Farmworkers' kids go to college

Eight years ago, Granger High in Washington’s Yakima Valley was a typical high-poverty, low-performing school, writes Karin Chenoweth of Education Trust in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Only 20 percent of students met reading standards; only half graduated. Gangs were active; graffiti marred the campus. Nobody expected more from the children of farmworkers: 80 percent are Latino, 10 percent American Indian and 90 percent are poor. But a new principal, Richard Esparza, believed Granger’s students could do better.

More than 90 percent of the Class of 2008 — almost all of whom are low-income — graduated from high school on time. Another couple of students will be graduating this summer.

That’s not all — a whopping 90 percent of the 62 graduates are going on to some kind of post-secondary education. Thirty-seven percent are going directly to four-year colleges, 14 percent to technical schools and more than a third to two-year colleges.

Most Granger students start ninth grade with poor reading, writing, math and science skills, Chenoweth writes.

To tackle the students’ low reading skills, Granger uses a locally grown program that begins by providing students with very short passages posing an ethical dilemma, allowing students to grapple with serious topics while learning new vocabulary and gaining fluency. Eventually students graduate to longer passages and, after a while, serious literature that allows them to enter the life of the mind — “Huckleberry Finn,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Even students who enter reading at fifth-grade level or below are meeting state reading standards by 10th grade.

Unlike at most schools, failure is not a final outcome. Students who fail quizzes and tests are given the opportunity to retake them after tutoring, allowing them to develop an academic work ethic.

That reminds me of Downtown College Prep, which I wrote about in Our School: Start where students are, even if it means teaching elementary skills in ninth grade. Treat failure as useful feedback: You need to work harder, go at it a different way, try, try again.

Chenoweth is the author of It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools.

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  1. “This was Esparza’s last graduation as principal. He is enrolling in a doctoral program and plans to be a superintendent in a high-poverty district. “Now that I’ve demonstrated this can be done, I need to do it on a bigger scale,” he said. “People have to understand that these students can be just as successful as anyone else.” But, he said again for emphasis, “It begins with the belief system.”

    Let’s see how things are going next year and the year after now that principal Esparza’s shuffled on.

    Oh yeah, and since the Yakima School district doesn’t inhabit a separate plane of existence, what’s going on in the surrounding, presumably socio-economically similar, districts? Are the surrounding school boards green with envy at the brilliant performance of the Yakima High School? Frantically incorporating the ideas and policies that vaulted Yakima High School to its enviable record?

    I’ve read bunches of stories like this: dark horse school wins the Kentucky derby, queue the confetti-throwers.

    What you rarely read about is the same school a year or two later or after whoever spark-plugged the improvement moves on. But when you do you find that the school’s slumped back into its old ways and the glow of academic Everest-climbing is a dimming memory.

    Maybe Karin Chenoweth could delve into the evanescence of excellence in the public education. If it was clearer why these stories don’t stick and don’t spread we’d learn something useful about the public education system.

  2. Allen, I think the answer’s reasonably obvious–it’s the administrator’s quality or lack thereof when you get a whole school improving (as opposed to a single class, when that’s clearly a teacher performance). A good administrator clears the obstacles for teachers to do their job instead of following every single fad; a good administrator leads by example; a good administrator sets high expectations with a good program; and a good administrator spends time with the students.

    That’s just part of what a good administrator does–and having seen both good and bad ones in action as both a parent and a professional, I think the quality of the administration makes or breaks a school and a district. Poor administration leads to outbreaks of covering one’s rear end and not sticking one’s head out to try something different when what’s going on isn’t working. Good administration inspires the sort of risk-taking that leads to stories like this.

  3. Thank you, Joycem. You pretty much said what I was thinking in response to Allen. Esparza left a very strong faculty and he spent a year working with the incoming principal, who is himself an active, engaged person who is committed to continuing the success of Granger. So I have hopes that Granger will not deteriorate but will continue to improve.

    But Allen is right that there does not seem to be a lot of enthusiasm in the rest of the Yakima Valley for identifying successful practices and replicating them. That doesn’t reflect on Granger but on the rest of the Yakima Valley and to some extent the field of education.

    The question that I think worth asking is, why is there not more interest in success? What drives the dismissal of Granger and other successful schools as mere relections of a charismatic principal? I would argue that the success derives from the hard work of a lot of professionals who, sometimes for the first time, are able to all pull in the same direction instead of in different directions. Certainly Esparza’s force of personality helped drive that in Granger’s case (partly because he was facing down the intense hostility of much of the Yakima Valley establishment, from what I can tell). But there are other successful schools–some of them even more successful–where the principal is not particularly charismatic but is able to set a vision and support the teachers so that they can all work effectively.

  4. joycem, with regard to my general feelings about administrators, I don’t believe a good school is possible without a forceful, capable, relentless and lucky principal. Absent that unlikely combination of talents the school will be mediocre whatever that means in the context of the particular district in which the principal is employed and the school resides. In a disaster of a school district like Detroit Public Schools “mediocre” means an essentially worthless school.

    But that’s not what I was getting at.

    What I was pointing out is that the hiring of Principal Esparza almost certainly didn’t occur because of his proven ability to dramatically raise scores and the selection of his successor won’t hinge on that individuals ability to maintain high scores. The reason I know that to be true is that Principal Esparza’s performance hasn’t resulted in his school and his methods being put under a microscope. There isn’t, I assume, a bidding war for his services as a principal and his future career prospects aren’t particularly well related to the skills that vaulted Yakima High School out of the educational doldrums.

    More simply, his skills as a principal aren’t very highly valued outside Yakima school district and, if history is any guide, not necessarily all the well appreciated *within* the Yakima school district.

    Karin Chenoweth wrote:

    > The question that I think worth asking is, why is there not more interest in success?

    Because educational success results in benefits for the student but not for any of the professionals or for any of the politicians, i.e. school board members. The pros won’t be vacationing in Cabo rather then with the in-laws due to high scores and school board members won’t use those same high scores as stepping stone to the gubernatorial mansion.

    > What drives the dismissal of Granger and other successful schools as mere relections of a charismatic principal?

    If what you’re suggesting is that the contributions of the subordinate professionals are dismissed, I don’t think that’s true although how would their contributions be recognized other then with a hearty pat on the back and a sincere hand-shake? Which, by the way, is about all the principal can expect as well.

  5. I cannot explain the success of Granger High School. However by conventional educational standards and thought, it’s all very simple. “It all starts with the belief system.” That’s what the principal, Richard Esparza, said, was it not?

    But I am not convinced that is the key to success. The idea is not new. When I was a kid I read “The Power Of Positive Thinking”, by Norman Vincent Peale. It made an impression on me, and I accepted the central premise that if you envision success you will get success. However as the years went by I changed my mind. I still think it’s a good book, but the central premise is wrong, dead wrong. Envisioning success is probably a good idea, but it’s a very minor ingredient in success. Educational ideology always seems to include some version of positive thinking. The rhetoric of “high expectations” is an example.

    If it’s not a result of the belief system, then what is the secret of success at Granger High School? I don’t know. That is not my point. My point is that when talking about education we have not developed language and ways of thinking that allow us to discover the roots of success in Granger High, or anywhere else. I have long been a critic of ed school thinking, and will continue to be. I am not alone in that. But I think many, many people who are highly critical of ed school have unconsciously fallen into the ed school mind set. They don’t have much ability to analyze success because they have not developed the ways of thinking to enable that. Thus we fall back on the language and mind set that is familiar to us. That is the ed school langange and mind set. It is poorly developed, primitive even, it is anything but critical thinking, it is mostly ideology, but it is what we have.

    Many years ago I taught math in a prison school. Our principal was a hard headed, no nonsense, practical administrator, just the opposite of what ed school promotes. I didn’t care for him much, but I think he was competent in his job, and I respected him for that. But he could spout the educational rhetoric with the best of them, and often did so when it seemed appropriate to him. I was only there two years, but I came away with a strong impression that his rhetoric was a total mismatch for his actions. Indeed I think that was obvious within a few months. If you were to ask him the secret of his success in his job, I have no doubt you would get an idealistic mishmash of ed school nonsense. He would be totally sincere, of course, but I think it only means that he sincerely believed that he was giving the appropriate response to the question. He was not a deep thinker. He was anything but. The congruity of his actions to his rhetoric was not the sort of thing that he would care about or think about. To learn the secret of his success you would have to follow him around and see what he does, and totally ignore his ed school rhetoric.

    It is with this perspective that I say I have no idea what the secret of Esparza’s success is. And I certainly mean no disrespect to him when I say that I doubt very much that, “It all starts with the belief system”.

  6. The public education system has no intrinsic rewards for performance by professionals; there’s no analog to the profit margin in the private sector, that translates success into bonuses and dividends, that rewards superior performance. Consequently, the sources of motivation are determined by default.

    Principal Esperza’s motivation shows up as a determination to prevent kids on the short slide to oblivion from being lost. Hooray for principal Esparza. A different principal might embrace educationally trendiness which promises much which is the attraction, but delivers nothing. Whether the students and the public are mis-served is less important then the momentary buzz created. The principal benefits and that’s what’s important.

    Since there are many more ways to do something wrong then to do it right the second principal is more common. There being no good reason *not* to embrace substanceless trends and good reasons *to* embrace substanceless trends the average professional will bow to the widely perceived good and buy into those substanceless trend.

  7. How big is this school? Rural schools often get only 20 to 50 kids in each year’s cohort, which makes it possible to get results like this just from dumb luck. That is, most of the good students happened to be born in the same year…