On Thursday, November 5, parents, educators and community leaders from across the Bay Area came together to celebrate the top 54 public schools in the region serving underserved students. The event was hosted by Innovate Public Schools and was part of the release of their newest report, which focused on Bay Area schools’ performance on the new state test called the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP).Innovate-Top-Schools-Awards-Nov.-5-2015--46

New Report Finds Bay Area Trails the State in Results for Underserved Students

The report, entitled Top Bay Area Schools for Underserved Students, shows a major gap in student achievement, specifically with low-income African American and Latino students performing far worse than other students. The problem is even more serious in the Bay Area, where local schools tend to trail the state average in test scores in English and math for these student groups. This report highlights 54 Bay Area public schools that achieved strong results for underserved students, showing what students can achieve and pointing the way toward how all schools can better support underserved students.

See the list of 54 top schools and read the report.

“Our children deserve to have high expectations,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo told attendees, “no matter what zip code they come from.” He lauded families, educators, and school leaders for their efforts in preparing underserved students for success in school and beyond, telling them, “I look forward to the extraordinary things that can happen from your great work.”

Irma Nazario-Rivera, a senior at KIPP Collegiate high school in San Jose, spoke candidly about the odds she felt she faced as her family struggled to make ends meet and, at one point, lived in transitional housing. Her success story — she has been applying for colleges and plans to study engineering — is evidence of the ways in which some local schools are bucking the trends and serving low-income African American and Latino students well. Nazario-Rivera says, “The teachers create a family-like environment, and go into that environment every day…encouraging students to work harInnovate-Top-Schools-Awards-Nov.-5-2015--35d.”

Diverse Schools Find Common Ground on What Counts

The event featured a candid conversation with leaders from five of the highest-performing schools. The schools are diverse in their curriculum and programs and the communities they serve, but school leaders found significant common ground in the elements they consider critical to success. All focused on the importance of creating a collaborative and connected school environment, as well as supporting the development of their teachers through ongoing, intensive coaching.

The panel included district schools and charter schools from Gilroy to San Lorenzo to Oakland, including a high school that leverages project-based learning and a dual-immersion elementary school.

A Culture of Learning for Both Teachers and Students

“What I’ve seen over the years is that great schools are doing many, many things right.  It’s not just a simple little recipe,” said Matt Hammer, founder and CEO of Innovate Public Schools and moderator of the discussion. He asked panelists to zero in on some of their most high-leverage practices.

Luis Carrillo, principal at Rod Kelley Elementary School in Gilroy, says that changing the priorities at his school has been key: “The focus now is on what students are actually learning, where, before, the focus was on teaching.” He also described the importance of having a strong and collaborative school team, and of creating learning partnerships with other schools including Gilroy Prep charter school, one of the other schools recognized at the event. Carrillo credited Dent with precipitating Kelley Elementary’s current standards-driven approach, which he sees as the root of the the school’s success.

James Dent, the CEO of Navigator Schools (including Gilroy Prep), also talked about learning from other schools. “We are the sum of many parts. We reverse engineer the great things we find, and then we iterate upon that nonstop.”Innovate-Top-Schools-Awards-Nov.-5-2015--54

He emphasized the importance of building a culture of learning among teachers and students, likening the process to professional athletes’ relentless practice and coaching that keeps them ahead of the game. “”

“Imagine after Serena Williams breaks into the pros she says, ‘I never need to be coached again.’ She wouldn’t be on top,” he said. “You develop your adults, and they’ll do better by students.”

Salome Portugal, principal at KIPP Summit Academy in San Lorenzo, said that her teachers work diligently and check in with each other daily to tailor instruction to the their students’ specific needs. She also talked about distributing leadership among teachers. “We don’t used canned programs or text. A lot of accountability, but [teachers] feel respected as professionals.”

“It’s complicated,” was Peter Van Tassel’s first response when asked what sets Cleveland Elementary in Oakland apart. As principal, he says that building a school culture that motivates teachers and students to do their best is critical. “The teachers have to be ready to push each kid to try something new and push themselves. [That means] the teachers have to push themselves and try something new everyday.”

While each of the leaders discussed the unique qualities of their schools, all seemed wholly dedicated to making sure all of their students feel as though they have a voice and a sense of belonging in their school community. Also, all the leaders described the school environment as a place where teachers collaborate and actively gain meaningful support from their principals and other school leaders. All emphasized that students and staff were actively learning and working towards shared goals of improving their performance.

Hammer summarized the similarities between these top-performing schools this way: “They are relentless, hyper-focused…about the quality of teaching going on in the building….  We want schools that are making this miracle happen for practically all of their students; that is a huge, audacious goal. And it is not going to happen without amazing teaching.

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