by Max Brantley
Ninety-seven percent of the children at Jones live in poverty, and 85 percent are English-language learners. Despite these obstacles, the school had the highest literacy growth in the entire district on the state’s 2014 benchmark test: 78 percent. In the eight previous years, proficiency in literacy soared from 26 percent to 73 percent. Individual student growth on the computerized MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test is consistently strong in both reading and math.
This year Jones Elementary was one of five schools in the nation profiled by the U.S. Department of Education in recognition of its strong academic growth, effective use of data, ethos of collaboration among teachers, and support services like a school-based community health clinic, three pre-K classrooms, and a breakfast program where every child eats every morning.
Despite such a high-poverty student population, staff turnover is virtually zero percent. Five teachers at Jones hold certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and two teachers are finalists this year for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. Each year, 10 interns from the University of Arkansas master’s degree program in ele-mentary education are placed with master teachers at Jones. Principal Melissa Fink, who is one of a handful of school leaders completing the Master Principal Institute at the Arkansas Leadership Acad-emy, was recently tapped as one of 15 principals in the nation to advise the U.S. Department of Education.
Jones Elementary regularly hosts visitors from around the state and nation who want to learn from its success in teaching high-poverty English Learners. The school is a state model for Cognitively Guided Instruction in math. This week a film crew from ASCD, an association specializing in educational leadership and professional development, will tape a video series in several classrooms for national use. During the same week, an education professor from Sweden will visit the school to learn from its strengths.
Every year I see children at the school become more creative, compassionate, curious human beings as a result of the teaching and support services they experience at Jones.
One example of the school’s culture: A few years ago, one of our students was sexually assaulted by her stepfather and was placed in an institution in another city. The student had made remarkable progress at our school, including two years of reading growth in a single year in 2nd grade. She had become happier and more confident. She had begun smiling again.
Our principal wanted to make sure our teachers, counselor, and nurse could continue meeting the child’s many needs, so she called the facility to make sure she would come back to our school when she was released. The director of the facility was quiet a moment, then said, “In 17 years in this job, I have never had a school try to get a student back. Usually, given all the behavioral problems these kids have, schools want to make sure a child will be sent somewhere else.”
The student returned to Jones the next year. She's now in middle school and has plans to go to college and become a nurse.
In my view, it’s state legislators who passed the school-grading bill. And the data analysts who created a formula that can draw such distorted conclusions about school performance. And the policymakers and think tanks who have still not learned, after 15 years of failed policy, a proven point:
Publicly shaming schools that serve high-poverty students—including those that elicit greater academic growth than schools with affluent populations—is a terrible strategy to improve outcomes for the children who need high-quality schools most.