support to teachers and students needed to grow and learn. For most people, that tipping point came a decade or more ago.

They all described the hard work and long hours, the occasional trauma they received from teachers and parents and the need to be flexible and evaluate to see if what they were doing was moving the needle on the students.

What was clear across all schools was that students’ success was paramount and poverty was not allowed to stand in the way of that success. We found the same items that Thacker did nearly 20 years ago.

In 2004, Thacker summed it up this way: “Schools bearing the true torch have shown consistency in effort and purity of purpose.”

“The needs of students always outweigh the needs of adults.”

How did we find high posts

We searched for schools that met these criteria:

  • A school-wide student poverty level of 48% or higher (756 schools), and
  • spending less than $2,000 per student in local tax money during the 2018-19 school year (589 schools), and
  • Proficiency in the Spring 2021 Mathematics and English Language Tests at 120% of the state proficiency level for all grade levels tested at the school and all students:
    • 120% statewide math proficiency: 26.4%
    • 120% statewide ELA mastery level: 54.5%

Here’s the full list of high postings. See table online Here. Analysis by Trisha Powell Crain:

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