Mission Accomplished- Roadtrip To Florida Schools Where Poor Kids Excel

A few months ago I got really annoyed and decided to go out on a mission. I wanted to find schools in our state who were doing it. Schools that are somehow able to educate kids at a high level regardless of their very real life circumstances which should hinder them from academically achieving as much as their peers. In other words, performing against “the gaps.” And, I also wanted to know if tracking progress of students played a role in their success.

So I hit the road to visit those schools in Florida.

The Gaps

I focused on the two most influential gaps: the “achievement gap,” and the even worse, “expectation gap.”

The achievement gap is the difference (or gap) between how some groups of children perform compared to others groups on various school success markers. Historically, poor kids and brown kids perform much worse than their non-Hispanic white or financially better-off peers. Everything from reading on their grade level to graduating on-time are affected. Poverty plays a big role in the achievement gap.

The expectation gap, on the other hand, is like a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy. Here, we show up expecting that students will perform differently because of race and socioeconomic status. We treat them differently, even if we don’t mean to. And, eventually, students believe the messages being sent to them by their community and teachers that they can’t possibly perform at the same level as their more fortunate peers. This translates to less rigor and predestined underperformance.

Poverty Is Real

Do the challenges of socio economics play a very serious role in the lives of students? Heck yes it does! Don’t think for a second that I believe a kid whose life circumstances you and I couldn’t even fathom could simply show up to school, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and just “make it.” That would be naïve.

There are some kids who do make it against all the odds. But believing that all any kid needs is drive and perseverance is a slippery slope to squarely laying blame on the ones who don’t make it. That type of thinking gives us a free pass from dealing with the true institutional and life hardships, and biases, poor kids face every single day.

I want to visit schools not to disprove the existence of racial and socioeconomic gaps. Rather, I visit schools who somehow manage to face those setbacks head on and bridge the gaps anyways.

The Schools We Found

We narrowed our scope specifically to public schools (charter and traditional) with high numbers of poor kids based on free and reduced lunch rates. A list of 7 charters with over 90% free and reduced lunch, and 5 traditional public schools with 100%, made it to the top of the list. Interestingly, 6 of the 7 charter schools are in Miami-Dade county.

To make an “A” a school must show that a significant number of students made academic growth that year (including the lowest performers), and that students performed well in reading, math, writing and science tests. The 5 traditional public schools selected were all making “A”s in the 2015-16 school year.

My tours started with two of the A-rated traditional public schools: Hilltop Elementary in Hardee County and Bonita Springs Elementary in Bonita Springs. Both schools have overcome extraordinary odds. Kids of Hilltop have migrant parents, who arrive around October to work the fields in Hardee County. This means they lose almost 6 weeks every school year. Bonita Springs was technically an “F” school less than 3 years ago.

What I found were schools with highly cohesive teams, rigorous no-excuse service to kids, and high expectations for what kids could do. “You have got to meet our kids. They are amazing!” was a common sentiment, expressed with almost childlike facially-expressive glee. There was also one other common element- highly visible principals who embraced accountability and brought it to life daily within the walls of their schools, and sometimes outside those walls.

Follow my road trip on this blog as I share how some schools bridge gaps most haven’t been able to. I hope we squelch some annoyances, and help parents pick up on telltale signs of a great school.

What do you think?


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