Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith lessons learned

lessons learned

Written By Sarah Colt

Welding students at Corbin High School

Welding students at Corbin High School in Corbin, Kentucky construct a storage rack for a local company.

Just a baseball throw from Corbin High School's back door, my colleague and I stood admiring a yellow truck bed sitting on four enormous tires. Larger than any monster trucks advertised on television, it had recently been assembled by the welders at Whayne Supply, a company in Corbin, Kentucky that builds and repairs the massive equipment that moves coal through the surrounding Appalachian hills.

Stepping out from behind one of the huge tires, Tim Logan, a tall man carrying a walkie-talkie, beckons for us to follow him in order to show us more equipment assembled by his team. Logan started at Whayne's as a welder just after he graduated from Corbin High in 1974. After 31 years he has risen to supervisor, overseeing the weld shop.

The company depends on Corbin High School's technical program to produce well-trained and responsible workers like Logan, according to Harold Sulfridge, service manager at Whayne's. In exchange, Whayne's offers high schools students the opportunity of internships, job training and scholarships for careers in welding and diesel engine repair. Sulfridge believes that the company's investment in the school's programs pays off many times over.

Whayne's role in the high school program may seem unusual to many people who assume that school reform must take place within the four walls of the classroom. But boosting student performance involves a commitment that goes beyond the usual players – teachers and administrators – to the larger community of adults, whether in small town Appalachia, rural Washington State or big city Houston or Chicago.

While we researched the program Making Schools Work, I was struck by the community investment I saw everywhere we went. It was more than investment in bricks and mortar; it was an investment in a belief that student success matters to everyone. And while parent participation is a crucial element of this, PTA meetings were only the tip of the iceberg.

At Corbin High School, with 45% of the student body relying on the federal free and reduced lunch program, community investment starts with local pride, not monetary investment. High Schools That Work, a program that helps high schools attain high levels of achievement and has been working with Corbin for four years, encourages the school to tap into this pride through courses that connect students to the adult world beyond the school's front doors.

Take Joy Miller's job-shadowing course: every day her students leave campus to spend a block of time with doctors, nurses, veterinarians and lawyers, or working in the local supermarket, gym and elementary school. Or the finance course that runs a school bank in partnership with Corbin's Tri-County National Bank, and sends a staff member every week to meet and advise students.

By building relationships between the community and the students, a lasting connection is forged. “Your reputation is everything here [in Corbin],” senior Brandon Bunch explains. “If you screw up, you'll have a hard time getting work once you graduate.”

Like Corbin, there is a sense of pride in being from the community in Mount Vernon, Washington, a rural town about an hour north of Seattle. Roger Valentine, a Mount Vernon native and guidance counselor at Centennial Elementary School, says there is a community feeling at the school that “we don't do that at Centennial.”

When the demographics of the town began to shift in the mid-nineties, Centennial Elementary adopted a reading program called Success for All to help teachers teach the growing Spanish-speaking student population. In addition to reading instruction, Success for All encourages a 95% attendance rate and it has fallen on Valentine to make sure students are in school.

With Success for All's required 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading time at the start of every morning, Valentine's job shifted from one-on-one counseling to working with the community on attendance. Every morning he jumps in his SUV and drives to pick up kids who are absent or late and have no reason to miss school. Valentine has gotten to know the families of the students in a way he never did before. By connecting with parents, many of them immigrants from Mexico, he has been able to encourage adult commitment to student success and the school.

In small town Corbin and Mount Vernon, pride in the community solidifies high expectations for students, but as I traveled to schools in Houston and Chicago, I wondered, ‘how do you achieve a strong sense of community commitment in big, anonymous inner city settings?'

At KIPP 3D Academy, a charter middle school, the students come from rough neighborhoods like Houston's Fifth Ward and Denver Harbor, where many kids are dealing drugs and getting pregnant instead of hitting the books. To compete with the culture of gangs, drugs and violence, the KIPP program – there are 38 KIPP schools nationwide – requires students, their parents and teachers to sign a contract committing to strict ground rules that include long school hours, daily homework assignments, Saturday classes and summer school. The time commitment is all part of the mission of the school to get every student on the road to college.

“We strongly believe that in order for a student to succeed, it takes three parts… families – the parents, or whoever takes care of the child, the student, as well as the teachers,” explains Assistant Principal Diana Soliz. “If you think of a table – an analogy of a table – a table can't stand on two legs… for it to be solid and sustainable and hold something and be a strong foundation, it takes all three parts.”

While Corbin and Centennial have a built-in pride of place, at KIPP pride comes from being part of the school's “commitment to excellence” that is the basis of their mission.

Lauren Resnick, the Director of the Institute of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that for many of our country's minority students, “their interest in getting involved in academic matters is challenged by the street culture.” She says that KIPP has created “a social world for those kids that think that academic effort is cool and that gets rewards everywhere you turn – for being part of that. If they go out to a hockey game together, or a basketball game, or just for ice cream, that doesn't look like time on academic task; but it's time in a socially enveloping environment.”

Sylvia Mendez has three grandchildren who attend KIPP 3D Academy. As guardian to her grandchildren, she remembers how it was “so hard” for all of them to adjust to KIPP's schedule. As she puts it, success “takes dedication from everyone to make it at KIPP.” Now that her grandchildren are used to the routine, “they don't want to go home at the end of the day.” So Mendez volunteers in the school office in order to be more involved in her grandchildren's lives.

Jordan Community School, located in inner city Chicago, adopted the Comer Process to help the school combat the gang culture of the neighborhood. The process emphasizes the importance of creating a school climate that allows children to develop and grow. The idea is to start with the culture of the school and that eventually it will affect the community beyond.

Parental involvement is crucial to this transformation, says Chris Griffin, the Comer social worker at Jordan. He met with parents to stress the importance of their role. “We wanted to send a message that this is the community's school, and as parents, we need your support. This is your school, as well. We're preparing children to be lifelong learners. That includes you. There's a role for you – not just watching children, but modeling – and learning, yourselves.”

Child psychiatrist James Comer, the founder of the Comer Process, explains how the values of the school need to be reflected at home by forging a connection between teachers and parents. He says that this is especially critical for kids coming from rough neighborhoods who are often under-prepared for school.

Comer explains that “the parents and the teachers need to connect so that you have a smooth transition from home to school, and that the same values, the same attitudes that are expected and needed in school are transmitted to the parents. Then the parents bring in knowledge of their own needs in the community.” The back and forth between the school and the community allows the adults to better serve the children.

With parents and community on board, Chris Griffin remembers the transformation in adult expectations and student behavior. In the new Jordan, he says, the attitude became: “This is a school that does not expect fights in the school building. Then, it's like, “Okay. Now we don't expect them outside before and after school, either.” Gradually the school increased its spheres of influence.

As I witnessed everywhere, attending Corbin, Centennial, KIPP or Jordan, meant something to the students, and this translated into high expectations that raised levels of achievement. For schools in smaller communities like Corbin and Mount Vernon, the high expectations were created by a pride of place. In big city settings the schools created a sense of belonging and community that started from within and radiated outward. But no matter where a school is located, it is clear that community involvement is a critical element to successful reform.

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