High Poverty, High-Performing Schools Can Exist

On-the-job training required to steer every child toward the best opportunities

By Jean S. Desravines
CEO, New Leaders

Jean S. Desravines is the Chief Executive Officer of New Leaders, an organization that develops outstanding education leaders at every level, from teachers to superintendents. To learn more about the Emerging Leaders Program, read the recent report, Untapped: Transforming Teacher Leadership to Help Students Succeed.

It’s no secret that public schools in Texas are experiencing major demographic changes. Today, 60 percent of the state’s students come from low-income families, two thirds are black or Hispanic, and one in five are English language learners.

Many of these students are members of new immigrant families. Their parents come to work in low-paying jobs to make better lives for themselves and provide a solid education for their children. Like generations before them, these new Texans arrive filled with optimism, hoping that they and their families can earn a piece of the American dream.

Among all state institutions, Texas public schools hold the greatest potential to serve as engines of social mobility for these children, propelling them on a trajectory of success. Unfortunately, too few schools are living up to this promise. The academic performance of Texas public schools reflects a pattern we see nationwide: Schools serving large proportions of low-income and minority students tend to perform poorly. Instead of being launch pads of opportunity, these schools lend false credence to the assertion that education cannot overcome the challenges of poverty.

Incremental changes are not sufficient to meet this challenge. To ensure a strong and thriving future for Texas’ children and the state as a whole, we need scalable, research-based solutions that can put all five million plus students on a path to success.

The good news is that across Texas and the country there are schools that are proving what we know is possible: All kids can learn at high levels when they are taught well.  These schools are serving high-poverty, majority-minority student populations and they’re producing high test scores and strong graduation and college enrollment rates. What is going on at these schools, and how can we replicate their success?

“The good news is that Across Texas and the country there are schools that are proving what we know is possible: All kids can learn at high levels when they are taught well.”

Building Exemplary Campus Leadership

My organization, New Leaders, has studied and worked in high-performing, high-poverty public schools for more than a decade, in districts across the nation. We have learned that schools “beating the odds” typically share key characteristics, one of which serves as the cornerstone for all others: exemplary leadership. Principals at high-performing schools do not necessarily have outsized, charismatic personalities. Rather, they share a deeply held belief that all students can excel and they possess a key set of leadership skills that enable them to create thriving schools.

Strong Teams

A critical priority among all these leaders is building a strong team of educators at their schools. Great principals create opportunities for teachers to collaborate and build their own leadership skills to help colleagues strengthen teaching and learning. Over time, these teacher leaders share responsibility with their principals for moving the school toward a collective vision of student success.

Culture of Confidence

Effective principals also work with their teams to create a culture in which adults believe all children can meet high academic standards and that they are not only accountable for helping students achieve those standards, but also for instilling a belief in students that they are capable of excellence. In these schools, teachers and administrators work with kids to help them see and plan for long-term goals like finishing a college degree and working in their dream career, while also helping them establish and meet concrete short-term goals.

Instructional Coaching

Finally, principals of successful schools are strong instructional leaders. They ensure that high expectations are brought to life in every classroom through challenging curriculum and engaging instruction, and they work closely with teachers, providing feedback and coaching to help them implement effective instructional techniques and supports for students.

High-performing, high-poverty schools are beacons of hope. They demonstrate that great public schools serving high-need children are not flukes or one-in-a-million creations of educational superheroes.

And beyond hope, these schools reveal what must be the centerpiece of any strategy for large-scale school improvement: Careful selection, preparation, and support for principals and other school leaders.

“High-performing, high-poverty schools are beacons of hope. They demonstrate that great public schools serving high-need children are not flukes or one-in-a-million creations of educational superheroes.”

Transformational leadership in action: Arlington ISD

Arlington Independent School District, which serves a population that is 44 percent Hispanic and 25 percent African-American, is one Texas district that is already pursuing this approach. Arlington has partnered with New Leaders to implement the Emerging Leaders program by seeking out talented educators through a competitive admissions process, the program transforms them into highly effective instructional leaders.

Each year, more than 30 teacher leaders, coaches, and assistant principals learn leadership skills and practice them on the job, supervising a team of teachers at their school over the course of one academic year. At every step, participants receive one-on-one coaching from an instructor in adult and instructional leadership skills. During their training, participants learn how to:

    1. build a culture of high expectations among their team;
    2. use student achievement data to improve teaching;
    3. and coach teachers to engage students in challenging lessons.

To graduate from the program, participants must demonstrate proficiency in these skills, as well as student achievement growth in the classrooms they supervise.

Unlike traditional programs, which often prioritize theoretical learning over hands-on practice, this kind of job-embedded training ensures that graduates are prepared to immediately lead improvements in student learning, whatever position they take at a school.

Success Story: Remynse Elementary

Selena Ozuna became principal of Remynse Elementary School in the Arlington school district after she excelled in Emerging Leaders, leading her teacher team to double students’ math proficiency across their classrooms. At Remynse, 90 percent of students are low-income, and half are English language learners. Ozuna passionately believes in her students and immediately began putting what she learned into practice. “Our teachers believe they are already holding our students to high standards,” Ozuna says. “My job is to give them the tools to raise that bar.”

Ozuna is on her way to becoming a transformational school leader, and dozens more in Arlington are following that same path through Emerging Leaders. At the end of the first year, nearly 60 percent of participants were appointed as principals, assistant principals, or academic coaches, with the rest of the cohort prepared to take on leadership responsibilities while remaining in their classrooms.

Arlington’s budding school leaders have the potential to accelerate improvement across the entire district, improving teaching and learning within their own schools and collectively catalyzing systemic progress. As each individual demonstrates how strong instructional leadership translates into academic excellence for kids, persistent myths about what students can and cannot achieve will be slain.

Transformational success always starts with transformational leadership, whether in the statehouse, the board room, or the schoolhouse. Districts throughout Texas should follow Arlington’s example by identifying educators who have what it takes to be great leaders for the state’s evolving student population and providing them with the high-quality, job-embedded training they need to launch every child toward a lifetime of opportunity.

P.S. If you liked this story, you might enjoy our Raise Your Hand newsletter. Receive stories, news, and ways to help, right in your inbox.  Sign up here.