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In San Diego, as with the rest of the country, poverty tracks closely with test scores.
The social science is clear: Poorer children are not less bright. They lack the same opportunities as their more affluent peers to gain cognitive skills from the moment they are born. The most pressing question in education has always been whether schools can supercharge the learning process enough to compensate for these class inequities.
At Edison Elementary in City Heights, unlike so many other schools across the city, the answer is yes.
Nearly 100 percent of Edison’s students live near the federal poverty line. And yet, the third grade reading and math scores look like they might have come out of a much more affluent school. Seventy-two percent are proficient in math and 69 percent are proficient in reading. That’s more than 10 percentage points higher than the district average on both tests. And it’s miles above average for schools with similar levels of poverty, according to an analysis by Voice of San Diego.
So how does one traditional neighborhood school in San Diego Unified School District defy the seemingly intractable laws of poverty that vex schools across the United States? The answer to that is both impossible to pin down and entirely obvious.
Ask Edison’s principal, Eileen Moreno, and she will start talking about the same strategies that principals across the district claim to use. She’ll tell you about the importance of constantly tracking academic data and using it to re-adjust teaching strategies. She’ll talk about the importance of designing a school for the “whole child.” High expectations will certainly come up. And so will the value of teacher collaboration time. But on paper, these are all districtwide policies.
If all of San Diego Unified schools are implementing the same strategies, why aren’t they getting results like Edison? Having the same strategies is not the same as implementing strategies well, said Pedro Noguera, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who has written about the achievement gap.
“Why are the Patriots so good?” he asked. “They clearly have created a culture in that organization where they know how to bring the best out in players. The same is true in schools. … It’s not just leadership – though that’s part of it – but common commitment within the school to a vision of how we’re gonna work together. That’s what brings results.”
Moreno has a name for that culture. She wants herself and her teachers to be “warm demanders.”
“A warm demander is a teacher who makes sure a child feels warmth and love, but at the same time the teacher is demanding or expecting the child to do amazing things,” said Moreno.
Moreno shows me her “data wall” to illustrate the concept. She waves a hand across a wall in her office covered with packets of paper that show bars and graphs representing each student in the school. Each bar represents a student’s progress in grasping math and reading concepts in close to real time. Moreno calls herself a “data nerd” and is constantly obsessing over whether students are hitting their targets.
But the wall isn’t just for her. She also shows it to students.
“It’s not a wall of shame. We look at it in a positive way. I say to the students, ‘You’re here. What can we do to get you up here.’ When I walk a kid to the wall, it’s an approach of love. Like, ‘I know you can do well. How well do you think you can do? If you make good choices where will you be the next time we look at this?’”
Moreno has walked entire classes in front of the wall, so that they know she is paying attention to each of them and concerned with where they are headed. She acknowledges that perhaps not all principals take such an intimate approach with their students. But experts say this intimate approach is exactly what’s needed.
In fact, warmth and demand are the two most important pillars of closing the achievement gap, said Joseph Murphy, an education professor at Vanderbilt University who has studied ways to close the achievement gap. He calls them “care” and “the academic press.”
“You’ve got to weave them together like a DNA strand,” he said. “Each opportunity for care is also an opportunity to talk about the academic press [with a student]. And each opportunity to talk about the academic press is also an opportunity to exhibit care.”
It’s important for adults throughout the school, from principals to bus drivers, to know specific things about each child and how they’re progressing, Murphy said. When that’s the case, each adult throughout the school can reiterate that the others are watching and care, as well. Such a culture will produce academic results, he said.
One fifth grade teacher at Edison confirmed, unprompted, that she and her colleagues use this strategy. “I will tell my students that Dr. Moreno is paying attention to their grades,” said Tabatha Footman-Robertson. “And when they go talk to her and see that she knows what they’re doing in class, then it creates a culture where they know everyone is expecting them to give their best.”
Most elementary school campuses seem the same at first glance. Someone answers phones and talks to visitors in a reception area. Ubiquitous art projects made with colorful construction paper hang on the walls. Students move to and from class. Yelps of excitement echo off a playground. But beneath the surface, unique forces are directing the rush of movement.
On Edison’s campus two forces become evident: order and joy. Students walk quietly in organized lines from one place to another, so as not to “disturb the other student’s learning,” as the teachers say. In the cafeteria, everyone efficiently gets their meal and sits down. But the atmosphere isn’t bleak. Children huddle together laughing and talking as they eat. On the blacktop playground, students group together around tetherball and four square courts. Mostly, they play at no discernible game beyond the release of running and laughter.
These expectations, of order and attitude, are set early. Moreno and the school’s counselor Vanessa Mendez hold three assemblies during the year to establish the types of behavior they want to see on-campus. They hold one at the beginning of the year, to set the tone, and two more throughout the year, because who doesn’t need a firm reminder on occasion.
“It’s interactive,” said Mendez, who has been at Edison for 14 years. “We show them appropriate movement levels and voice levels for all situations. And then throughout the school, in every classroom, we use the same language [to define those levels.]”
The use of these levels is on display on the second floor of the school in Footman-Robertson’s fifth grade classroom. She is midway through a lesson helping students estimate and add fractions. She has 35 students who, to the layman, appear to be almost completely engaged. But she feels their energy lagging.
“You’re slowing down,” she says. “Clap 1 time.” The students clap. “Clap two times.” They clap again. “Come on, pick up your level.”
Footman-Robertson zeroes in on one student toward the front. “What level are you right now? Are you a three, two or a one?”
“One,” the boy responds quietly.
Teachers at Edison use this number range to define movement, voice and effort level. A zero would indicate being completely quiet or inside movements. A three indicates outdoor voices, but also being completely engaged in a lesson.
Footman-Robertson teaches at a level 3 and she expects her students to return that same effort level of energy. She uses lots of call and response and even hand signs, which the students repeat back, for the kinesthetically inclined learners.
When she’s pleased with their progress, or sometimes when she’s frustrated, she calls out “Hot diggity!” and the students respond “Dog!” When everyone’s on the same page she says, “Great minds!” and they respond “Think alike!”
Some of these students were in Footman-Robertson’s fourth grade class last year, including Adrian Moret. “At first I thought she was strict,” Moret said. “But once you get to know her she’s funny and likes to goof around, as long as you bring the energy.”
The concept of working with the “whole child” – which means that schools not only attend to academic, but also the social, physical and creative needs of students – is so omnipresent in education jargon that it can sound hollow. But at Edison, it is clear that attending to needs beyond the academic is central to the work.
Whenever a new student joins the school, Moreno sits down and does an onboarding interview with the family. It is not uncommon for families to have uncertain immigration status or be dealing with other problems often associated with poverty. She will often spend several hours in these interviews just to make sure that she knows the family well and to ensure they will feel comfortable coming to her as issues arise. If a student is worried about deportation or eviction, it will be impossible for the workers at Edison to help that student learn unless they can at least begin to address the root problem, Moreno said.
It helps that families (Edison’s student body is roughly 86 percent Latino) can relate to her, she said. “They know I came from a community just like City Heights. I’m from East L.A. I’m a first generation Mexican-American. My mom to this day only speaks Spanish,” she said. “They know I’m here because I adore this community. This is the only community I truly understand and completely relate to.”
Being proactive, rather than always running around to put out fires, as is the case at many other schools, is another one of the keys to closing the achievement gap, said Murphy.
The school’s counselor Mendez – who the teachers acknowledge as a major factor in the school’s success – also brings a proactive approach to her work. She gives workshops, tailored to each grade level, for the entire student body on many social-emotional topics ranging from bullying to self-confidence and impulse control.
She also runs more intensive eight-week programs on the same topics. She will create a Google sign-up sheet, and teachers will recommend students who they feel could use a particular workshop. Students then attend the sessions one day a week for 30 minutes.
“I like to do a lot of things to help support our students before issues come up. I want to give them the tools and means to handle and work through problems or whatever situations might arise,” Mendez said.
“It sounds like they’re leaving nothing to chance, no stone unturned. Every detail they’ve tried to attend to,” said Noguera.
Edison also has a positive school climate that clearly predates Moreno, who is in her fifth year as principal. Out of 16 regular classroom teachers, nine have been at the school for more than 15 years. (One teacher has spent all 22 years of her career at Edison.) Another five have been at the school for roughly 10 years.
On average, teachers at Edison are more experienced than teachers at other schools with similar levels of poverty.
Moreno said it’s not her place to take the credit for the school’s success. She feels lucky to be surrounded by teachers who have the right set of skills to do the job and share a vision for the school’s culture of love and high expectations.
“We are really lucky. I feel like we have all the right people at the right time,” she said. “A few bad apples really can ruin the bunch.”
Over the years, some reformers have suggested the key to success lies in giving principals more power. They should be able to hire and fire teachers more freely and have free reign to create the school’s culture, the argument goes.
But Moreno rejects the idea that she could create a positive culture through brute force. She gives her teachers room to use the classroom strategies they think are best. And she gets buy-in from them on most of her decisions. She tries to facilitate relationships among adults by the same standard as students: Make sure everyone feels seen and supported, while holding them to their best.
Noguera agrees. “The kind of intangibles and culture that it takes [to close the achievement gap] cannot be imposed. But they absolutely make a huge difference,” he said.
But Noguera also acknowledges that many teachers at high-poverty schools across the country are beset by an attitude that contributes to, rather than alleviates, the achievement gap.
“The real danger is when you have a school that’s been struggling for too long and you see adults start to blame the kids,” he said. “They think the problem is poverty or the kids. But the problem is they haven’t created the right culture.”
Too often, he said, teachers who are the least skilled and ready for the task end up in the schools with the highest needs.
“The challenge for the district is: How is it going to use a school like this to influence teachers at other schools?” said Noguera.
He suggested that San Diego Unified turn Edison into a teaching academy, where teachers who are in training spend time studying the habits of success. He also suggested that the district facilitate visits for other teachers. It wouldn’t transform schools overnight, he said, but it might begin to give teachers new ideas for how to infuse their schools with the intangibles of warmth and demand.