How poor schools use community engagement to close the achievement gap

Think your school or district is up against it?

Take 30 seconds to read this recent Education Week article about Calcedeaver Elementary in Mount Vernon, Ala. (population: 2,000).

Nearly 90 percent of the school’s students live in poverty, are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and are Native American, an ethnic group that historically lags other ethnic groups when it comes to student performance.

Given these and other indicators, you might assume that the school is a low performer.

You’d be wrong—dead wrong, in fact. According to Education Week, nearly 90 percent of Calcedeaver students achieve “proficient” or “advanced” scores on state reading and math tests. The school was named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

High achieving Calcedeaver graduates have matriculated to the local high school, where they continue to flourish. In the past 15 years, the local high school graduation rate jumped from 50 percent to 91 percent, reports Education Week.

School leaders have traced the success of this rare high-poverty, high-performance outlier to a single defining factor: a tight-knit, productive school-community relationship.

Rather than using its challenges as an excuse, Calcedeaver leverages its unique culture to encourage community participation and student success.

Educators are quick to point out there is no silver-bullet blueprint for success in high-poverty, high-performing schools. But there are a few strategies worth considering. Here’s a look at four that worked in Calcedeaver, via Education Week.

Embrace uniqueness
Calcedeaver celebrates its predominant Native American heritage.

In 2001, the school hired Nicole Williams, a former student, to teach Native American culture, language, dance, and history.

Williams has since become an example and mentor to many of the school’s students.

Williams graduated from Calcedeaver at a time when many of her classmates did not. So she understands the unique path that students in the community must take to achieve success.

For more on Williams and her mentorship, check out this video, courtesy of Education Week:

Involve your community
Whether you hail from a small town, such as Mount Vernon, or a large inner-city neighborhood, the link between community support and student and school success is rooted in common understanding.

Calcedeaver’s ability to embrace its traditional culture and heritage fueled a strong bond between the community and the school.

“This school is the heartbeat of this community,” Williams tells Education Week. “Everything else are the veins and the capillaries and all that. This is the main organ that supports this community, and they support us. It’s a perfect union.”

Principal Laura Hittson protects that union by inviting feedback from members of the school community on key decisions, and giving parents and others a say in the school’s future.

Leverage strategic partnerships
For a small, low-income school like Calcedeaver, going it alone wasn’t going to cut it.

The school’s leaders consistently look to government and business partners to support and underwrite new learning and teaching strategies.

Calcedeaver’s road to excellence kicked off in 2001 when the school joined the federal Reading First program and the Alabama Reading Initiative. Together, these programs—one federal, one state-based—infused much-needed resources and support.

Since then, Calcadeaver has worked with companies and local civic organizations to create STEM-based learning programs and other resource-intensive initiatives, finding ways to save on both time and money.

Establish common goals
At Calcedeaver, leaders and staff approach every new initiative with a student-first mindset, reports Education Week.

Every decision school leaders make has a clear purpose: to encourage student achievement and enrichment.

It’s with this understanding that the school often seeks feedback and advice from its community.

These are, of course, just a few ideas. How does your school or district engage its community to overcome funding or performance issues? Tell us in the comments.

Looking to unify your community around a common set of academic goals? Here’s one way to start that conversation.

Why your schools are losing market share

The Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in Maryland has long been regarded by education experts as a national bellwether district.

Pundits and parents alike have dubbed it one of the best, most competitive public school systems in the nation.

But the district is facing unprecedented growth and increasingly limited public resources, according to a recent article in Bethesda Magazine. In the classroom, educators are also wrestling with a burgeoning achievement gap among students of different backgrounds.

This conundrum is not unique to MCPS. Across the country, large school districts with growing populations are struggling to accommodate more students, while continuing to offer an across-the-board quality educational experience to students and their families.

In cases where the quality has slipped, or where families can’t get the same level of attention and service to which they’ve become accustomed, many have decided to either move to another school district, or to enroll their children elsewhere.

Some educators refer to this phenomenon as “losing market share.” As charter schools and neighboring public schools compete for the same pool of students, the pressure is on to offer an educational experience that stands a cut above the competition.

Large school systems from Cleveland to Austin to Los Angeles have convened committees or invested in marketing to fend off competition from charters and neighboring districts alike. If market share is not already a topic of conversation in your district, it soon will be.

Getting bigger, but better?
As the local population surges, overcrowding is becoming a real problem for MCPS, reports Bethesda.

Nearly half of the school system’s “clusters”—sub-districts revolving around 25 separate high schools—report facilities at 105 percent capacity. Last year, more than 8,500 students in the district were served in portable classrooms.

Compounding matters, the magazine reports that MCPS has not received the state funding it needs to effectively manage its growth.

At the same time, MCPS is facing a widening achievement gap.

Like other school leaders in his shoes, new MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith has a lot on his plate.

How he and his team ultimately deal with issues of overcrowding and racial and socioeconomic disparity will go a long way toward determining whether MCPS remains one of the nation’s “crown jewels”—as one proud county councilmember dubbed the district.

“Howard County (a neighboring public school district) is knocking on our door.” Sharon Watts, a local elementary PTA president told the magazine. “Their schools are getting better and better, and our schools are getting bigger and bigger, and homebuyers are going to see that.”

Prioritize and plan
Every school district faces its own set of challenges. As a school leader, the onus falls on you and your team to find creative solutions to pressing issues, be it growth or competition, or both.

It’s easy to invest in marketing initiatives and other programs intended to make your schools stand out. Many of these programs work, to an extent.

But they don’t get to the root of the problem that schools like MCPS and others often face.

If you want parents and students to develop loyalty and affinity for your schools, you have to rethink and redesign the school experience.

Do students and parents feel valued? When they have concerns or questions about a decision in your schools, do they have a way to engage in a meaningful conversation or talk about what’s bothering them? Do you take the time to invite their feedback and to listen to their opinions? Or do you charge blindly ahead and make decisions in a vacuum?

As enrollments increase, don’t forget about the importance of good customer service. What steps do you take to embody a service culture in your district?

Looking for a better way to engage community members and build loyalty amid increased competition? Here’s one solution that might make sense for your district.

Turning protests into teachable moments

Whether you follow football or not, you’ve no doubt heard about the controversy surrounding certain NFL players kneeling to protest police brutality during pre-game National Anthem ceremonies.

If you’re as rabid a fan as I am, you saw more than one player take a knee during the Star-Bangled Banner ahead of yesterday’s games.

As the debate over these protests continues on social media and in front of water coolers (Read: heroic activism vs. affront to military and service heroes), institutions and organizations across the country, including schools, are forced to consider what happens when the controversy reaches their doors.

The NBA and the NBA players’ associations, for instance, recently sponsored talks about how to deal with protests during the upcoming basketball season, according to recent reports.

Recent police shootings in Charlotte and Tulsa will likely stoke the fires of protests even higher.

As educators think about how to address the issues in schools, the focus will be on how to balance teachable moments with respect for teachers’ and students’ personal beliefs and opinions, writes Education Week’s Evie Blad in her Rules for Engagement blog.

Whatever choices you make, giving students a way to vent and express themselves is vital, she says. Here’s a few of her suggestions for how to do that.

Taking advantage of a teachable moment
If you do encounter protests in your classrooms or at school sporting events, discipline might be the knee-jerk reaction. But think before you act.

In Naples, Fla., recently, a high school principal threatened to kick students out of football games if they refused to stand and be quiet during the National Anthem. A video he created about the policy ignited a firestorm in the local community, per the Miami Herald.

Hard-line policies seem like an easy solution for a lot of schools. But they aren’t always the smartest approach, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, tells Blad.

“Schools talk such a great game about wanting to produce civically engaged students,” he explains “This is something schools should be embracing as a teaching opportunity.”

Discussions about race, patriotism, and crime prevention are never easy. Each of these topics is sensitive, and requires a certain tact. But what better place than schools to start a conversation about acceptance and understanding?

“At a time when schools are increasingly advocating for student voice and calling on students to think critically about current events,” writes Blad, “educators could use these conversations as a chance to help students grow and learn.”

Starting the conversation
Whether your school district has faced protests around these or other issues or not, there’s no rule that says you have to wait for a headline to have a teachable moment.

Blad suggests confronting the issue head-on in the classroom, and in the broader school community.

She offers these suggestions for how to kick-off a dialogue in your schools:

  • Assign essays for students to express whether they agree or disagree with athletes’ protests.
  • Stage student debates over the issues surrounding the protests.
  • Conduct community-wide discussions on race and justice in America. This can include both students and community members.

Also, give students a safe place to privately express their thoughts and opinions. Online forums and inboxes work well. So, too, do one-on-one meetings.

Don’t wait for controversy or protest to erupt in your district. Take the opportunity to lead the conversation about these and other critical issues.

What steps do you take to manage and teach around student protests in your schools? Tell us in the comments.

Want to start a meaningful dialogue with students? Here’s one way to encourage thoughtful and productive conversations around sensitive issues.

Is your classroom the next Uber?

If I say the word startup, what image springs to mind?

You probably picture an open-air office full of twentysomething hipsters in sandals huddled around a whiteboard or laptops.

It’s easy to stereotype the startup “look.” But startup culture is about more than funky offices and millennial-era perks.

Startups pride themselves on risk-taking, innovation and adaptation, as well as the ability to respond quickly to customer and market demands.

The mindset has captivated the business world with the meteoric rise of companies such as Uber and Airbnb.

But business leaders aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from the startup vibe. Schools would do well to adopt some of these traits as well, says startup and education advocate Jeff Hemmett.

In a talk at last year’s TedxWestVancouverED, Hemmett outlined why a strong startup culture could benefit schools, and help educators and students succeed in a world of perpetual change.

‘Classroom, Inc.’
Comparing America’s traditional education system to a tiny startup might seem impractical. But if you start to view each classroom as its own entity, you begin to realize that our schools are more nimble than we like to think.

Hemmett dubs this way of thinking, “Classroom, Inc.”

Instead of producing the next great social network, streaming platform, or online retailer, America’s classrooms create an even more valuable commodity: opportunity.

“Now, the kids in your classroom, they might not know what they want to be when they grow up,” Hemmett told a group of educators during his talk. “It could be a rockstar, could be a CEO, could be an activist. It doesn’t matter. Their opportunity to become any or all of these things comes from you.”

In the face of rapid, unpredictable change, it’s up to schools to provide new opportunities and avenues for students.

Staying lean and responsive
Large, blue-chip corporations are averse to change, says Hemmett. That’s because they’re not built to react quickly to disruption.

Startups, on the other hand, are lean and responsive. They challenge each employee to cultivate that elusive entrepreneurial spirit and they give people the freedom to learn and build on their own, or in collaboration with others.

This is why startups attract the best talent in the world, Hemmett says.

Attracting great talent is a challenge education faces every day, along with developing leadership, creating a unified vision, and navigating a complex maze of human emotion and interaction.

Talk the talk
Speed and adaptability are great, but they don’t mean a thing absent the ability to forecast and react to reliable data. That’s why startups put so much effort into gathering feedback from customers and users.

Take Uber for example. A large part of the company’s business model is based on one simple, but effective premise: riders provide feedback on drivers, drivers provide feedback on riders. The company uses this feedback to hone and perfect its services, and to keep customers coming back.

In an era of increased competition, where students and families can choose to ditch traditional public schools for alternative options on a whim, the power of feedback and the importance of listening to parents’ and students’ concerns is more important than ever.

For more on the startup culture in schools, check out Hemmett’s full Tedx talk below:

What ways might your school or district consider adopting a startup culture to stay ahead of changes in learning culture? Tell us in the comments.

Want to encourage greater collaboration in your schools? Here’s one way to get students and parents engaged in a conversation about real change.

Silos are inevitable. Here’s how to make them work.

Organizations large and small struggle to keep their various departments connected.

Schools are no exception.

It’s easy to get tunnel vision when a new project or crisis arises.

Unlike large corporations, where specialized departments can often get by working in isolation, school leaders must work together.

This is especially true when it comes to district technology adoption, says education strategist and consultant Eric Patnoudes.

In a recent blog post for EdTech Focus on K-12, Patnoudes outlines several strategies to align the goals of district administrators, the school IT leaders, and faculty members. Though his strategies are meant to address technical communication challenges, they can be applied to silos in other areas too.

The silos go up
The simple act of departmental miscommunication can have devastating effects, says Patnoudes.

“These silos can lead to misaligned priorities, lack of information flow, reduced morale and disjointed decision making,” he writes. Adding, “it may ultimately contribute to the demise of a productive district culture.”

When new education technology is “forced” on teachers without their input, that’s a silo problem. When IT specialists are surprised by new technology requirements, that’s a silo problem. And, when both faculty and technology leaders are blindsided by top-down mandates from the central office, that’s…well, you get the picture.

Whether it’s intentional or simply an oversight, failure to include key people and voices in important decisions can wreak havoc on a school district’s operational efficiency.

So what’s the solution?

The silos don’t have to come down
While most organizations work to “break down the silos,” that’s not always feasible. Nor is it necessarily the best approach.

Believe it or not, Patnoudes says, silos do, in fact, serve a purpose.

“Silos are quite important in organizations for creating a structure of accountability, the delegation of responsibility, and allowing for expertise in certain fields,” he explains.

Teachers are teachers for a reason. IT specialists are just that: specialists. And school leaders have put in years of hard work to learn how to engage students.

The challenge for schools is to allow specialized teams to do the work they’re good at, while still acknowledging and including input from others.

That only works when districts deploy a unified strategy, and clear communication across teams.

Top-down dictates rarely foster true collaboration, says Patnoudes.

“The most successful districts I’ve worked with around the U.S. started by establishing a unified vision and made working across departmental silos a top priority,” he writes. “They made certain everyone has a seat at the table and understands each other’s perspectives.”

To be successful, school leaders need to establish clear systems for gathering feedback from staff and actively foster communication between departments. This can be accomplished through regular meetings, online suggestion boxes, or other means, so long as team members feel that they’ve contributed to the conversation in a meaningful way.

Same goes for the community. Parents and other stakeholders have their own perspectives. But they, too, can feel unnecessarily walled off from the school decision-making processes.

What steps does your school or district take to ensure that staff and parents and others feel included in important school-based decisions? Tell us in the comments.

Do you struggle to overcome silos in your school community? Here’s one way to engage different groups in meaningful conversations. 

Betting the farm on school lunch

Today, millions of K12 students will eat meals provided by their local schools.

For many students, especially those from families of lesser means, school-provided meals constitute the only reliable source of daily recommended nutrition they receive all day. For fewer still, school-provided lunches provide their only source of daily food at all.

More than half of U.S. students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to a report in the Washington Post, making school lunch programs essential to the health and well-being of America’s K12 students.

Preparing and serving  daily meals to students and teachers is a tremendous undertaking–and one that is often, regrettably, taken for granted.

A complex to-do list that includes menu creation, materials ordering, food prep, nutritional guidelines and serving procedures, creates headaches for even the most veteran of food service professionals.

Increasingly, schools are exploring the benefits of the “farm-to-school” movement as a means to reduce the logistical hurdles that plague many school breakfast and lunch programs.

In an effort to cut costs, save time, and reinvest in local communities, a growing contingent of school leaders are advocating for the use of locally grown and sourced ingredients in school meals. And the benefits are clear, according to a census report from the USDA.

A closer look at the numbers
More than 5,000 school districts participate in farm-to-school food service programs, according to the USDA report, accounting for more than 40 percent of the districts that participated in the survey.

The shift has amounted to a boon for local farms and other businesses.

During the 2013-2014 school year alone, schools purchased nearly $790 million in local goods. That’s a 105 percent increase in local investment compared with the 2011-2012 school year, according to the USDA report.

“We work with over 10 different local farms,” one respondent from a district in Washington state said in the report. “We want to support local and know who is growing our food.”

The future of farm to school
According to the census, 16 percent of surveyed schools plan on starting farm-to-school programs in the next year. Of those that already have such programs, nearly half expect to increase activity.

It’s worth noting, of course, that the USDA offers grants to participating farm-to-school districts.

The grant program was created under the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the most recent reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which sets standards and funding for school lunch and breakfast programs.

The 2010 law met its fair share of backlash from the food industry and many school district leaders, who called for less stringent nutritional guidelines, as this Washington Post article explains.

School lunch debates reflect broader political conversations about the role of government in family and community-based decisions.

No matter on what side of the school lunch debate you stand, you can bet that parents and students have opinions. As you make decisions about food service in your schools, make sure your community has an opportunity to weigh in.

Is your school district doing everything it can to ensure students have access to quality, affordable school-based meals? Are you currently engaged in a farm-to-school meal program in your school or district? Tell us in the comments.

Want to know what your community thinks about your school meal programs? This simple tool can help you solicit helpful feedback.