Column: Follow the leaders; Texas’ Schools That Work make for a valuable lesson to the many that don’t: The best never rest

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Want to put a reporter in a sour mood?

Just ask one simple question: “Why don’t you print some positive stories for a change?”

All reporters hear it, but those of us who write about schools might get more than our share. People are attached to their neighborhood schools and defend them at all costs – sometimes against all evidence.

So last fall, I launched an experiment in positive vibes, a series of stories under the label “Schools That Work.” The idea: Find eight Texas schools that succeed and try to figure out what they’re doing right.

Ten months later, I don’t know whether to be optimistic or depressed.

The optimism comes from seeing up close what a great school can do. Like transform an immigrant dropout who can’t speak English into an aspiring engineer. Or take a girl from a housing project and a shattered family and get her reading ahead of her grade level.

Hearing these kids tell their stories – with obvious gratitude for the people who’ve helped them – it’s hard not to get emotional. All of the schools I visited take on tough cases and create almost jaw-dropping successes.

The depression comes from the fact that there are 8,000 other schools in Texas. And while plenty of them are good in their own right, too many fall short.

When this year’s TAKS results were released, the mood statewide was generally positive: Kids did better than expected. But the numbers were still scary.

Take the graduation test that 11th-graders must pass next spring to get a diploma. Only 49 percent of students passed it this year. That includes only 33 percent of blacks, 39 percent of Hispanics and 36 percent of poor kids. The results for special-ed kids (16 percent) and non-English speakers (15 percent) are even more depressing.

Even if you’re white, English-speaking and reading this in a Highland Park mansion, don’t feel too comfortable. For Texas to work, the less advantaged will have to beat long odds.

Texas schools are already 60 percent minority and 50 percent poor, and any demographer will tell you both numbers will do nothing but climb for the next 40 years.

So what is it about the “Schools That Work” that makes them successful?

Unfortunately, if you’re looking for easy answers, I don’t have them. Each school found success in its own way.

Is it leadership? A few of the schools had dynamic, superstar principals, such as Nancy Blackwell at Houston’s Hambrick Elementary. But some of the others had leaders you might describe as solid but unspectacular.

Is it rigorous testing? Most of the schools embraced the TAAS and TAKS and saw strong performance as a central goal. It brings a focus to everything they do. But at the East Dallas Community School, tests are an afterthought – the Montessori choose-your-own-adventure model rules.

Is it parents? It sure helps when they’re active participants in education. But I didn’t see an unusual level of involvement in the top schools I visited. I still found parents who didn’t know the principal’s name. There were plenty who clearly didn’t do much for their children’s education beyond putting them on the bus each morning.

Which brings me to the other easy way to put a reporter (this one, at least) in a foul mood. This one usually arrives via e-mail a day or two after I write a story about high school dropouts or kids who have trouble passing a state test.

“Those kids can’t be educated,” the writer says. “They don’t want to learn, and you can’t make them. Their parents don’t care, either. It’s a waste of time to even bother.”

Sadly, that e-mail most often comes from a bitter teacher.

Well, here’s the one concrete conclusion I can draw from spending time in eight successful schools: No school with that sort of attitude will ever be successful. At the Schools That Work, there was optimism, zeal and pride in the work they were doing. They were spending too much time working with children to fall into a defeatist mind-set.

Is reaching these kids difficult? Does it involve teachers doing some things that aren’t fun and principals making tough choices? Does it take a willingness to change old ways? Does it take focus, dedication and long hours?

Of course. But don’t tell me it’s impossible.