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Common Elements of Effective Schools

Education World explores the strategies educators at KIPP Academy Charter School, Mother Hale Academy, and Crossroads School are using to break the cycle of failure for students living in some of New York City's most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Included: Teachers, students, and administrators talk about effective ways to help city children achieve success.

Lessons from Our Nation's Schools

Education World plans to travel the United States and talk to educators, students, and parents about their schools for an ongoing series, Lessons from Our Nation's Schools. Read about our visit to three New York City schools in the following stories.

* Common Elements of Effective Schools

* KIPP Principal Talks About Hard Work, Success, and Challenges

* More Than Reading Scores and Stereotypes: The Voices of City Teachers and Students

* Curriculum, Caring, and Crack Vials: A City Principal's Perspective

* NYC Program Fast-Tracks Teachers to Needy Schools

Reporters' Notebook
Lessons from Our Nation's Schools reveals bright spots in a school system that faces overwhelming challenges. To learn more about the three New York City schools that Education World editors visited, be sure to read our Reporters' Notebook.

Did You Read Our e-Interview With Jonathan Kozol?
Don't miss another recent Education World article, Ordinary Resurrections: An e-Interview With Jonathan Kozol. Kozol's uniquely passionate take on urban schools and urban schoolchildren has been documented in such books as Death at an Early Age and, more recently, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope.

Effective schools in New York City shine brightly in an educational system fraught with problems. Hoping to learn what makes effective schools work, Education World visited three of them. Mother Hale Academy is a public elementary school in the South Bronx. The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Academy Charter School, a middle school, is also in the South Bronx, and Crossroads School, a public middle school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is near Harlem.

No single magic bullet prevails at the three schools. Each offers a different curriculum and different approaches to teaching and learning. However, each school has developed an environment that nurtures student achievement and personal development:

  • Teachers engage students.
  • Student settings, either class size or student population, are small.
  • Ground rules set the tone for respectful behavior.
  • High expectations and clear consequences are articulated to students frequently.
  • Staff is dedicated and caring.
  • Structured daily and classroom routines provide stability and direction.

Because of the size of city school districts -- New York City is the nation's largest school system with 1,189 public schools and 78,100 teachers -- urban educators often teach large numbers of at-risk students.

Historically, at-risk children share some common characteristics. They are often poor children who are members of minority groups. Many are immigrants, or children of immigrants, who do not speak English at home. They often have limited proficiency in English or are bilingual. Mothers who have not completed high school are raising many at-risk children. Statistically, students with such characteristics often drop out of high school or are among the lowest achievers. Compounding those factors is the environment in which those students live; many live in neighborhoods rife with violence and crime.

The New York City school system as a whole has shown improvement in some areas, yet students continue to struggle. Only 48.6 percent of New York City students read above the national average, but students have made gains over the past decade, according to standardized test scores. Dropout rates are on the rise, however. In 2000, 19.5 percent of the city's students -- about 13,000 students -- left high school without a degree, according to the New York City Division of Education's Division of Assessment and Accountability.


For students, few things are worse than sitting in a classroom with a boring teacher at the helm. Each minute ticks by in agonizing slowness. At the schools Education World visits, however, the classrooms are full of energy. Kids aren't snoozing -- they're active. The teachers are animated.

During a day at Crossroads School, students in a science class conduct an experiment. In another part of the school, students discuss ancient hieroglyphics and speculate about the use of artifacts discovered by archaeologists.

At KIPP Academy, teacher Quinton Vance leads his students through their spelling words for the week. Students raise their hands eagerly as Vance introduces each new word. He writes each spelling word on the board as if it is pivotal to solving a murder mystery. Vance tells the students all the words have something in common. He invites them to use the clues to discover what trait the words share.

ImageThere are giggles and smiles from both teachers and students at these schools.

Although the students like having fun in school, they know what it takes to learn. It's simple, students tell visitors; good teachers explain.

"The teachers explain things much better here than they did at our old school," Samantha, 11, a student at Crossroads tells EW.

A staff member at Mother Hale agrees that for students to learn, explanations need to be specific and complete. "Part of it is basic," says Georgia O'Blines, a math and science instructional specialist. "We sit with the children and show them what they need to know."

O'Blines believes that good teachers possess certain characteristics necessary for their success. "It is very important for teachers to be honest with their students," O'Blines tells Education World. "A teacher who isn't a life-long learner doesn't bring much to the classroom. She [or he] has tunnel vision. Teachers need to teach their students to take the challenge from whatever is necessary."


Image Teachers exemplify their dedication by repeatedly going the extra mile for their students. Long days are the norm, not the exception. The teachers aren't out the door as soon as the school bell rings, says Bill Kennedy, who teaches humanities at Crossroads. Kennedy and other Crossroads teachers are available to help students with homework during lunch periods and after school. Many coach athletic teams.

"We have to be living models," says Jerome Myers, dean of students at KIPP. "[The students] see how hard the teachers work and they want to work hard too. It's old-fashioned sweat."

The two principals Education World interviewed, David Levin of KIPP and Ann Wiener of Crossroads, work 11 or more hours each school day. That doesn't include additional hours they spend on school matters during the weekends. "You can't do it for less," Wiener explains to EW.

At Mother Hale, staff members do more than pay lip service to the belief that children come first. The buzzword since the reorganization has been "relentless," principal Margaret Hill tells Education World. Hill has spent her entire education career at Mother Hale, starting there as a first-grade teacher in 1973. "I truly believe I can make a difference here."

Avery Lewis, a third-grade teacher at Mother Hale Academy, acknowledges that most of the teachers in the school are very conscientious. "I'm in the parking lot at 7:30 a.m. Two days a week, I run an after-school program. I don't leave until after 5 p.m. on those days." She devotes her evenings to grading student work or attending graduate-level classes in education.

Other examples of teacher dedication are not hard to find. At Crossroads, one teacher made triple-lens microscopes for the chemistry lab. Wiener often personally subsidizes field trips and monthly passes for city buses. At KIPP, Charlie Randall, the music teacher, donated a $100 prize for the student team that had the most correct answers on a 215-question quiz about African American history.


Image The teachers we interview at the three schools are happy teachers; they all emphasize the enormous amount of support they receive. One of the main reasons they choose to remain at their schools -- many have turned down substantial pay hikes to teach at other schools -- is the collaborative atmosphere among teachers and support staff.

"I taught at a school down the street that had 2,000 children," Josh Zoia, a teacher at KIPP, tells EW. "They were very nice people there, but there was absolutely no support. They gave me my room and closed the door and said, 'Stop in if you have a problem.' For two years, nobody there saw me teach. Here, at KIPP, I immediately got advice. Every Wednesday, we talk about issues, our struggles, and we share those problems with one another.

"I got my butt kicked for a long time," Zoia says. "It is a tough, rough profession to get started in. I've been teaching now for five years, and I just now feel confident enough to think I can do this."

A second-year teacher at Crossroads has a similar story to tell. "I student-taught in a middle school that was a third bigger. There was no one really there to check on you or help you out," explains Alisa Shanske. "Here, we can spend an entire staff meeting talking about one child."

Providing teacher support and guidance is crucial to retaining school staff, according to Laura Kavourias, a staff developer and facilitator of the Success for All reading program at Mother Hale. Before Mother Hale closed and reopened with new staff and administrators, teachers often quit during the school year, she says.

Staff members have learned to work cooperatively; they plan together and meet for common preparations. "The growth this school has shown is because the teachers all work together and they stuck it out," Kavourias explains. "You can see the difference. I go home and say it's great!"


One of the first hints that something is different at these schools is the orderly way in which students pass from class to class. The students are nice to one another. There is no shouting, shoving, or pushing. Missing are the teasing and name-calling. Teachers are respectful to the students; students are respectful to their classmates and their teachers.

"We're really in a rare place because we are respected," says Rebecca Hendrickson, a teacher at Crossroads.

That same thought is echoed at Mother Hale. Respect for self and others is at the core of the school's mission statement. "We have a school mission, and we remind the children of it frequently," says math and science specialist O'Blines. "The mission is read over the PA system. Everyone knows it."

Teaching students to be courteous is a necessity, teachers from the three schools tell Education World. "When I was growing up, that was done at home," says Maribel Betancourt, a grade-two teacher at Mother Hale, who attended the school as a child. "That's not done now. There wasn't a need to be told how to behave [when Betancourt was a student there]. It is needed, really needed, now.

"We focus a lot on character expectations," Betancourt continues. "How can we better live together here? Everyone listens. We try to bring a sense of team to the classroom."

Ron Zoia, a retired assistant principal from a school in suburban Levittown, New York, is pitching in as a substitute at KIPP at the request of his nephew, KIPP teacher Josh Zoia. This is Ron's first visit to KIPP. He comments that there is a big difference between KIPP and the Levittown schools where he once worked. The Levittown system serves a more-affluent population that is about 85 percent white. "The emphasis here is being human and treating one another with great respect," he explains. "We take it for granted [in Levittown]. KIPP is pretty impressive."


Several of the people EW interviews credit the schools' small settings -- relative to student population and class size -- for fostering the respectful tones. Small school settings help staff members form personal connections that encourage students to be more responsible for their work and their behavior. Seldom can a student slip through the cracks or go unnoticed.

"Getting to know the kids and what is going on in their lives outside the classroom helps them learn best, " says Shanske, a teacher at Crossroads.

The two middle schools are small by most public school standards -- Crossroads has 175 students and KIPP has 248; however, KIPP classes have 32 students on average. Although Mother Hale has nearly 648 students, it is divided into two academies, one for pre-K to grade two and the other for grades three to five. Most classes have 20 or fewer children. Some reading classes are even smaller, with only 15 students.

"All students need an adult looking after them," Eve Andrias, a first-year teacher at Crossroads, maintains. "A lot of things can seem unfair at this age [middle school]. Although a lot of kids do have really supportive parents and guardians, most receive free and reduced lunches."

Students agree. "Because [Crossroads] is smaller, teachers can talk more with you and help you with your problems," comments Dayhana, 13, an eighth grader.

Ranale, another Crossroads student, is in the sixth grade. "My adviser talks to me when I am starting to get into trouble," he explains. "It helps."

Josh Zoia believes that although KIPP class sizes are large, the small overall student population is a factor in the school's success. He cites the large student enrollment at the other school he taught in as a factor behind its struggle. "It was huge [2,000 students]. There were 15 fourth-grade classrooms. There is no way that school could succeed. The school was totally dysfunctional."

Teachers at the three schools say they make it their business to get to know the children personally. "[The Crossroads staff] share an agenda of really getting to know the children and allowing students to develop independence and develop their best abilities," notes Jane Maisel, whose child is a Crossroads sixth grader. "They do it with a light touch. They know just what to say, when to pull back, when they are needed, when they are not needed."


Size. Respect. Collaboration. Those are among the factors that contribute to a school's ability to create a sense of family and community within its walls. "School tone is very important," says Kennedy, a Crossroads teacher. "It is more than just learning. It is relating to one another as humans. That sense of community helps teachers think outside their own classrooms and be part of a big building.

"Here, the whole school comes first and the classroom second," Kennedy continues. "That is how the school is run successfully. It's all interconnected. The social climate in the hallways directly affects the classrooms. The community environment is important for the kids, but it's equally important for us as professionals."

Building a sense of community starts with the teachers in the trenches. "It's a bottom-up approach that helped Mother Hale create our school community," explains Kavourias. Staff members who remained during the restructuring, along with the new administrators, students, parents, and community members, were involved in the reorganization of the school.

"The staff develops a school climate," Myers, the dean of students at KIPP, tells EW. Getting students to buy into that climate requires frequent reminders from the staff. "They [the students] need to be molded."

That "molding" often occurs in subtle ways. In a fifth-grade classroom down the hall, a student is asked to erase the board. Her teacher reminds the classmates to be "good teammates." When the student returns to her seat, another student has turned her notebook pages to the correct place for the next lesson.


At all three schools, students live up to high expectations, not only for student behavior but also for academic performance. "Students are doing what they are supposed to be doing," says Kavourias, from Mother Hale. "It's outstanding."

The students know the difference between high and low expectations. Many tell EW about their goals and how they know hard work will help them succeed. Nkafu, ten, a fifth grader, says she came to KIPP hoping for help with her math skills and for a more-challenging program overall. "I didn't learn much in my old school. You just had to sit down and be quiet -- that was enough."

Although her KIPP teachers are strict and "tell our mothers and fathers if we do well," Nkafu says, she doesn't mind that or the longer school day. "I knew I'd be learning," she says, adding that she usually stays past 5 p.m.

At KIPP, students receive paychecks every week. The checks reflect the work they completed, their effort, their demeanor, and other factors, Myers explains. Parents or guardians must sign the checks. The amount on the check is based on positive and negative comments. Myers works with students who earn below-average paychecks to determine what can be done to help them improve. Students must earn an average paycheck -- based on a point system -- to play on a team or participate in an activity.

There is no escaping the KIPP philosophy that hard work equals results. It is the school creed, and it is written everywhere. "All of Us Will Learn" is posted in big letters in the back of most classrooms. Classroom and office walls are decorated with many of the school's other slogans: "There Are NO Shortcuts!" "Be Nicer!" "Work Harder!"


Many teachers in other schools complain about unruly students, but the teachers Education World talks to say they have very few problems with behavior. "We are consistent with our consequences, so we have very few discipline problems," states O'Blines at Mother Hale. "A few years ago, I would have said that discipline problems were our biggest problem. Not now."

The transformation at Mother Hale didn't happen overnight, but the atmosphere dramatically improved when Hill, the principal of Mother Hale, took the lead, and teachers reminded students about the ground rules daily. "There used to be fights in the classroom, and our principal let [students] know that [fighting] would not be tolerated," O'Blines explains. "We have to constantly remind them how to behave. The whole tone of the building sets the pace."

Student attitude contributes to a school's tone. In KIPP teacher Robyn Cash's class, one student closes his notebook in what she perceives a huffy manner. She directs him to stand in the back of the room. "I will not accept that attitude," she states, explaining that his attitude and behavior shouldn't disrupt his classmates.

According to Maisel, the parent of a Crossroads student, "The teachers are clear. It's not as if they are militaristic, but everything is clearly laid out and articulated to the children."

Students don't complain about the rules and expectations. In fact, students at both Crossroads and KIPP say they like their schools because they feel safe there.


Providing a stable, structured environment is key for the children these schools serve. "School is the most stable part of many kids' lives these days," says Wiener, the principal at Crossroads. "Every school has to have an ethos. A lot of the students don't have stable family lives. There are inconsistencies. Many live with aunts and uncles, grandparents. We try to create a safe space for them, and we do that by establishing consistency and structure."

As part of the Crossroads routine, staff members serve as advisers for the students. Each advisory group of 16 students meets weekly for about 40 minutes. Advisers also contact the student's families regularly.

Structure at these schools includes routines that range from instructing students about behavior to helping them organize their loose-leaf notebooks. At the two middle schools, students receive explicit directions on labeling dividers in their notebooks and the order in which they should keep all class and homework materials.

Agendas or course syllabi provide students with daily direction. Crossroads students receive course syllabi. At KIPP, a daily agenda dominates the left side of the board.

KIPP adds another element to that structure. Students must wear KIPP shirts as part of a school uniform. The shirt can be a T-shirt; a long-sleeved polo shirt, either white or navy; or a gray sweatshirt. At Mother Hale, school uniforms are optional.


All three schools offer extended school days. The KIPP schedule is the longest, starting at 7 a.m. with breakfast. The school day begins with a brief assembly; classes start by 8 a.m. Students remain at school until 5 p.m. and attend Saturday sessions as well. Crossroads and Mother Hale both offer after-school programs. Mother Hale provides a Saturday academy that boasts an average attendance ranging from 87 to 96 percent of the students.

KIPP offers summer-school sessions, and Crossroads staff members attempt to place students in summer programs. Wiener, the Crossroads principal, explains that summer programs are necessary for children living in the city. They need to be off the streets in a safe environment, she says. Crossroads staff attempt to place students in summer programs in and outside the city.


Image Curriculum is the area in which the three schools diverge the most. Although each school has a curriculum designed to strengthen basic skills, each follows different philosophies and strategies to accomplish that.

At Mother Hale, curriculum materials bolster areas of student weaknesses. The school has been implementing the Johns Hopkins University Success for All reading program and the Math Trailblazers program designed by the Teaching Integrated Mathematics and Science (TIMS) Project at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Both are research-based, structured programs. Although the school still ranks as "low achieving," students have made progress on standardized test scores, according to O'Blines.

"I wasn't sure about [Trailblazers]," says O'Blines. "But after working with it, I found it really worked. The children actually get it." The program integrates manipulatives that help the students visually solve math problems.

Mother Hale teachers want children to develop a love for reading. They set aside time for students to read and discuss books in small groups with an adult adviser. O'Blines says the book clubs make a difference, noting the progress of the group of students she advises. Initially, her students were reading basal readers at grade level; now they are reading novels, such as To Kill a Mocking Bird, that are nearly two grade levels above their grade level. KIPP and Crossroads also include reading groups as part of their overall reading programs.

Crossroads uses a research-based math program called the Connected Math Project, developed by Michigan State University. The program is a problem-centered curriculum that directs students to explore a series of related problems. With the exception of the math program, the students do not use textbooks. Instead, teachers assign a variety of books for students to read -- often primary sources -- about the subjects they are studying.

The focus of the Crossroads curriculum policy is to cover a few topics in-depth rather than giving students a brief overview of many topics. A project is usually the culmination of student research on those topics. For example, on the day of our visit to Crossroads, students prepare for parents to visit their exhibit about ancient Egypt, which includes a replica of a sarcophagus. The students have been working on the project since mid-October.

At KIPP, the curriculum stresses basic skills and critical thinking. Its math and reading programs are internally designed. Students take pre-tests to prepare for the state's standardized tests. Last year, 63 percent of the students performed at or above grade level in reading, and 55 percent performed at or above grade level in math, according to Levin, the KIPP principal.

All students at KIPP study elementary algebra, which many students do not take until ninth grade. On the back wall of a math classroom hang pictures of KIPP alumni who have gone on to competitive high schools. All the KIPP students pictured scored 90 percent or better on the state's Sequential Math I Regents Exam, which advanced students take in eighth grade. About three-fourths of KIPP students pass the exam.

The KIPP curriculum also requires that all students learn to play a musical instrument. Most will learn the violin. A few take up percussion instruments, the bass, or the keyboard.


Students at Mother Hale, KIPP, and Crossroads may not have the highest standardized test scores in the city, yet administrators at all three schools consider their programs successful.

Crossroads principal Wiener views success as empowering all children to tackle challenges, evident in the fact that nearly all Crossroads graduates earn high school diplomas and many attend college. Only seven Crossroads alumni have become pregnant in high school since the school opened, Wiener told Education World. It's amazing, Wiener says, considering that many of the mothers of Crossroads students were teen mothers who did not earn high school diplomas.

Levin boasts of 96 percent daily attendance at a school in which students spend 67 percent more time in the classroom than students at most middle schools do. Many KIPP graduates also attend competitive high schools or prep schools. The first 38 alumni of the school will earn more than $560,000 in scholarships over the next four years. During the 1998-1999 school year, KIPP students scored higher in reading and mathematics than did kids in any other Bronx middle school program, Levin said. Sixty percent of the students scored above the national average in reading, and 70 percent scored above the national average in math.

At Mother Hale, students are still "low achieving" according to the state's standardized tests. However, student test scores have increased significantly over the past four years, enough to push Mother Hale off the state's list of failing schools. Evidence of student improvement is often subtle and not statistical. Faculty members are committed to continuing the school's progress. Discipline problems do not interrupt learning, and students understand and model the school's mission to succeed, teachers tell EW. Says one teacher, "The gap is closing."