"REFORM - Believing in students pays off at this Florida School GREAT EXPECTATIONS" By William L. Bainbridge and Thomas S. Tocco. The American School Board Journal. July 2003.


REFORM -Believing in students pays off at this Florida School

By William L. Bainbridge and

Thomas S. Tocco

Is there such a thing as a successful model school where problems of poverty, low parent education levels, and tight budgets are overcome through outstanding leadership and practice? Unfortunately, many studies that report such miraculous achievements are less than helpful since they focus on specially selected populations of students. For example, some magnet and charter schools boast of high test scores when the fact is, they have benefited from an enrollment process that favors high-achieving students.

We have seen many hard-working and insightful teams working in poor urban and rural school systems, but neither of us was prepared for what we saw not long ago in Winter Haven, Fla. A local nonprofit organization called Polk Businesses for WorldClass Schools had asked us to visit the 79,480-student Polk County School District with an eye to making recommendations for improving the performance of district schools and providing business and school officials with comparative data about individual campuses (see sidebar).

In our many years in education, each of us has had the opportunity to see best practices in action and to participate in meaningful school improvement efforts. But the program and results at Polk County's Inwood Elementary School exceeded our expectations.

Dramatic results

Although many school board members and administrators in this Florida district and the nation struggle with the so-called achievement gap, Inwood has made great strides in closing the gap through the leadership of Principal Sue Buckner, her staff, and the community.

Located near a high-crime, high-drug area in the city of Winter Haven, Inwood is a high-poverty Title I school serving a population of 485 students. Half of the students are white; of the remaining students, 36 percent are black, 12 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent Asian. Seventy-seven percent of the school's children receive free or reduced-price lunch, and 17 percent are in special education. Some schools might use such factors as excuses for poor performance, but Inwood can point to a number of impressive accomplishments:
  • Achievement test results demonstrating reading comprehension proficiency as measured by the SAT 9 increased from 64 percent in 2000 to 73 percent in 2001. SAT 9 math proficiency increased from 73 percent in 2000 to 82 percent in 2001.

  • For the last four years, the Florida Department of Education has awarded Inwood a school report card grade of "A." It is the only Title I high-poverty school (75 percent subsidized lunch) in the state to receive this distinction for all four years.

  • Inwood has also received Florida's Five Star School Award for six years in a row. The Five Star Award is presented annually to schools that have shown exemplary community involvement. To qualify, schools must meet rigorous criteria requiring the full engagement of business partners, volunteers, students, families and the School Advisory Council in the educational process.

  • In 2002, Inwood was a Nationally Recognized Title I School by the International Reading Association.

  • On the sometimes-dreaded achievement tests, in this case the Terra Nova assessment, Inwood scored among the highest of all Title I schools in the nation at all grade levels, both in median scores and in the percent of students who were proficient. In addition, the school scored above the average of all Polk County elementary schools in the grades tested (three through five).
Finally, in terms of school climate, great efforts are made to make the school a safe haven for students in the community. And despite its location near a high-drug area, Inwood is winning awards from DARE as a drug-free school.

Compulsory learning

How did all this come about? It has to do with buy in.

Education change agents have known for some time that for school reform to take place, all adults in the school community must buy in to the concept that school requires compulsory learning, not just compulsory attendance. Buckner, a matriarch with a crusading spirit, demands that parents, stepparents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and neighbors participate in Inwood's success. If they aren't qualified to serve as tutors or mentors for students, she finds other jobs for them--such as keeping the grounds of the old school building beautiful or helping distribute uniforms to students.

Members of the school staff visit students' homes as often as necessary to gain their parents' support, and administrators are fully involved in after-school tutoring programs. Moreover, the school is data-driven in monitoring individual students' progress. We observed teachers frequently reviewing a wide variety of aggregated and disaggregated student data with the principal, who keeps detailed charts on the progress of each classroom.

The faculty at Inwood has incorporated the best of educational research and high-level strategies to accomplish its goal of becoming an outstanding learning center. The strategies include strong and visible leadership; high expectations for all students; a strong and consistent discipline program; hard-working, dedicated and informed teachers; and the belief that all children will learn.

Mastery teaching is taken to a new level at Inwood. At the end of the year, test scores of students are reviewed. Master teachers model best practices for improving test scores across the grade levels. All the students from one grade level, for example, will gather to learn from a demonstration teacher while their regular teachers assist and learn from the "master."

As school leaders well know, recent reports on the progress of school reform in America straddle the good-news/bad-news fence. On the good-news side, there is some evidence that school improvement efforts are working. But on the bad-news side is an overwhelming body of evidence that children from homes where parents have little education are still struggling to reach achievement goals mandated by school systems, states, and, more recently, the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The education team at this school recognizes that students of any color, demographic group, ethnic group, or home learning situation should be given opportunities to excel. And at Inwood, these students are succeeding well beyond expectations. As a best-practice model, Inwood has a lot to teach other schools throughout the country.
William L. Bainbridge is president of SchoolMatch, a Columbus, Ohio-based educational auditing, research, evaluation and consulting firm, and distinguished research professor at the University of Dayton.

Thomas S. Tocco has been superintendent since 1994 of the 81,000-student Fort Worth Independent School District and was the 2002 Texas Superintendent of the Year.

Both have been SchoolMatch advisers to Polk Businesses for WorldClass Schools, based in Lakeland, Fla.

Sidebar: A district audit

Our visit to Inwood Elementary School was part of an "Audit of Educational Effectiveness" that SchoolMatch conducted for the 79,480-student Polk County School District in 2001 and 2002. The audit, which was commissioned by Polk Businesses for WorldClass Education, compared Polk with some 1,500 school systems with the closest demographics.

Our team of six superintendents and education researchers visited 27 Polk schools, representing a geographic and socioeconomic cross-section of the district. The team analyzed data, reviewed district policies, examined school records, interviewed teachers and administrators, and surveyed parents and staff members. Polk businesses contributed the total $154,950 investment for the audit.

Although individual schools varied, as in most districts, we were impressed with the high quality of many school leaders, teachers, and facilities and with the high involvement of the community.

Our report to the board included recommendations on reading instruction, training and recruitment of personnel, and equity in the use of technology, among other issues. We also recommended appointing the superintendent, noting that Polk County is the largest U.S. district with an elected superintendent. A referendum was placed on the ballot, and voters decided in May 2002 that their next superintendent would be an appointed, qualified educator.

-- W.L.B. and T.S.T.