Principal shares secrets to reversing achievement gap

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In three years, the number of African-American students who were proficient in reading at Louisa May Alcott Elementary School in Texas rose by 16 percentage points to reach 90 percent. During that same three-year period, the percentage of Black students who were proficient in math also reached as high as 90 percent.

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ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT—Principal Marshall Scott explains how his students are improving.

In an effort to see these kinds of results in Pittsburgh schools, University of Pittsburgh professor Jerome Taylor invited the school’s principal, Marshall Scott III, to share what he has done to reverse the racial achievement gap.

“I don’t have a secret curriculum to fix inner-city schools. I don’t know if one exists,” Scott said. “Your approach has to be one student at a time.”

 

Scott didn’t bring one fix-all initiative to the educators, scholars, and other community members at the University of Pittsburgh Holiday Inn Jan. 28. Instead he emphasized the importance of setting high expectations and spending extra time with students in order to help them improve.

“You will not close an achievement gap or make extraordinary gains unless you have high expectations,” Scott said. “Show me you believe in our kids.”

Scott has employed a number of techniques to ensure teachers maximize their time in the classroom. This includes cutting out interruptions such as announcements and frequent faculty meetings. Alcott’s teachers are also expected to spend extra time outside of the classroom tutoring students.

The facility operates for longer hours than many schools, opening its doors at 6:30 a.m. and closing down at 7 p.m. every night except Fridays. The building is also open on Saturdays.

“I don’t take credit for anything that happens on that campus,” Scott said. “The teachers are getting the work done. You have to hire the people who are going to make a commitment.”

Another indicator of Alcott’s success is a reduction in the number of African-American students classified as “special needs” from 20 to 6 percent. Scott said it is common in schools for Black students to be mislabeled as having special needs.

“(Teachers) first had to prove to me that (they) had done all (they) could as a teacher before we could move on,” Scott said.

Scott said Alcott students know what is expected of them starting in the second grade. Parents also receive a weekly newsletter and can access their children’s individual grades through an online system.

“This seems like a lot, but in actuality it’s not. We can’t hold children accountable unless they know what they’re accountable for,” Scott said. “We quite often want to hold parents accountable for helping us, but we’re not telling them the kind of help we need.” Many of these unique initiatives and programs at Alcott are not found in other schools in the district. Scott also admits to bending some of the rules when he believes it is in the best interest of his students.

“I wouldn’t do anything illegal, but if a policy is in place that is impeding the progress of my students, I am not going to follow it,” Scott said. “There are things in the code of conduct that say if a child does a certain thing, they have to go home. I don’t do that. What is a child going to do at home all day?”

In recognition of Alcott’s achievement, they were designated as a DAME-DAME school. To qualify schools must have a predominantly African-American, low-income student body.

Pittsburgh also has three DAME-DAME recognized schools: Pittsburgh Lincoln, Pittsburgh Fulton, and Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School. All three schools are at the Bronze award level, which means 75 percent of their Black students are proficient in reading or math.

“We have some local DAME-DAME schools that we need to recognize and support,” said Taylor. “Essentially what we want to do is create a network of schools to demonstrate that it is possible to deliver excellence in a predominantly African-American, low-income environment.

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