In our Monday editorial launching this series of commentaries, we attempted to encourage the public will to meet the high stakes involved in making school successful for low-income students. In our reporting this week, we've gotten a glimpse at some of the ingredients making up that will.
The first to which everyone naturally turns, of course, is money. The influence of well-financed schools, especially well-financed programs for schools with at-risk students, cannot be dismissed. But an overriding message in the stories of success we've uncovered is that money is just one variable in a formula that includes in at least equal measures the commitment to develop good habits early, passionate teachers specially trained specifically to deal with low-income students, motivation and parental involvement, more structured learning and an aggressive commitment by educators to get outside the boundaries of the school environment to help graft an appreciation for learning onto the educational DNA of the students in their care.
Money is a critical factor, of course, but so is each of these other elements, and schools like Sunny Hill Elementary in Carpentersville, part of Barrington Unit District 220 with annual per-pupil spending of $9,000, and Tefft Middle, part of Elgin Area School District U-46 with annual per-pupil spending of $5,800, are showing that passionate and committed educators can achieve transformative successes even in very different financial situations.
Indeed, schools like these are challenging more than just our assumptions about how to achieve success. They're also challenging our assumptions about how it is defined.
Here again, certain traditional measures -- such as the numbers of students taking advanced placement classes in high school or overall performance on standardized tests -- come into play. But we err if we limit evaluation of individual schools solely to such benchmarks.
In the words of Alison Maley, government relations director for the Illinois Principals Association, "There's no one right answer." But there is one common characteristic -- an unwavering commitment to each student.
At South Elementary School in Des Plaines, one of the schools profiled in Melissa Silverberg's report on Thursday, educators have individual plans for every one of the school's 250 students, and the staff spends three full days a year studying student data and focusing on individual students' needs.
Principal Amy Cengel's vow that "if there is a kid who is struggling ... we're on it" echoes student-focused declarations from teachers and administrators at other schools that are beating the odds against at-risk populations. When that kind of commitment develops, the entire culture of learning is affected.
"Avon is not just an elementary school," said parent Amanda Kienast of Grayslake Elementary District 46's Avon Center School. "It is a dedicated family with incredible communication."
The challenge facing schools with substantial at-risk populations then is not merely acquiring the funds to support its programs and innovations. It is finding the resolve to be more than a static institution of learning, to put in place administrators and teachers with a passion for the special efforts low-income students require, to reach out to embrace students' families when the families don't or can't immediately embrace education, to make sure that students have the physical, social and psychological supports fundamental to learning, to measure success by individual growth not merely by societal benchmarks.
There is, alas, no 12-step program that will pull all these things together into one neat package of success. If there is a formula, it is one whose every variable must be adapted to each school and student.
Thankfully, though, some schools are showing us all how to adapt those variables. If we learn from them, if we celebrate them, if we encourage their devoted spirit and if we never forget, as we said in our first editorial in this series, the "very high" stakes before us, we can meet our promise to our kids that we will prepare them for rich, fulfilling adult lives.
It is, in the end as all along the way, a matter of will.