The challenges faced by schools in high-poverty urban and rural communities were not new when legendary American educator Ron Edmonds wrote about them in 1979, and many of the same challenges persist today. High-poverty schools tend to be associated with lower levels of educational achievement, even though their teachers and leaders work tirelessly and relentlessly to ensure that every child succeeds.
But this is only part of the story, as many schools buck the trend and succeed against the odds.
Two schools that perform beyond expectations can be found among the hay, potato, and strawberry fields in a remote, rural area of Southern Oregon. Only 10 miles apart, Merrill and Malin elementary schools serve a high percentage of students who live in poverty, and more than half the students in these schools are English learners. Unlike the high-mobility trend in most rural schools in the United States, many Merrill and Malin students are the third or fourth generation of their family to attend the same school.
A few years ago, funding cuts resulted in the loss of several teaching positions. Merrill Elementary responded by creating blended-grade classrooms for grades 4–5 and 5–6. Achievement scores dropped, but in the following year the school reallocated some Title I resources to add a part-time teacher to support the blended-grade classrooms and began teaching fifth-grade math in blocks. Math scores increased dramatically, which prompted the school to ask the district for additional funding to replicate the same approach for reading. Subsequently, reading achievement also soared.
Malin Elementary followed Merrill’s example by strategically adding support for their blended-grade classes. Currently, both school’s test scores are above the state average and they far outperform other schools in Oregon with similar student demographics. In addition, Merrill has seen success in closing the achievement gap between white and Hispanic students.
How do these schools perform beyond expectations? Both schools share something in common that helps explain their success: excellent school leadership. This should hardly come as a surprise, as the research evidence consistently underlines that leadership is key to school improvement and school turnaround. This body of evidence shows how much leadership matters in securing better outcomes for young people.
Principal Larita Ongman, who leads both schools, has lived in the area for more than 30 years and believes strongly that for rural and remote schools, improvement has to come from within. While Ongman is clear that there is no surefire way to improve schools, she highlights a number of strategies that have worked for Merrill and Malin:
1. Using data to make good long-term and day-to-day decisions. Data displays on the walls of the staff lounges show how many students are scoring on track, in the strategic zone, or need interventions, per grade level. Sticky notes on the wall show school performance on state assessments and serve as a reminder of annual achievement goals. Classroom-based data displays help students track their own progress.
2. Focusing on high-quality teachers and teaching. The contribution of high-quality teachers and high-quality teaching to exceptional school performance is well established. Ongman says she only hires teachers who are “independent, go-getters, and great teachers.” As far as possible, her teachers keep the same grade level over time to “help teachers become master teachers,” and she avoids pulling teachers out of the classroom for meetings or workshops unrelated to the schools’ instructional priorities. All teachers use the district-adopted curricula, share a common set of instructional strategies, and draw from the same classroom management toolbox. This allows teachers to spend more time refining their professional practice and zeroing in on specific student learning needs. It also provides much-needed predictability and stability for students as they move through the schools.
3. Building community. Even the best teachers find it difficult to perform in a school community or climate that is not inclusive or supportive. Bringing the community into the school and ensuring that community members play an active role in supporting the learning and teaching process is the cornerstone of improving a school from within. All adults working in the schools are deeply embedded in their communities and interact with families outside school. In fact, many teachers and paraprofessionals grew up in the communities and attended the schools where they now work. They know every child and every family and have a stake in their success. The result? Every student has relationships with multiple adults, and parents feel at ease coming to the school.
Merrill and Malin Elementary Schools—and the many other schools that perform beyond expectations—demonstrate that the words of Ron Edmonds are true: “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us.” School leaders such as Larita Ongman offer a powerful and important reminder that improving schools from within is perfectly possible to achieve.