On one of her first days on the job, Betsy DeVos did what any U.S. Secretary of Education might do: She visited a public school.
Such an event might have gone relatively unnoticed if not for widespread worries that she neither understands public schools nor appreciates their central importance in building a civic community.
So, good for her.
She needs to see how public schools can be a beacon to the community — a metaphorical city on a hill, so-to-speak.
That is why I hope she is strategic and chooses to visit schools and districts that demonstrate how powerful public schools can be in the lives of their students — places that have marshaled the full power of schools as institutions to ensure that students learn a great deal.
In my work at The Education Trust, I have visited many schools — some of which have been recognized by Ed Trust as Dispelling the Myth schools — that demonstrate there is a great deal that can be done to overcome the obstacles of poverty and discrimination.
George Hall Elementary School , for example, has long been a shining city on a hill. Serving an isolated, low-income African American neighborhood in Mobile, Ala., for many years, it was one of the highest performing schools in Alabama. Following large changes in staff and in school boundaries, cuts in funding and changes in assessments, it is working to get back to its previous level; but, it was recognized recently as a National Title I Distinguished School, and the thoughtful way the principal and teachers think about continually improving is worth learning from.
A couple of hours west along the Gulf Coast is Pass Christian, Miss., which demonstrates what can happen when a community pulls together around its schools. Directly in the line of Hurricane Katrina, Pass Christian was almost destroyed in 2005. Only one school, its most inland, survived. Until the other three schools could be rebuilt or repaired, teachers and children whose homes had been destroyed spent their days in trailers parked in deep mud teaching and learning. Pass Christian educators like to say the experience made them even stronger. With a student population that is 30 percent African American as well as small numbers of students who are Asian and Hispanic, Pass Christian is an integrated school district with a significant population of students from low-income homes. If it were a low-performing district, no one would be surprised. But Pass Christian School District is one of the highest achieving school districts in the state, graduating almost as many students as much wealthier districts and sending many of them off to two- and four-year colleges and technical schools. Pass Christian is an example of a school district that has built relationships and competence, all in the spirit of being, as its slogan has it, “Committed to Excellence.”
For an example of a school that has absorbed large numbers of new immigrant students with aplomb, go to little De Queen Elementary School in Arkansas, which has been one of the top-performing schools in Arkansas for years. When its principal, Terriann Phillips, first started as a teacher, De Queen had one Hispanic student. Today, about two-thirds of the students are Hispanic, their families having been drawn there by jobs in the local poultry processing plant. With a careful approach to reading instruction and a dedication to ensuring that their students learn to be what they call “arguers,” students at De Queen are being prepared to be our future fellow citizens.
In the heart of the Rust Belt, Steubenville, Ohio’s elementary students (almost all of whom qualify for free and reduced-price lunch) have led the state in both reading and math for years — a testament to the systematic, coherent work the district has done to ensure that teachers work together to improve instruction for all students. And it is working on translating that success in the earlier grades into comparable success in the secondary grades. It isn’t there yet, but teachers, principals, and staff are determined to ensure that their students have the greatest possible opportunities for success as adults.
One of the schools I have visited most recently is Malverne High School, which serves two back-to-back towns in western Nassau County on New York’s Long Island. One town is primarily White; the other primarily African American, but with a number of new immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, and Latin America. Back in the 1990s, it hit a low point with graduation rates below 40 percent, and almost all the White families abandoned the school. Thanks to school and district leaders who knew how to systematically build relationships and improve instruction, it now graduates more than 90 percent of its students, more than half of whom earn an advanced designation. Its success has been noticed by the local community, too. It has been attracting White families back from private and parochial schools, and now about 20 percent of its students are White.
Malverne High School — really, all the schools I have mentioned and many more — demonstrate the power that school and district leaders, working together with teachers, have to ensure that all their students achieve at high levels and become productive citizens.
I hope our new secretary of education sees that and finds ways to support their work.
Strong public schools are at the heart of the American experiment in democracy; our forebears thought of public schools as being the way we transmit both knowledge and democratic values.
We need to demand that all schools operate at a high level, but we must also recognize what a precious investment they represent and support all our schools so that they, too, can get better and better.