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  • by Blaine Helwig

The Guaranteed Gamble – Academic Title 1 Success

In late April of 2014, I was at central office for a meeting when I ran into another Title 1 elementary principal. The STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) standardized assessment was the next Tuesday. Of course, her opening first statement was not a surprise, “Are you ready for STAAR next week?”

Graham Elementary was an exceedingly high academically performing urban Title 1 school in Austin, Texas – one of the highest in the State whether compared to Title 1 schools or non-Title 1 schools, for that matter. It was selected as a National Blue Ribbon School and a Profiled School in 2012, and we had been an Exemplary rated school and earned every possible academic distinction by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) since 2009. I thought for a moment and replied, “Yes. We are ready. The odds are on our side.”

She was confused, but responded, “We worked really hard this year. I am hoping we do well.”

We had worked diligently as well at Graham; however, I was confident my school would again perform well. High performance is not just about hard work. It is about working hard in the specific areas – instructional and management areas that matter most. The secret of academic success regardless of a school’s student demographics on standardized tests is when students know the core content material well from a fundamental level. Hence, I had little doubt that her teachers had worked very hard, but she was leading a school both instructionally and managerially using a status quo methodology that yields mediocre outcomes.

After the STAAR student results and TEA school accountability ratings were released, we met again in August at the General Administrator’s Meeting kickoff for the new school year. As expected, Graham Elementary had student STAAR outcomes well above the 90 percentile range in all core tested subjects. Her school demonstrated a similar standardized testing performance and school rating as in previous school years.

Why the high confidence of my school’s performance compared to other schools?

The probability and statistics were on my side. As stated, the Graham Elementary staff worked just as diligently as had other Title 1 schools’ faculties, but we focused our daily efforts in areas that mattered most – the ones that yielded dividends. Graham Elementary operated like a Las Vegas’ casino. The probability of ‘winning’ was always on the side of the House.

I knew that my intermediate students had mastered approximately 99% of their math facts and the vast majority of general math processing skills via our daily (Formative Loop) numeracy program. Our stop-gap English literacy programs were monitored each Friday and our students had high completion rates, and our whole class novel program from 2nd through 5th grade had ensured grade level reading and strong daily core structured reading lessons. We successfully implemented rigorous grade level instructional resources in math, science and writing with high levels of individual student accountability. Our independent reading (novel) program for nightly home reading was implemented with both high accountability and monitoring – digitally monitored/assessed by Accelerated Reader. We had focused on closing the skill gap by pressing daily skill development with grade level application throughout the school year. In short, Graham students were academically prepared in both skill and application to perform well on any testing format. Finally and of the utmost importance, Graham classrooms had maintained high levels of effective student management, daily routines and structure; hence, instructional minutes had been preserved.

These were the instructional and management areas that I emphasized and focused as a principal – daily!

I knew the current Graham students were as academically prepared as their peers in previous school years. I was also more than aware that my school was directly competing with other Title 1 elementary schools that had not similarly prepared academically or systematically. Their systems would drive a level of performance indicative of their general instructional systems, and Graham’s methodology drove student outcomes equal to those of high socioeconomic elementary schools.

Therefore, the die was cast for a continued history of student results for all elementary schools. Statistically, when this occurs, the House wins. I was a Title 1 principal wagering on the best hand every school year. The only means to compete with the ‘House’ in Title 1 academic outcomes was to emulate its methodologies, but only a few elementary Title 1 schools did just that – and they were competitors, indeed. Those school principals realized that our educational objective was providing our students an equitable education despite attending a Title 1 elementary school – passing the standardized STAAR test was only an added benefit.

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