High-Poverty Schools in Colorado, Massachusetts Defying the Odds for Students

Saslow & Barone: New report highlights strategies to boost achievement: 'obsession' with data, tiered supports, teacher development, family engagement

Meghan Gallagher/The 74

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Students from low-income families typically face significant barriers to high-quality education. There is a substantial amount of work to be done to ensure that these students have the same opportunity to learn as their more advantaged peers. 

Two recent reports from Education Reform Now highlight strategies that high-poverty schools across 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 for math and English range from 0% to about 60%, signaling that school-based policies and practices can have a marked impact on student achievement. In all, we identified 64 high-poverty “spotlight schools” across the two states that achieved either above-average proficiency rates or upward of 4 percentage points of growth since 2019 in math or English Language Arts.

The leaders of these schools completed surveys and participated in interviews to explain what’s behind their successes. It’s notable that these schools represent traditional public, charter and innovation schools across rural, suburban and urban areas in two very different states, yet there was resounding consensus on 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 just student achievement but every aspect of their operations. 

According to Executive Director Bill Spirer of Springfield Preparatory Charter School, a K-8 school in Springfield, Massachusetts, this “obsession with data” is absolutely essential: “[It’s] not in the spirit of turning our students into data points, but in terms of understanding where we can improve and evolve. … We … use data for really everything, whether it’s for finances, for student attendance or for student behavior issues.”

Other schools leverage this across-the-board utilization of data for various purposes: eight Massachusetts schools use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports systems, and two Colorado schools that implemented the Behavioral and Emotional Screening System (BASC-3 BESS) to quantify and address behavioral difficulties and mental health challenges.

Tiered academic interventions

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

Executive Director Nicole Mack of Conservatory Lab Charter, a pre-K-8 charter school in Boston, uses five data cycles throughout the year to monitor student progress and adjust interventions when necessary. Several schools also implemented WIN — “What I Need” — time,an intervention block where all students receive small-group instruction.

Spotlight schools also made creative adjustments in staffing and scheduling. For example, Principal Rafaela Spence of Taylor Elementary 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-K-5 school in Revere, Massachusetts, hired two English learner teachers and three interventionists to better target students’ unique needs and provide daily small group instruction.

Professional development, high-quality instructional materials and coaching

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

Providing high-quality instructional materials is also important. “Anybody who thinks their teachers can write good lesson plans, they’re wrong,” says Principal Declan O’Connor of Chestnut Accelerated Middle School in Springfield. “They’re not vetted, they’re not scrutinized, they’re not aligned. … Those days for me are long over.”

Family engagement

Spotlight schools across both states have implemented strong family engagement programs. For example, Rocky Mountain Prep charter schools have found great success with “attendance hotlines,” in which designated staffers spend the first hour of each morning calling the families of every student who is absent. 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 hold 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 SEL-based projects with their children, and Assistant Principal Morgan King of Vanguard Classical School West, a K-8 school in Denver, invites families into the classroom to help with reading groups. This inclusive approach encourages families to be active participants in their children’s education.

Demography need not be destiny. The success stories from Colorado and Massachusetts demonstrate that significant improvements are possible even in the face of adversity. The resounding agreement among school leaders of such a diverse set of high-poverty schools across two very different states confirms that there are common practices that can really make a difference for kids.

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