A “Poor” School that Works

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

Only in America could it be imagined. A 17-year-old woman from Red China, about a hundred pounds soaking wet, manages to scramble her way into the United States. After capping her scholastic years with a doctorate, she heads to one of the most dysfunctional public schools in Los Angeles, located in the poorest of neighbourhoods. Fourteen years later, the school’s students are exceeding all expectations and winning national awards and recognition.

How did she do it? A few weeks ago, Yvonne Chan traveled to Winnipeg, to give the 2004 Education Frontiers Lecture, and told us. Her achievement throws down a gauntlet to the teachers who struggle in our lowest-performing public schools. They can succeed, if they throw out the official playbook and innovate.

When Dr. Chan landed at the Vaughn Street elementary school in 1990, she faced the worst of circumstances. Located in a community paralyzed with interracial violence, it held 1,000 students, two-thirds of whom spoke no English, in a 1950-vintage building designed for 600. Half of the teachers were burnt out and the other half lacked credentials. She spent the first two years coping with disasters, just maintaining a semblance of order.

Conventional wisdom holds that well-off children learn better because they have more home support. Dr. Chan perceived that parental love cuts across all socio-economic lines and engaged her students’ care-givers in unique ways. After a drive-by shooting, for instance, she finagled a truce between warring Afro-American and Hispanic factions by convincing them to co-operate in building a protective school wall. It worked, and she expanded the school’s outreach – and with it, parental support for her educational mission – by giving them space for bartering goods and community services.

Dr. Chan also energized her teaching staff. First, she tied their pay to performance. She set up a complex system – which she refuses to describe as merit pay – by which teachers increase their base salary by taking on extra tasks. Performance measures are “developed by the teachers, described by the teachers, written by the teachers. . . .[with] three groups of people who come up with a very, very fair and valid status about what the teacher’s standing is and what are the ways in which to improve.” Critically, the evaluations include student scores derived from standardized tests. She stresses: “You need testing which correlates and verifies observation as well as the teacher’s judgment on report cards.”

She organized her staff into teaching teams to learn from each other. “We provide all types of resources to help them, which include a substitute release, observing another, having peer coaching, having a mentor, going to conferences and workshops and more planning time. . . .[I]f teachers are still not being moved from below basic . . . over this 6–9 month period, then we do sit down with them . . . and suggest that maybe teaching is not their calling.”

Dr. Chan also innovated with administration. She used California’s enabling legislation to convert Vaughn into a charter school, a public school freed from the dead hand of centralized bureaucracy. That status allows flexibility in dealing with a range of issues, including budgets. When asked, “What about school boards? Do we still need them?” she replied, “Not really. But we still need some kind of accountability mechanism. The school has to be accountable to some group. It could be a university, it could even be some other community organization like the Rotary Club.”

The results speak for themselves. All Vaughn students are now proficient in English by Grade Six. The school won a prestigious national Blue Ribbon award for academic achievement. Success breeds success; Dr. Chan leveraged it into adding a middle school, and will expand next fall into high school. “I think we have proven that increased autonomy together with increased accountability results in increased student achievement,” she explains.

Now the Vaughn’s population stands at 1,700, and Dr. Chan knows each of them and their parents personally. Tireless in drumming up corporate and governmental support for the school, she regularly buttonholes plutocrats and bureaucrats for expansion capital. She brought university educators into the mix by negotiating a satellite campus on school grounds.

The Vaughn story also ripples nationally in the U.S. A lifelong Democrat, Chan advises the Democratic Leadership Council, the modernizing think tank of the Democrat Party. Charter Schools, still feared by Canada’s “old-school” left, are now its policy.

What are the lessons from this inner-city charter school? Site-based management works well. Teachers and even poor students can thrive in a performance-based model. It underlines the importance of hard data from standardized testing, now largely removed in Manitoba by political pressure from our own unenlightened teachers’ union.

Beyond that, consider that more than a fifth of those attending school in this province are of aboriginal origin. Since native children also tend to come from the poorest, least advantaged homes, the need to guarantee that their years of learning help lift them out of poverty is all the more pressing. We should consider the success of Dr. Chan’s model of the high performance public school.

Manitoba’s future depends on it.