November 26 — 1:00 am, 2008

No gaps here: Schools where racial parity is the norm

At three diverse elementary schools, educators stay focused on knowing and serving every student.

nogaps Photo: Harvey Finkle


Philadelphia has a handful of racially and economically diverse schools where Black and White students achieve comparably high test scores, defying the traditional achievement gap. In some cases, African Americans outperform their White peers.

These schools are an anomaly in a city where most schools are racially isolated and high-poverty, and the few dozen that are integrated often exhibit large learning gaps. Though they are not the norm, these successful schools can teach valuable lessons.

The Fell school in South Philadelphia, Decatur in the Far Northeast, and Cook-Wissahickon in Roxborough are among those changing the odds for students of color. The schools are different, but share some essential characteristics: focused attention on each child; little teacher turnover; a relatively stable student population; and, perhaps most importantly, rigorous dedication to narrowing racial achievement gaps. Each school is supported by strong leadership and boasts both economic and ethnic diversity.

These three elementary schools build strong relationships with families and use data to tailor instruction. "We provide services to students based on their needs," said Nadine Livingston, a special education teacher at Fell for 30 years.

"Teachers know their students’ backgrounds in August," said Cook- Wissahickon principal Anna Jenkins, so they can attend to struggling students early on.

Reviews of test scores can also reveal trends. If some students are not doing well, said Fell principal Eleanor Walls, "we can target that group for pullout or differentiated instruction." The particular children in these groups may or may not have race, gender, or social class in common. But focusing on students who have similar challenges allows teachers to address different learning styles.

The educators at Fell, Decatur, and Cook-Wissahickon go to great lengths to accommodate students and their families. "You’ve got to give a little. You’ve got to bend, and you’ve got to know the kids," said Jenkins. For one easily distracted girl, the answer to raising her low PSSA scores was to let her take the test in the principal’s office.

Because the teaching staff and student population are relatively stable, these schools can follow students’ improvement from grade to grade, as does Stephen Grosso, who teaches seventhgrade math and social studies at Cook- Wissahickon. Since he began three years ago, he has worked with the same two sixth-grade teachers. "I can take what they had and raise it to a new level," he said. "There’s continuity."

The school population is not just consistent, but diverse. At Fell’s entrance, a sign announces the various ethnicities represented at the school. Debbie Maiorano, the literacy lead teacher, makes an effort to choose books with "different cultural themes and characters" relevant to their students’ many backgrounds.

Vanessa Habershaw, Fell’s music teacher for more than 30 years, features music from many traditions. "Everyone’s culture gets targeted," she said. "They feel a part of what’s going on."

But the teachers and principals of these schools have not merely embraced their multicultural communities, they have harnessed the educational value of diversity. Literature from a culture that may be foreign to some children comes alive when their classmates can add personal anecdotes. "If you are reading a story based in Latin America, it’s great to have input from students who are from there," said Walls.

Diversity is also treated as an asset in social development. "What job will you have where you don’t have to deal with people of other races?" Principal Jenkins has asked students who have been involved in racial conflict at Cook-Wissahickon. She pushes them to analyze their disagreements below the surface of racial tension.

Even in these schools, it is sometimes difficult to speak frankly about race. For many people, such conversation "scares them to death," Decatur principal Charles Connor said.

More than one teacher said that they "see children, not color." But others find acknowledging race is necessary to tackle the achievement gap. Grosso of Cook-Wissahickon deliberately mixes his student groups by race, gender, and achievement.

Connor, who is White, sought out an African American assistant principal and brought back Karen Commarty-Skipper, who had been a teacher at the school years ago. Commarty-Skipper wrote her doctoral dissertation about racial disparities in suspension rates and brought a successful peer mediation program to the school.

Students may come to school with problems, but schools can’t afford to dwell on that. "We focus on what we can control," Connor said. "We looked at why Teacher A had no disciplinary issues and Teacher B had many. We looked at special ed referrals."

Some teachers’ attitudes had been, "If you can’t perform, get out of my class," not, "Maybe I need to learn different teaching strategies," Connor said. "That was the mindset. But those days are past. We needed to make a major paradigm shift."

To ensure that all students receive quality instruction, Decatur adopted a full inclusion model for special education students. They are now taught alongside their classmates, while the special education teacher and grade teacher work in tandem to offer all students additional learning and problem-solving strategies.

"Decatur has been inclusive for so long, the stigma for ‘extra help’ isn’t there," said eighth-grade special education teacher Hope Deeden.

Teachers were offered support in the transition to inclusion. "It was either adapt or become extinct," Connor said. "You have to create urgency in order to make change work."

To promote high-quality instruction and sustain student interest, all three principals have wrangled money from tight budgets. Walls at Fell and Jenkins at Cook-Wissahickon opted not to hire assistant principals and keep class size as small as possible. At Decatur, Connor and Commarty-Skipper introduced a low-cost program, the Golden Attitude Club, to support students who are neither in trouble nor on the honor roll and may slip through the cracks.

The three schools have few disciplinary problems and high attendance rates. "I spend less on security," Jenkins says.

Sustaining a positive learning culture with high expectations is crucial. "Kids have to come to school thinking they can learn and wanting to learn," said Connor.

"The expectation is really high," said Karen Brinkley, who works with sixth, seventh and eighth grade special education students at Cook-Wissahickon. "The lower grades set the standard in terms of the children learning early on

the notebook

Our news is free to read, but not to report.

support local journalism