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High-poverty schools in Colorado and Massachusetts that defy the odds for students – The 74

High-poverty schools in Colorado and Massachusetts that defy the odds for students – The 74

High-poverty schools in Colorado and Massachusetts that defy the odds for students – The 74


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Students from low-income families often face significant barriers to accessing a high-quality education. There is much work to be done to ensure that these students have the same opportunities to learn as their more advantaged peers.

Two recent reports from Education Reform Now highlight strategies that high-poverty schools in Massachusetts and Colorado are implementing to drive higher academic achievement.

We focused on the 25% of schools with the highest percentages of students from low-income families. Proficiency rates in math and English range from 0% to about 60%, indicating that school policies and practices can have a marked impact on student achievement. In total, we identified 64 high-poverty “highlight schools” in the two states that achieved above-average proficiency rates or more than 4 percentage points of growth since 2019 in math or English language arts.

Leaders at these schools completed surveys and participated in interviews to explain what’s behind their successes. Notably, these schools represent traditional public schools, charter schools, and innovation schools in rural, suburban, and urban areas in two very different states, but there was a resounding consensus about what’s behind their achievements. Here are the top 4 strategies they highlighted:

Data-driven decision making

High-performing schools use data as a guiding light to drive, monitor, and improve not only student performance, but every aspect of their operations.

According to Bill Spirer, CEO of Springfield Preparatory Charter School, a K-12 school in Springfield, Massachusetts, this “data obsession” is absolutely essential: “It’s not about turning our students into data points, it’s about understanding where we can improve and evolve… We use data for just about everything, whether it’s finances, student attendance, or student behavioral issues.”

Other schools are leveraging this widespread use of data for a variety of purposes: eight Massachusetts schools use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports systems, and two Colorado schools implemented the Behavioral and Emotional Assessment System (BASC-3 BESS) to quantify and address behavioral difficulties and mental health challenges.

Staggered academic interventions

Most featured schools use tailored supports to drive academic excellence through Response to Intervention (RTI) or Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), which serve as frameworks to provide robust curricula and evidence-based practices during core instruction, supplemented with targeted interventions for students who need additional support.

Nicole Mack, executive director of Conservatory Lab Charter, a preschool through eighth-grade charter school in Boston, uses five cycles of data throughout the year to monitor student progress and adjust interventions when necessary. Several schools also implemented WIN (What I Need) time, an intervention block in which all students receive small-group instruction.

Spotlight schools also made creative adjustments to staffing and scheduling. For example, Principal Rafaela Spence of Taylor Elementary School in New Bedford, Massachusetts, leads data meetings every six weeks to group and match students with educators who can best meet their needs during daily WIN time, including their classroom teachers, interventionists, special education teachers, and English as a Second Language teachers. Principal Christopher Freisen of Beachmont Veterans Memorial School, a pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade school in Revere, Massachusetts, hired two English teachers and three interventionists to better address students’ unique needs and provide daily small-group instruction.

Professional development, high-quality teaching materials and coaching.

Professional development and ongoing training for teachers is another common factor in the success of these schools. For example, Spence hired teaching and learning specialists who observe and provide feedback during instruction, as well as provide model lessons so that educators who need additional support can see what exemplary teaching looks like.

It’s also important to provide high-quality instructional materials. “Anyone who thinks their teachers can write good lesson plans is wrong,” says Principal Declan O’Connor of Chestnut Accelerated Middle School in Springfield. “They’re not tested, they’re not thoroughly tested, they’re not aligned… Those days are long gone for me.”

Family commitment

Spotlight schools in both states have implemented strong family engagement programs. For example, Rocky Mountain Prep charter schools have had great success with “attendance hotlines,” where designated staff spend the first hour of each morning calling the families of all students who miss school. Over the past year, Rocky Mountain Prep Fletcher, a pre-K-5 school in Aurora, Colorado, has cut its chronic absenteeism rate in half and now has one of the highest attendance rates in the district.

Many schools host family engagement events to build relationships before absenteeism and other problems escalate. For example, Principal Robert Juhrs-Savage of Kemp Elementary School in Commerce City, Colorado, hosts community days where parents participate in social-emotional learning-based projects with their children, and Assistant Principal Morgan King of Vanguard Classical School West, a K-12 school in Denver, invites families into classrooms to help with reading groups. This inclusive approach encourages families to be active participants in their children’s education.

Demographics don’t have to be the determining factor. The success stories from Colorado and Massachusetts demonstrate that significant improvements are possible even in the face of adversity. The overwhelming agreement among principals from such a diverse set of high-poverty schools in two very different states confirms that there are common practices that can really make a difference for children.


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