Nearly all the students come from low-income black and Hispanic families; many speak English as a second language. Test scores were in the lowest 10 percent in California in 1999. Under a new principal, a Teach for American grad, Bunche Elementary raised its scores to the top 30 percent in the state. The school, located in an LA suburb, didn’t receive any extra state money to fund the turn around. Instead, the principal redirected existing funding for priorities such as paying teachers to tutor after school. The LA Times explains Bunche’s strategy.
1. Begin with classroom discipline. In her first year, Principal Mikara Solomon Davis issued more than 100 suspensions at the school of 467 students. Many of the suspensions are served in school, so students are removed from their classrooms but their work still is supervised.
2. Hire carefully. Applicants write an essay explaining their teaching philosophy and how it would boost test scores. They must demonstrate lessons with students in front of administrators, other teachers and parents. They’re also asked if they’re willing to tutor outside of regular class time.
3. Train teachers on site. Teachers write the objectives of every lesson on the board. For as long as necessary, they file a daily eight-step lesson plan that is critiqued daily. Mentor teachers are assigned to help.
4. Test weekly on state standards. Results are immediately reviewed and used to plan teaching. Students who begin to develop academic problems are referred to a team, which includes parents, to create an education plan, much like the process used to design tailored programs for special education students.
5. Do grade-level planning and troubleshooting. The principal attends weekly meetings in person or reviews and comments on the minutes of every gathering.
6. Motivate students. With cheers and rewards, the school celebrates achievement and improvement.
7. Inculcate goals and dreams. Teachers and administrators stress the importance, desirability and expectation of college. Every grade visits a college every year.
8. Develop parental support. Parents must sign daily behavior forms. The school has frequent meetings and training sessions on helping students study.
9. Seek out new ideas. The staff regularly looks for best practices elsewhere. And even though the school has made huge strides using the Open Court phonics-based reading program, it’s now added a literature component to deepen the intellectual content.
10. Tweak and maintain. The first presumption: Unless every student is advanced, there is something more you can do. The second: Without constant vigilance, a high-achieving school can readily slip back into mediocrity.
The school now exceeds California’s goal for all schools, an 800 on the Academic Performance Index.
Bunche’s high expectations remind me of the charter high school in my book, Our School.
Update: Here’s a report on Virginia schools that are doing better than expected based on their poverty rate. All stress reading and differentiate instruction based on students’ level, needs and learning style. Expectations are high.