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February 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 5

Portrait of a Benchmark School

A high-flying school in rural Texas proves that poverty and low achievement are not inextricably linked.

Rich folks have always known how to ensure a quality school for their children—buy a house in a wealthy suburb. Migrant farm workers in southern Texas give their children a sound education by returning each year to the small community of Mission, where housing is cheap but learning experiences are rich. Carl C. Waitz Elementary School in Mission is so successful that it annually places among the top 10 percent of all Texas schools in reading and mathematics achievement. This is public education roaring back to a position of respect with the help of Hispanic parents who dream of more for their kids than they have.
The Waitz School defies predictions of low achievement by a sustained focus on multiple factors that can remarkably improve student performance: a principal who is a strong leader and a committed faculty with high expectations who are willing to make the extra effort, individually and in teams, to perfect the multiple changes that contribute to student achievement (Cawelti, 1999b).
For the Benchmark Schools Study, which examined high-performing schools, I selected and visited Waitz as one of six schools across the country that are producing high levels of student achievement even though they serve large numbers of low-income families (Cawelti, 1999a). Mission, Texas, lies close to the Mexican border, a few miles west of McAllen. It ranks 17th from the bottom of 1,058 Texas school districts in terms of property values per child. The 825 students in the Waitz School are 99 percent Latino. Their families live along dirt roads in trailers and tar paper shacks, at least until they are able to build something better. About one-third are migrant farm worker families, who leave the community for seasonal work in April and return in the fall well after school has started. Many students enter school with limited English proficiency.

Desired Results Are Clear

The work of the Waitz school faculty clearly focuses on making sure that all students pass the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) given each year in grades 3 through 6, with a writing exam given in grade 4. The TAAS tests sample student knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics, and writing and are based on the curriculum standards or framework established for the state of Texas. The tests are a combination of writing samples and multiple-choice items, and students are required to show their work in some areas.
Students must score at the 70 percent level or better to pass the spring exams. In 1998, 97.3 percent of the Waitz students (slightly fewer than projected) passed the mathematics exam, which shows the remarkable progress made from the 41.2 percent passing rate in 1993. This number is significant because the state passing rate in mathematics in 1997 was only 80 percent.
Also in 1998, the passing rate for Waitz students on the TAAS reading test was 90.7 percent, which represents considerable progress from the 1993 passing rate of 62.7 percent and is higher than the state passing rate of 84 percent. All Waitz students passed the writing test in 1997 compared with the state average of 85.3 percent.
The school also judges its performance on measures beyond academic achievement. The school strongly emphasizes regular attendance and recognizes classrooms with all children present. To encourage extensive reading, the names of students and the number of books that they have read are prominently displayed in the hallways. Good citizenship is recognized and rewarded, and values such as honesty and respect are written on prominent banners throughout the school. But all these efforts buttress the primary attention given to making sure that all students pass the TAAS tests.

What Practices Contribute to High Student Achievement?

In Portraits of Six Benchmark Schools (1999a), I name factors important for high achievement. The Waitz School is a classic example of how one school has successfully applied these factors to its local situation.
A highly committed faculty. The importance of having teachers who are willing to make the extra effort with at-risk students is so apparent that I question whether I should cite it as a major factor. But it is equally apparent that a school has less chance of accomplishing good results if teachers don't stay late, don't spend time helping students during lunch and free periods, and don't provide the individual help that students need during class. All Waitz teachers have Title I aides, but it is the energy of this motivated faculty that gets the results.
The key policy question for building principals and central office leaders is, of course, how to ensure that each student has a committed teacher. We need to keep this in mind as we consider teacher selection, induction, training, compensation, and recognition issues. Very often, teacher union rules require a system to hire a teacher who has more years of experience over a teacher who wants to work with at-risk children.
Waitz teachers work in teams on school improvement. On the day of my visit, a primary grade team was looking at a graph showing which students failed to pass certain skills on the TAAS exam and discussing how to help these students. By working in teams, these teachers could use the quick feedback from the district to provide corrective teaching for specific students on specific skills. This forms a workable basis for an accountability plan in the district by placing responsibility for improvement directly in the hands of the teachers. Although most classes are self-contained, a teacher with strong skills in one area, such as science, may teach that subject for a colleague, who reciprocates by teaching subjects in which his or her skills are stronger.
A strong principal. The leadership of J. D. Villareal, the principal of Waitz at the time of my visit, was apparent in all facets of the school's operation. He met with parents to insist that they do their part by getting their children to school each day and providing a time and a place for homework. He led a student assembly every Friday at which student and teacher accomplishments were recognized and school values were exemplified and encouraged. He set the tone for a culture dominated by the TAAS exams. Students know that they must work hard until they pass. This culture contrasts with that in other schools in poverty areas where it is not cool to study and even motivated students make less of an effort than they might. Villareal gave strong focus to the work of the faculty. The current principal, Magda Palacios, continues the tradition of strong leadership and high expectations.
Extensive reading practice. Early in my visit, I observed very little student or teacher movement or activity. I was concerned until I realized that this was the time set aside daily for reading. Students participate in silent reading, paired reading, and oral reading to ensure that they engage in reading activities each day. Waitz teachers don't spend time debating the virtues of phonics versus look-say methods. Instead, they do some phonics and some whole-language activities to ensure that students get the main ideas and see the relationships among the key communication skills. They extensively use the Accelerated Reader program, which encourages students to read a rich array of high-interest books and then use computers to see whether they have understood what they have read.
Teachers use bilingual approaches in the early years and with students who enter with very limited English skills, but they make every effort to move students toward English proficiency as early as possible but surely before taking the 3rd grade TAAS exams.
Extending time spent on task. Many children simply need more time than others to master basic skills, and Waitz students are no exception. For every two teachers, Title I funds one instructional aide who provides much of the needed individual attention. Teachers give extra help to individual students during free periods or after school. On Saturdays, high school students and parents tutor students. The district offers an optional half-day prekindergarten and a full-day kindergarten; the county offers a full-day Head Start program. In summary, the school and the community provide much support for students who need assistance to pass the TAAS exams.
Incentives and recognition. For the weekly Friday assembly, students arrive quietly in the gym, accompanied by their teachers. Everything that is valued in the school is recognized, and all the classes with perfect attendance stand to be recognized. To further exemplify the culture for learning, students and classes are honored for improved performance on the TAAS exams or for the number of books they have read.
Such recognition activities are also apparent on bulletin boards and banners in the hallways, and each classroom has a television that is used daily for recognition and communication activities. Students perform skits in assemblies to demonstrate the values encouraged by the school. Sixth grade students with whom I talked are proud to be a part of this student body and are aware of the significance of their accomplishments in student achievement in this school.
Preassessment program: Practicing for TAAS. Although all the foregoing practices contribute to the high achievement levels, perhaps the greatest student growth comes from what teachers call "preassessment." Six times a year before April, students sit down and experience what taking the real test will be like. This practice is based on the premise that students must be taught what will be tested. The school believes that if students practice by taking tests similar to TAAS, the setting and the expectations will be no great surprise. The central office developed these practice assessment instruments in reading and mathematics, which may be tougher than the TAAS itself.
These tests do give definition to the essential skills curriculum established by the state and afford a swift focus on what the students will need to know. Here again, teachers at Waitz don't spend time sitting around discussing standards; instead, through this pre-assessment activity, they get right to the heart of the needed skills.

Lessons Learned

Other schools selected for this study are in Appalachia, Harlem, and city centers. All have impressive records of maintaining high levels of achievement. Although no one knows just how many such schools are serving children from low-income families, the Benchmark Schools Study adds names to the growing list of public schools that are making necessary changes. The late Ron Edmonds, an early leader in effective schools research, liked to ask skeptics in his audiences just how many examples they would need to see to convince them that all children can achieve.
Some might argue that the Waitz program "teaches to the test," but my feeling is that the state standards and assessment programs have helped this school and its faculty focus their efforts on results that are important to local parents. Many schools now focus on other goals, such as intellectual habits of the mind or character development, even though assessing such qualities is imprecise and is not rewarded by school boards or politicians. This focus is to their credit because in our quest to determine what kind of schooling is most helpful in producing happy and productive citizens, continued discussion about the efficacy of various approaches to learning and about goals themselves is basic to the nature of thoughtful educators and parents.
A legitimate criticism is that Texas and several other states concentrate only on reading, writing, and mathematics skills in the assessment program. Although work is under way to provide more comprehensive assessment, less attention is being given to such subjects as the arts and social studies. Schools leaders must aggressively urge state education department officials to move ahead with assessments in other subjects to ensure a more balanced curriculum.
The most important thing that we have learned is that extraordinary levels of achievement require making and sustaining multiple changes that focus directly on improving the daily instructional life of students. Central office leaders not only must be fully informed about what factors significantly boost student achievement, but also must develop strategies and policies that help make productive school and classroom factors a reality for all schools. We have often placed high hopes on a single change only to learn later that it has contributed nothing to observable improvement in achievement.

Cawelti, G. (1999a). Portraits of six benchmark schools: Diverse approaches to improving student achievement. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

Cawelti, G. (1999b, July). Improving achievement. American School Board Journal, 186, 34–37.

Gordon Cawelti has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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