Much Better Than Adequate Progress

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 4, 2006; 10:21 AM

Today I have a guest columnist, Karin Chenoweth, who used to write about schools for The Post but decided she would prefer actually to do something to help them, so she works for the non-profit Achievement Alliance.

She told me that the recent package of school principal essays in the Post's Sunday Outlook section left a negative impression of the No Child Left Behind law, while she knew many principals who thought the new accountability system was good. She asked: Could they tell their stories too? I said sure. Here is the result:

By Karin Chenoweth

Outlook featured 11 principals explaining why their schools didn't make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as defined by No Child Left Behind. Toward the end of the article, one of the principals said, "We're doing the best we can, but if someone can do it better, let them show us how."

I have spent the last year-and-a-half searching out schools that are getting great results under very difficult conditions. These are schools where many of the children are poor but where just about all of them either meet or exceed state standards. These schools have little trouble making AYP. They may have a handle on doing it "better."

I began this project without knowing what kinds of schools I would find. I was identifying the schools solely through state report-card data, and for all I knew they might have turned out to be the soul-deadening, test-prep factories that we are told characterize high-poverty schools that do well on state tests. But that is not what I have found. Instead, I have found vibrant intellectual communities where teachers and principals are constantly thinking about their profession and how to improve their instruction.

These are people who are keenly aware that they may be the only thing standing between their students and lives of poverty and dependence. They are determined to make sure that their students have the kinds of opportunities that most middle-class children take for granted.

The work they are doing is difficult, but they have approached it so thoughtfully and comprehensively that they make it look easy.

Their schools aren't terribly well-known, in part because the folks in them are too busy to toot their own horns. But they have important lessons to teach. I asked a few of the principals I have met during this project to give a small taste of the kinds of things they do to be as successful as they are:

Rock Hall Elementary School, Rock Hall, Md.

Rock Hall, on the Eastern Shore in Kent County, has about 200 students, 60 percent of whom meet the federal standards for free and reduced-price meals. Seventy-five percent of the students are white, 25 percent African American, and 21 percent of the students are identified as having disabilities.

Last year, 100 percent of the fourth-graders met state reading standards (28 percent exceeded them) and 100 percent of the third-graders met state math standards (40 percent exceeded them).

Bess Engle, principal:

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