The students at Ryan Elementary in north Baton Rouge hail from one of the Capital City’s toughest, most impoverished neighborhoods. Most receive free or reduced lunches and live in households run by single parents who lack formal education and work multiple jobs. Some students arrive at school hungry or, in winter months, without appropriate outer wear. Many observers give these students little chance of breaking the cycle of generational poverty, but Principal Darlene Brister flatly disagrees.
“Yes, life is difficult for them, but we set high expectations for our students and for ourselves,” says Brister. “We believe that all kids can learn if given the appropriate resources and the right teaching strategies.”
Brister’s leadership has helped raise Ryan’s rank among East Baton Rouge Parish public schools, taking it from 44th to 6th in 2008. Last fall, it was named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education, a national honor given to high-performing schools and to disadvantaged schools that show strong improvement. Brister is also aiming to make Ryan one of the state’s High-Performing, High-Poverty (HPHP) schools, an exclusive cadre of institutions that are defying the odds and changing perceptions about academic performance among disadvantaged kids. In January of this year, 56 schools in 30 school districts earned the honor. Each has a poverty population of 65% or more and a school performance score of 100 or more.
“We formed this program to demonstrate that children from poverty can succeed if they’re given the right environment,” says Louisiana Department of Education Deputy Superintendent Ollie Tyler.
Seeds of the HPHP program formed in 2007 when Superintendent Paul Pastorek asked LDOE researchers to identify schools in poverty that were producing strong achievement scores. A year later, LDOE worked with the national Urban Learning and Leadership Center to pinpoint 11 common elements that made the schools successful, gleaned from principal feedback.
The elements included the persistent use of performance data to chart student progress and a commitment to encourage faculty to share leadership. Sharon Southall, now a senior policy adviser at the Board of Regents, researched the HPHP project as a dissertation topic in 2008 and spent a year studying the first cohort of successful principals.
“There are so many things that these educators do that don’t cost a penny,” she says.
Southall found that HPHP school principals were effective leaders and were convinced children from tough socio-economic situations could still perform academically given the right environment. The principals had also created highly structured schedules to ensure children had as much instructional time as possible.
Southall found that HPHP principals were masterful at engaging students, parents and faculty. Building relationships with students was their first priority, which later helped them win over parents. It demonstrated to teachers a palpable, non-negotiable organizational culture that put students first, says Southall.
“The principals found that before they could really reach the students, they had to create a bond with them and prove to them that they were in a safe, nurturing place where everyone had their best interest in mind,” says Southall. “They engaged them academically, socially and emotionally.”
At LeBleu Settlement Elementary School, a designated HPHP school north of Lake Charles, principal Jill Portie and her faculty start the day simply by greeting students as they arrive on campus, calling them by name and engaging them in short conversations. Most of the students are from poor, blue collar families who work in the area’s oil and manufacturing industries.
“We don’t know what they might have faced before they got to school, so we want to make sure they know we care,” says Portie.
LeBleu Settlement Elementary pushes character development and doesn’t tolerate discipline issues, says Portie. Its school performance score had reached 118 in fall 2010.
“Once students know you care, they’ll do anything for you,” she says. “They want to do well.”
Making the grade
The Louisiana Department of Education named the following corridor schools to its 2011 list of HPHP schools:
Estherwood Elementary School – Acadia Parish
LeBleu Settlement Elementary School – Calcasieu Parish
Western Heights Elementary School – Calcasieu Parish
Forest Heights Academy of Excellence – East Baton Rouge Parish
Glasgow Middle School – East Baton Rouge Parish
McKinley Middle Magnet School – East Baton Rouge Parish
Delcambre Elementary School – Iberia Parish
Bissonet Plaza Elementary School – Jefferson Parish
J.C. Ellis Elementary School – Jefferson Parish
Greenlawn Terrace Elementary School – Jefferson Parish
J. Wallace James Elementary School – Lafayette Parish
Southside Elementary School – Livingston Parish
Springfield Elementary School – Livingston Parish
Mary Bethune Elementary Literature/Technology – Orleans Parish
Edward Hynes Charter School – Orleans Parish
Lake Forest Elementary Charter School – Orleans Parish
Benjamin Franklin Elementary Math & Science – Orleans Parish
Covington Elementary School – St. Tammany Parish