When the “Worst-Performing” Schools Are Actually Performing Well–and How You Can Help Them

Kids across Michigan are returning to school this week, and there is one thing they can count on if they are poor and their school serves a neighborhood of kids just like them—their school will be labeled as one of the “worst-performing” by the State.  This puts them at risk of being closed and typecasts their teachers as purveyors of poverty instead of as soldiers in the fight against it.

Some schools in the lowest 5% are dangerous places where hopelessness reigns.  Others are safe and engaging places with a can-do spirit.  We should be lifting up what is going well in those schools instead of lumping them all together as failures.

What are the engaging schools in the bottom 5% doing to be successful?

They are retaining extraordinary leaders and teachers.  More than educational expertise, kids in high-poverty schools need stability—enduring relationships with people who know them and their families.  In the push to close failing schools and to create school-choice for parents, we have created a school-choice merry-go-round for educators.   Just when schools begin showing signs of success, they are often robbed of their best and brightest educators by competing schools offering a better title, more money, or better working conditions.  I’m a visitor in those schools, not a student there for years, and it still breaks my heart to see the repetitive loss of amazing people.

They have attracted an army of people to help.  Six teachers in a school day are not enough to overcome the trauma and traps of poverty for the 150 or so kids they will interact with each day—even with an inspirational principal.   The best “failing” schools have learned how to open their doors and school hours to attract community, church, and corporate partnerships so that their students have real-world experiences and relationships with people who are there to serve them, love them and help them excel outside of the classroom.[1]

Why does this matter?  Because the bottom 5% of schools are fighting as hard to keep some of their students out of the streets as they are fighting to get the others into college.  And it’s a huge uphill climb.  There are 5.5 million “disconnected” young people (aged 16 to 24) who are neither in school nor working, and there are 10 million working-age men who have dropped out of the workforce altogether.  For children coming from homes where that is the norm, the social contract has been materially breached.  It almost seems foolish to believe that hard work and a good education will pay off in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary in the vacant homes, blighted commercial strips and disconnected folks of all ages that surround them.  Schools in these neighborhoods have to restore hope in their students, and that takes a whole lot more consistently optimistic people than just the teachers and a principal.

By no means all, but certainly some of the schools in the lowest 5% are actually doing that.  The small schools at Cody have increased the retention rate of their student body from an abysmal 26% in 2008 to a very respectable 86% last year–far outpacing the 54% retention rate of the six similarly-situated neighborhood high schools in the Education Achievement Authority during the same time frame.

Cody has transformed the high school experience for kids in their community by the sheer will power of leaders and teachers who have stayed the course together and who have cultivated powerful community, corporate and church partnerships.  In the battle to help their students become engaged, contributing members of society, they are winning—despite the fact that they are still on the lowest 5% of schools list and will likely be that way for years because of the community they serve, regardless of the excellence with which they serve it.

To increase the number of schools like Cody that are getting traction in the fight against entrenched poverty, please join us at the Leverage 2016 Conference on November 10 and 11 at Detroit World Outreach in Detroit.  If you would like to hear from school leaders and students, as well as community, corporate and church partners on how you can do what it takes to create thriving schools in difficult environments, you can register today.

[1] This is written with the general-admissions, neighborhood school in mind.  Application schools kids can be successful primarily with great educators and teachers because of the freedom they enjoy to send poorly performing students to the neighborhood school.