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High-performing, high-poverty schools: Q&A

What should I look for in a school that is likely to help my child achieve at high levels?

When a parent walks in the door of a high achieving school, they should find an inviting, engaging, and welcoming community. They can expect to find a climate of high expectations for everyone, including students and their teachers, along with a strong work ethic and high morale. Relationships are caring and respectful. The school’s principal, teachers, and staff agree on a common mission, goals, and the route to their achievement. There is a strong focus on the instructional program and on improvement of student achievement. The curriculum is research-based with an emphasis on basic skills in reading and math. Additional instructional time is provided in reading and math. Schools use state standards to design curriculum and instruction, assess students, and evaluate teachers. Ongoing, diagnostic assessment guides instruction.

The principal is a strong educational leader who encourages a culture of teamwork and collaboration among all school staff.  He or she sustains a clear vision of the school’s purpose and removes obstacles. The principal regards the teaching corps as the school’s most important resource, and focuses on hiring, cultivating, and supporting the most excellent teaching.

Teachers themselves are committed to seeing all children achieve.  Their love of learning is infectious and their appreciation for children is obvious. Teamwork and collaboration are often hallmarks of their practice in high performing schools. They actively seek out ways to improve their own teaching and that of their peers, all to the purpose of improving the academic achievement of their students.

Both students and teachers at high performing schools rarely take sick days. They want to be at school. At the high school level, students graduate on time and have plans for continuing their education. 

How can I be sure that my child will succeed in a high performing school? What evidence can I look for?

The fundamental assumption of a high performing school is that every student can succeed. Teachers do not promote students until they have mastered the work at each level. Because teachers are committed to every child’s success, they work hard to diagnose the child’s difficulties and resolve them. They do not give up on a child. Teachers and students develop strong personal relationships that continue from year to year, providing students with a community of adults who believe in their ability to succeed.

If my child attends a low-performing school, what can I and other parents, do to help turn it around?

You should expect academic excellence and not accept any assumption that your children are doing as well as can be expected in an impoverished neighborhood. You can attend school events, parent-teacher conferences, and school board meetings to learn about your children’s school and voice any concerns. You can seek publicly available data  on the academic progress of students at the school and compare it with other schools in your district or state. This data is often available on a state’s department of education website. In most cases, the school progress data are referred to as “School Report Cards” or something similar. You should also join with other parents to become partners with the school to support positive change.

Why is there so much emphasis on testing?

Certain tests are required of all public schools by state and federal laws to demonstrate that students are meeting certain levels of achievement in core subjects, including reading and math. High performing schools also engage in fairly frequent classroom assessments. The information from these tests helps teachers identify any difficulties or problems that need to be addressed to ensure all students are learning and to adjust their instruction as needed.

What should I look for in a teacher to ensure she or he is qualified to help my child?

Parents should look for teachers who are confident and optimistic about the ability of all children to achieve. They should observe whether the teaching staff seem supportive of each other and joined in a sense of the school’s mission They should find out whether the school invests in professional development of its teachers. Parents can also inquire about the record of teacher absences: A school with few teacher absences is a school with a happy and engaged teaching corps.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act grants parents with students in Title I schools the right to know certain things about their child's teacher's qualifications, for example, whether he or she has emergency credentials or is not "highly qualified" according to NCLB definitions. For more information, see A Guide to the No Child Left Behind Act and Key Lessons: Teacher Quality and Student Achievement.

What kinds of extra help can my child get if needed?

High performing schools do well at providing extra support during the regular school day for students.  These schools arrange for extra support for students through teachers, aides, parents, and even older students.  In addition to extra support during the regular school day, the vast majority of high performing schools create extra after school opportunities that are academically, developmentally, and socially enriching. Art, music, field trips, and special programs and visitors are some of the ways that high performing schools enrich their curricula. These and many other types of effective extra or extended learning opportunities are provided through after school, weekend, and summer programs sponsored by the school.

How well do children do after they graduate from high performing schools?

Students who graduate from high performing schools are far more likely to do so with the skills in reading, writing, and mathematics that will enable them to secure good employment or further education. Many high performing schools set college as an explicit goal for all their students. Some pursue scholarship funds to support this goal.

How often should my child’s school communicate with me, and what should I expect the school to tell me about his progress?

Parents can expect that they will receive feedback from the school about their child’s behavior, attendance, homework, and schoolwork, every week or more often. This includes, but should not be limited to, report cards and parent conferences. Some high performing schools offer homework hotlines; others send a daily homework folder home to parents, establishing a system for regular communication. Some schools provide parents with the teacher’s cell phone or even home number. Teachers may also telephone parents, or even make home visits, to consult about a student.

What kind of relationship should I expect my child’s school to have with me?

High performing schools engage parents as partners in the education process. They welcome parents and keep them informed, but also look for ways to actively engage parents in helping their students achieve.

Would my child have a better chance of succeeding academically if we transfer her/him to a school in a more affluent neighborhood?

The fact that the school maintains a culture of high expectations for its students, rather than the demographics of those students or the location of the school, seems to be the determining factor in its record of ensuring that they achieve at high levels. Schools whose leadership and teaching corps embrace and sustain the belief that all their students can achieve at high levels, and then uphold that belief system with excellent instructional and curriculum practices, have records of high achieving students, even in the poorest neighborhoods.


This document was prepared by Caliber Associates for the Center for Public Education. Caliber Associates, an ICF company based in Fairfax, Va., specializes in social science research and evaluation.

Posted: Aug. 26, 2005

Copyright 2005 Center for Public Education

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