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Teachers with Attitude
Joanna Belcher says that being a teacher at Bunche Elementary meant having an attitude about student performance. That attitude, she says, sounded something like this: "'I'm not going to let you not do well in school - not on my watch.'" Ms. Belcher (pictured above with her students wearing their class color, Princeton orange) elaborates, "It was never about how easy or comfortable your life was as a teacher - it was about pursuing excellence in your work." Which meant that it wasn't going above and beyond the call of duty when teachers did whatever it took to get their kids to proficiency.
In 2006 Bunche was the first Compton school to earn a California Distinguished School Award, and in 2007 they scored well above state targets - on par with schools from affluent communities such as Beverly Hills. But it wasn't always that way at Bunche. In 1999, they ranked in the lowest 10% of California schools. With almost an entire student body of black and Latino students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, Bunche was just another example of the achievement gap.
What caused the turnaround at Bunche?
Clear Targets & High Expectations:
Ms. Belcher credits then Principal Mikara Solomon-Davis for making targets and expectations clear to her hard-working staff. "We were always focused on the big picture," she says. "Our kids are all going to score proficient or advanced on the state tests, and they are allcollege-bound." And it was just as important, she adds, that educators communicated these expectations to students and their parents. In a March 2007 article from The Achiever, Solomon-Davis speaks to the need for high expectations from students, parents, and staff. "You really have to create a culture of 'no excuses,' which in essence results in a culture of excellence," she says. This meant that students and parents understood that Bunche's strict academic and behavioral policies served not to punish, but to help students get to proficiency - and college. "It wasn't about rules," Ms. Belcher says, "it was about expectation. We held students to a standard, and they understood why."
Teachers Accepting Accountability:
In order to get their kids to proficiency, Ms. Belcher says teachers had to believe that they were the ones responsible for student achievement. "We all felt accountable for our kids' results," she says. "There was never a question about who was responsible." Teachers recognized that their students came from backgrounds that challenged their mission, but they were undeterred - those problems were outside of their controls so they "never became part of the dialogue."
Aligning Curriculum to High Standards:
Curriculum was only used at Bunche if teachers could show how it aided student achievement. This, of course, meant that teachers had to be willing to measure student progress (via weekly assessments), and then align their teaching practices accordingly. Solomon-Davis told The Achiever, "You have to measure on a continual basis [to know] where you are in terms of reaching your goals." But this was hardly a solo-mission for teachers. Ms. Belcher says that teachers relied on one another as valuable resources during weekly team meetings. "We always asked, 'What are we doing well here, and how can we expand that?'"
Ms. Belcher will graduate from The Harvard Graduate School of Education this June, and expects to become a principal of her own urban school. She knows that a Bunche-like turnaround can be replicated elsewhere if the school leader builds a school culture where teachers believe their students can meet high standards, and then accept responsibility for doing whatever it takes to get them there. She says this means that teaching "isn't just an 8 a.m. - 3 p.m. job, and it isn't volunteerism when a teacher stays late." This tough love attitude might rock the boat, but Bunche's success proves that it gets the job done. And as we've said before, we'll say it again: Getting our kids to proficiency, whatever it takes, is just that important.
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This excerpt, published by Dr. Howard in Network Newsnotes: The International Network of Principals' Centers