Author and education researcher Karin Chenoweth spent a decade in public schools where low-income students perform at high levels. She calls them “unexpected schools.”
On Wednesday night she told an audience of Pittsburgh-area educators that the Pittsburgh school district is poised to improve in similar ways.
Chenoweth said almost every “unexpected school” she highlighted in her book Schools that Succeed: How Educators Marshal The Power of Systems For Improvement, have one thing in common: teachers and school leaders constantly reassess what they are doing.
“Part of what they do is all of the adults become better and better diagnosticians of problems and problem solvers,” she said.
If a school had a problem with chronic abseentism, for example, educators and administrators would run through a list of potential solutions.
“Call the parents. Did that work? Well no because we don’t have phone numbers for everyone. What else?” she said.
She said educators went through a continuous cycle of identifying a problem, hypothesizing a solution, and assessing what worked and didn’t work.
“This is basically the scientific method over, and over, and over again. Sooner or later you actually get somewhere. The scientific method got us to the moon, it got us antibiotics, it can solve this problem of school failure, but we actually have to work it, we have to work the problem,” she said.
In her book, Chenoweth highlights Steubenville, Ohio’s public school district, about an hour west of Pittsburgh. It’s one example of a district improving academic achievement for students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
A once thriving steel town, Steubenville, like Pittsburgh, was devastated by the loss of manufacturing. Its population plummeted and its rate of poverty is twice the national average. But its three elementary schools are near the top in the nation.
The district’s superintendent Melinda Young told Chenoweth, “We have changed the path of poverty.”
Young told Chenoweth that educators believe that all students can learn regardless of socioeconomic status. They make sure kids have clean clothes, food, and social supports. Steubenville educators also routinely reevaluate their programs and supports to make sure they’re working.
Addressing a child’s social and emotional needs is something Pittsburgh Public Schools administrators and school board members have prioritized in the last several years. The district started a “community schools” model that makes schools hubs for social services such as after school care, tutoring, and meal programs.
The model is being used in five schools now, each with a coordinator to evaluate programs and find additional outside partners.
PPS leaders say making sure basic needs are met will give students a better shot at academic success. But educators and board members also say success can’t be achieved without high expectations.
“What’s important is you set the high expectations and then you provide the support to allow the kids to meet them,” Chenoweth said. “The primary role of schools is to fill the academic needs and the reason you have all of these community supports is that will help the kids meet those goals.”
Kids are resilient, she says, if they’re provided the right supports.
“They need at least one grownup to really care about them. There’s a big body of research on resiliency and how kids can be resilient even in the face of tremendous trauma. I in no way minimize the trauma, but kids need resilience in order to be able to live lives that are not traumatic.”