Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith lessons learned

lessons learned

Written By Rick Young

Reynaldo Garcia

Reynaldo Garcia lives in a tough part of Houston. KIPP 3D Academy has helped him turn his life around.

It seemed such a simple proposition – “all kids can learn.” We heard it over and over as we traveled the country in early 2005, doing research for our documentary. To be honest, it didn't strike me as all that significant a statement. We were trying to understand the secrets of successful teaching and I didn't want to get muddled in rhetorical jargon.

But the “rhetoric” persisted. When we returned with our cameras, time and again, people spoke at length and with passion about the need to believe that all kids can learn. In New York, Anthony Alvarado, former superintendent of District 2, pressed the idea hard. Just about jumping out of his chair, Alvarado preached about the importance of “deeply held beliefs” in bringing about successful educational reform.

“Sometimes when you come across problems, you don't have the answers, you can't figure them out,” Alvarado said, “the thing that holds you together is your core beliefs about something. And I think what happened in District 2 is that there was this core belief that kids could learn, if adults provided them with the kind of teaching that insured that was going to happen.”

Alvarado's deputy, Elaine Fink, was no less passionate. “We absolutely believed that all kids come in ready to learn, no matter what their circumstances are,” she exhorted. “They have the potential to learn and do well. It's the adults that put barriers up that don't enable them to learn.”

The idea of adults, especially educators, creating barriers to learning seemed somewhat counterintuitive. After all, most educators are in the profession because they're committed to breaking through barriers kids bring into the classroom. Obviously, some students are tougher to reach, engage and lift. Some have special learning needs; others come from broken homes. One of the biggest barriers teachers face is the intractable cycle of poverty and low performance. I've always assumed that breaking through these barriers is essentially a question of instructional competence – the quality of training a teacher receives and the level of support they get from their school system.

But now I was hearing something quite different. The biggest barrier to academic achievement isn't the baggage the kids carry into the classroom, but the core beliefs the adults carry in. All kids can learn. Perhaps, but it still seemed little more than warm and fuzzy rhetoric. Then, I became a convert. And it wasn't what I learned reporting in the field that changed my thinking. It was an experience in my own backyard.

Diego is 15 and about to begin ninth grade in the Washington, D.C. public school system. School has never been easy for Diego. He managed through elementary school, but junior high over the past two years has been a constant struggle. By last December, Diego was failing nearly every class, even PE, and my wife and I decided belatedly to see what could be done to straighten out Diego's academic experience. [Diego's mother helped care for my son after he was born and ever since Diego has been an important part of our family]

We requested a meeting with the principal at Diego's school, Alice Deal Junior High, and a conference was arranged with his teachers. On the morning of the conference, I was disappointed to find the principal wasn't there and the discussion was being led by Diego's guidance counselor. The counselor proceeded to spend most of the time criticizing and challenging Diego about his academic apathy (a reasonable criticism but not a productive one). The meeting quickly devolved into dueling accusations about Diego's classroom habits. Frustrated, I stood up and headed for the main office.

In my visits to top-performing schools across the country – most of them in tough neighborhoods – I'd consistently been impressed by the degree of detail the principals paid to all matters academic. I'd learned that the term “principal” derives originally from the concept of principal teacher and that most schools that were making strong academic strides had principals that were intently focused on improving the quality of teaching in every classroom. They were, in the words of Tony Alvarado, instructional leaders.

I strode into the main office at Deal and asked a group of unsuspecting office staff, “can I speak with the instructional leader of this school?” Silence. “Well, who is the leader of instruction here?” I tried again. Blank stares. “What about the principal, is she here?” Finally a voice rose up from a back corner of the room. “Can I help you?” asked a short, serious-looking woman. It was the voice of the Assistant Principal for Academics. Fortunately, she agreed to join the meeting, which wasn't going much better than when I'd left.

Diego's social studies teacher had arrived. “Diego is the problem,” she said with a finality suggesting there could be no other explanation for his poor performance. He doesn't do his homework. He doesn't pay attention in class. He doesn't make an effort. Later, Diego's science teacher joined the chorus of criticism. Her primary interest was in absolving herself of responsibility for Diego's poor performance. “I can't do any more for him,” she said. “I don't fail students; they fail themselves.”

No one explicitly said, “Diego can't learn.” Their complaint was “Diego won't learn.” But, the underlying message was the same: We've done what we can and it's his fault he's not getting it. That attitude was a sobering contrast to what I'd been witnessing in the successful schools we were studying for our documentary. I was beginning to see the significance of “deeply held beliefs.”

Over the next several months, I continued to meet and work with Diego's teachers. The assistant principal for academics, to her credit, was somewhat responsive to our pressure, and Diego began to get more of the attention he needs and deserves. But we had to push and monitor and constantly be vigilant. I couldn't help wonder how much difference a basic core belief – all kids can learn – could make, not just for Diego, but for D.C.'s entire struggling school system.

There's no question that turning all kids into learners requires quality teachers and strong school leadership, properly trained and fully supported by their districts. But, it also takes an acceptance of full responsibility by all adults for the success or failure of all students. “When you try everything that you know and the student doesn't learn,” Alvarado had told us. “The immediate reaction is ‘what did I do that was responsible for the kid not learning.' Turning that core value into good practice is what a good organization does.”

All kids can learn. Yes, it sounds like rhetorical jargon. But I'd come to learn that core beliefs may well be the most essential ingredients to making schools work.

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