Building a Better School
How do you close the achievement gaps? See how one Oklahoma school answered that question classroom by classroom.
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In every corner of Putnam City West High School in Oklahoma City, somebody is doing something to close achievement gaps. Whether it’s (shhh!) benchmark testing in a dark computer lab, or (Bravo! Bravo!) on-stage rehearsals for Cinderella, where students have long known that princesses need not be White, every inch of this campus has been dedicated to squeezing shut those gaps.
And it’s working. A vibrant combination of targeted academic programs, parental involvement, and professional development has test scores soaring and graduation rates surging; last year, the number of graduating Hispanic seniors rose by nearly 70 percent. “We went from Hispanic kids feeling invisible to feeling like they have a place,” says Eric Winkle, local Association president.
No longer is this a “low-performing school.” Instead, it’s a model for the kind of transformation that NEA members, working together, can do, and the kind of work supported by NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign—an initiative to improve the lives of thousands of students across the country.
It all comes at great value for communities and kids. In 2008, the cost of the achievement gaps in America was estimated at $525 billion in lost wages and production, according to McKinsey & Company. And, of course, their study didn’t figure in the cost of lost dreams.
So come along. Take a walk on these pages to follow Putnam City West’s blueprint for success.
MAKE IT RELEVANT: Club Med isn’t just a destination in the Caribbean. For these 12 kids sitting in the career and college office, it’s actually a journey to jobs in health services. By providing guidance on course selection and scholarships, plus regular trips to hospitals and other work sites, the “Club Med” program hopes to guide kids to careers in medical offices, where there is a real need for well-paid bilingual employees. It’s about giving them “a little motivation and direction to do well,” says ELL graduation coach Yamile Tullis.
GET PARENTS INVOLVED: These tables look a lot smaller when hundreds of parents are sitting at them. That’s right—it is possible to get Spanish-speaking parents involved. The school held its first Hispanic Family Night three years ago—and a whole lot of school employees showed up. But with support from NEA’s Public Engagement Project and the Oklahoma Education Association, more than 250 parents recently attended a session on college admissions. From ACT to FAFSA to SAT, the alphabet soup was drained and consumed. The key was finding community contacts to be trained by NEA as facilitators, says Assistant Principal Melanie Pealor. “A few years back, you wouldn’t see parents. But now they’re in here asking, ‘What can I do?’” Pealor says. Meanwhile, parents are also making their needs known, leading officials to produce more translated materials and hire additional bilingual staff members.
SERVE THE COMMUNITY: Wait a sec, this room is empty! Where are the kids? Check the elementary school down the road where they tutor weekly, or the food pantry where they pack boxes for the hungry. This class, run and designed by teacher Jennifer Pasillas, asks about a dozen Hispanic students—ranging from high-performing to highly at-risk—to serve their community. It’s transforming, they say. “I’ve had kids whom I thought probably would have dropped out, but they get excited about coming here,” Pasillas says. And it’s not just about showing up, “I think it helps us be better people,” says senior Daniel Giner.
IMPROVE TEACHING: There’s professional development that makes you groan and reach for your iPhone. And then there’s the kind that makes you sit up and take notes. Pealor is a pro at finding the latter. Take the school’s work with Professional Learning Communities, which has led to weekly department team meetings. What clicked with the kids? What didn’t? Another favorite: the Capturing Kids’ Hearts program: “You come away all fired up!” says history teacher Brad Schatzel. On a recent afternoon, Schatzel was also using strategies, like ”cloze passages,” that he learned while training with NEA’s ELL Cadre, to focus his kids on Oklahoma’s historic Indian culture.
ERASE STEREOTYPES: Every September, each ninth-grader in the school participates in “Challenge Day,” a program hosted by the non-profit Be The Change Movement, which takes the kids through team-building, stereotype-challenging activities. Hear the cheers! See the tears. It’s emotional work, but it reinforces the idea they’re all in this place called school together. “It taught me you’re never alone,” says one. This unity is on display in the Student Council room, too. “We have kids from La Raza, from athletics, drama, every group you can think of,” says advisor Tammy Jensen.
FOCUS INSTRUCTION: The half-dozen kids in this supplemental algebra class are all taking turns throwing a glowing ball at the Smartboard screen. Aha! You landed on problem 14. “The height of the cylinder is 5 inches and the radius is 3 inches. What is its approximate volume?” And now, the lights really
go on—the ones in their heads, that is—as teacher Gina Gaston guides them to a solution. In Oklahoma, all students must pass an algebra exam to graduate, but some need a little extra help, which they get in these small classes. But great teaching is happening in lots of classrooms here. Peek in Courtney Keck’s room down the hall, where the kids provide anonymous daily ratings on whether they “got” the day’s lesson.
Today, like most days, those ratings couldn’t be higher.