I found a Unicorn.
It lives and breathes in a little-known city on the west coast of Florida called Bonita Springs.
Actually it’s a school that’s done a literal 180 in terms of the academic performance of its kids. It turned from a school that had fallen to a “D” rating until suddenly, it didn’t. In 2015 Bonita Springs Elementary earned a C, and then in 2016 and 2017 it earned A ratings.
It’s practically mythical.
What makes it even more remarkable is that every student—100 percent—who attends Bonita Springs Elementary School qualifies for free and reduced lunch, and all but six percent are Hispanic—many from immigrant families. Most of the time, schools with similar demographics struggle endlessly to serve their students and it feels like little ever changes. But something changed at Bonita Springs.
Back in April, I had set out on a quest to find schools making it happen for poor kids. I wanted to see what was going right at these schools. I wanted to share what I found with others because what’s unfortunately common these days is to have a school serving mostly black and brown and poor kids that never turns it around. I wanted to find a school that had bucked the trend, and I did.
I found, in Florida’s public education system, something as almost as rare and arguably more beautiful than a unicorn. I found Bonita Springs.
I walked through the doors and found my way to the office first thing in the morning. Testing would begin in a few days, and there was a new transfer student coming in. I waited 10 minutes as the Bonita Springs leadership was abuzz about getting all the information needed to welcome him. Where is he coming from? Call the school; get the administrator on the phone. Do we need translators? Will we need accommodations? Can mom and dad come in?
That’s how things happen at Bonita Springs after coming under new management three years ago. Susan Caputo, a district veteran and educational leader, was sent in. She quickly unpacked her no nonsense, high-accountability expectations where everyone has a role, from the janitorial staff to the parents.
No stone left unturned
“Accountability makes a 1000% of the difference,” Caputo says. To her, that term carries meaning on just about every level you can imagine: her accountability to parents, teachers’ accountability to her, the kids and their parents. And, to taxpayers who pay for education, and even the state education department which expects schools to do they were created to do. Caputo’s accountability is all encompassing.
“District/State accountability sets a guiding light for direction, and it’s good to know someone is watching,” she says “But it doesn’t steer the day to day. The day-to-day is about kids. We have the flexibility to do what’s best within our school, within reason.”
Caputo checks lesson plans every weekend and provides feedback; she model teaches a class everyday; in morning announcements she tells students she’s coming to their classroom to have them tell her about what they have learned… and then she does.
Caputo’s staff says, “she sets that bar and teaches you how to do it. She sets the tone. Our administrators are very visible.They are in classrooms and not just observing, but talking to kids and asking questions about what they are learning and how she can help them. The expectation of excellence is real. The quality of our work shines through. ”
The returns on equal opportunity accountability
Caputo believes the highest level of respect she can pay is in her accountability to parents day-to-day. “Parents at my other [more affluent] schools held us accountable. Here, it’s not that way. I act as the [academic] parent. I have to make sure that what we do is in the best interest of the children because the parents feel that what we say is right. They rely on me,” says Caputo.
Bonita Springs doesn’t buy into any of the myths of poor/immigrant parents. Those myths hide in statements like those “parents don’t come to the school.” Or “those schools won’t have strong PTA’s.” Or, “there are major language barriers so the kids struggle to learn.” Educators often legitimize academic roadblocks for immigrant/poor kids. But, what these statements really say is that we don’t believe poor kids can do it. Or worse, that it’s not our fault when they fail.
While acting as the “academic parent” is a role the staff readily accepts, they don’t try to replace mothers and fathers. Many Bonita Springs parents moved to this country solely to improve life for their kids, especially in education. The staff respects that fact by giving parents a rightful seat at the table, expecting their support in all aspects of rigor and discipline. In turn what these parents bring, which often goes unrecognized but has been leveraged by Bonita Springs, is the highest level of respect for the authority of educators. It’s a winning parent-teacher combination.
“They are willing to do anything to help us help their kids. We have a full house at our PTA meetings. We have parents that leave their jobs to come to discipline their kids themselves when we call. Anytime our kids need it, those parents show up. I’ve never seen that, even at the private schools I’ve worked at,” says a school leader.
Veteran teacher Lauri Ramsey remembers when only one parent would show up for parent-teacher conferences. “Now, we call, we set appointments, we guaranteed translators. We let them know they can call and come in at anytime. I had 99 percent the following year.”
When intimidation is removed by not looking down your noses when filling the gaps in understanding; not dumbing down information, but translating it; and acting like the authority in education by fighting for their kids in ways they can’t…very real magic happens.
But here’s the thing about myths and legends. They’re often misunderstood, and they’re often not as far out of reach as we make them out to be. Take the unicorn for example. Some suggest its origins could have come from someone who spotted the Oryx. The Antelope’s African cousin has two long, very straight horns, but when viewed from a side angle it looks like a single horn. Oryx are much more common than unicorns (they actually exist!) and I believe schools that can break through and teach students who’ve traditionally been seen as “less than” can also be more common than we realize, too. Maybe the first step is that we just have to believe. And then work like hell to make it happen. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what the folks at Bonita Springs did.