An elementary school where all children succeed

John Merrow, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Stanford University, describes the success of Lincoln Elementary School in Mount Vernon, New York, where the teachers and administrators have succeeded in leaving no child behind. Lincoln’s staff has managed to eliminate the large achievement gaps between students. The K-6 grade school has 800 students, 60 percent of whom are minority students. Half of the student body receive free or reduced-price lunch and six percent are in special education. Merrow reports that this is pretty average for an inner-city school. What sets Lincoln apart is that 99 percent of the school’s fourth-graders passed the New York State achievement tests in English, math and science. Only three children failed, and they are receiving extra help so they can pass next time.

Absolute refusal to let any child fail

Merrow attributes their success to “great and dedicated teachers; a thoughtful approach to testing, an integrated curriculum; lots of art, music, and physical education; the willingness to bend or break the rules occasionally; and the complete refusal to let any child fail to learn.”

George C. Albano, principal of Lincoln for 25 years, says the school is an oasis for children. No matter what’s happening in their lives outside of school, he and his staff do their best to overcome any hardship. Albano hires teachers with special expertise, raises outside funds and keeps the classes small. There is a “no excuses” attitude schoolwide. Most of the 70 teachers have been at Lincoln for at least 15 years, even though teachers in neighboring districts earn as much as 20 percent more. Teachers include a former NASA administrator, a former executive of a Fortune 500 company, a professional opera singer and a chess master. Art and music are an important part of the curriculum. Instead of the drills that many inner-city schools adopt, academic content is built into everything students do. Albano is straightforward about teaching values; “Good schools teach character. We teach values. We teach the next generation how to get along with one another.” Fighting, cheating or stealing are not tolerated.

Students show confidence about testing

Conversing with students, Merrow hears how confident they are about testing. They say that their teachers make sure they learn everything they need to do well on achievement tests. Students say teachers are always offering to help them during or after school. But part of Lincoln’s success is that the children enjoy school. Students say their teachers believe that since the kids work hard and spend so much time at school, they deserve a little fun. Teachers are committed to each child’s learning, never giving up on a single student. Most important, they say, is developing a rapport with the child, sitting down with him and having a conversation. They use praise and capitalize on what the students can do to motivate them to work hard. Merrow reports that “respect” came up repeatedly in his conversations at Lincoln. Teachers care about students and treat them with respect. But there is an emphasis on success – “there is none of the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Albano also believes strongly in parent involvement – so strongly that he broke the rules and refused to send any report cards home to parents: they had to come to school to get their child’s grades. In the beginning, at least 25 percent of parents did not come; now it’s only one or two parents in the whole school who might not show up. Teachers report that Albano gets things done for them. He gives any assistance he can to his teachers. They have the materials and support they need to make sure every child succeeds. Albano says he is very direct about the well-being of children, their health and best interests, but he can work collaboratively.

Merrow concludes that Lincoln’s recipe for success includes strong leadership, parent involvement, teachers who do whatever it takes, respect, the arts and physical education, a curriculum that matches the tests, and a genuine belief that all children can learn. He cautions, however, that Albano has to work hard to find the extra resources to make the opportunity and expectations gaps of his poor and minority students disappear. While Lincoln attracts attention from educators as far away as New Zealand, Merrow reports that no member of the current Mount Vernon School Board has visited the school, and it does not receive universal acclaim in its district. Albano recognizes that without similar efforts at the middle and high schools these students attend, much of their early success may be lost.

“Meeting Superman”, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 85, Number 6, February 2004, pp. 455-460.

Published in ERN April 2004 Volume 17 Number 4

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