Written By Sarah Colt
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.