K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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In December 2006 we, the educators involved in Communities In Schools (CIS) of Wake County, recognized that too many children enrolled in our after-school learning centers received failing grades in core classes. Fifteen-year-old Davonte summed it up for many students when he said that his Ds were “good enough” to pass and be promoted. He did not believe in the power of education to positively impact his life. Yet Davonte admitted that he was smarter than his Ds suggested and that he could do better. We knew it, too.

Immediately we began examining not only what we were doing for our students, but also what is achievable in after-school programming for African American children living in poverty. Determined to find evidence-based best practices, we quickly discovered it is possible to create an after-school environment where children experience a passion for learning and a purpose for their education and are motivated to achieve their personal best.

Of the nearly 900 at-risk K-12 students served 2007-2008 by Communities In Schools of Wake County — 97% of whom are African-American — approximately 220 are enrolled in our five after-school learning centers, located in public housing communities run by the Raleigh Housing Authority. These children grow up in generational poverty, sharing with their mothers — and usually their grandmothers — the experience of struggling to survive one day at a time.

They are what a leading scholar on the experiences of minority students in the classroom describes as “America’s stepchildren.”1

For CIS Wake students like Davonte, we needed to make some changes. In December 2006 we tracked the grades of our middle school students in their four core courses. The average grade was low D to F. This was unacceptable. We knew our students could achieve more.

We found research that proved that excellence for our students is not only possible but also is being actualized in programs across the nation. We resolved that ours would be one of those programs. The results have been startling. In just the first six months — after (1) improving case management for middle school students, (2) lowering the educator-to-student ratio, and (3) setting the goal for each student to accept nothing less than excellence — CIS Wake’s middle school students’ core course grades improved two full letter grades, to C and low C averages. The change didn’t happen overnight and we aren’t anywhere near where we want to be but we are heading in the right direction.

Chart comparing middle school grades from 2006 to 2007.

The problem

Research shows that there are demonstrable vocabulary differences between poor and middle class families. This disparity has enormous impact on children’s readiness to learn. Studies by child psychologists at the University of Kansas show that “…vocabulary growth differed sharply by class… By age 3 children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words.”2

How could an after-school tutorial program make up for this inequity? Simply put, “attitude is just as important as ability.”3 Each staff person, board member, donor, and volunteer had to see each student’s potential rather than his or her profile. Yes, these children live in public housing and often begin their schooling far behind their suburban counterparts in basic reading and math skills, but research shows that given the right motivation and support these children can improve their grades and their opportunities for the future.

The path taken

Communities In Schools of Wake County hired Compass Consulting of Durham, NC, an education consulting company with expertise in classroom education and school tutorials, to provide a matrix of standards by which to measure our effectiveness.

After ascertaining that our organizational structure would support the necessary changes and that our learning centers are safe and nurturing environments for students, we looked at the qualifications of our program leaders; the nature of our program activities, including behavioral issues of the students; and the depth of our family and community support. We emphasized rigorous academic methods that engage students where they are, encourage them, and provide stimulation and support for them to succeed. Students of Communities In Schools of Wake County are encouraged to have a college-ready mindset, to set short- and long-term academic goals, and to employ the education tools with which to be successful.

We continued to situate the CIS Wake learning center in the students’ home communities, often just steps away from a student’s house. By bringing learning into the neighborhood, we can be a bridge between the classroom/school and the family/community.

The paradigm shift

We, the educators at Communities In Schools of Wake County, have dedicated ourselves to providing not only a safe and nurturing environment but also a place of academic success, positive behavior, and rigor for students.

We are on a path to

  1. reduce the staff-to-student ratio from as much as 1:40 to 1:10 as quickly as resources allow (research shows that students working in groups of 5-6 with an educator achieve the greatest improvements in test scores, grades, and self-esteem4);
  2. employ an individual-student, education-based case management approach that includes tracking and drawing conclusions from frequent communications with parents, classroom teachers, school counselors and administrators, and students;
  3. measure students’ success by the following indices:
    • attendance in school and the after-school learning center,
    • behavior reports from the classroom and the after-school learning center,
    • grades that reflect each child’s desire to be the best that he or she can be; and
  4. increase the number of trained educators in the learning centers to maximize student achievement by ensuring that
    • each learning center has one full-time program coordinator,
    • new hires have college degrees in education or child development, and
    • each lead program coordinator is supported by certified public school teachers who spend 1-3 hours a day, Monday through Thursday, focusing on tutorial and study habits for students.

The results

In just the first half year of this new rigorous approach to converting community centers to learning centers, our students and staff have produced amazing results.

The learning centers have become places where students who succeed academically are rewarded with applause and pats on the back from not only staff members but also fellow students. Volunteers are an adjunct to the classroom management and pedagogy that trained teachers bring to the environment.

When students see their program coordinators in school talking with their teachers, they know the coordinator truly cares about their academic success. Students know if they misbehave in school or on the bus, their CIS Wake program coordinators will know about it and hold them accountable during after-school tutorial. Children know that in the learning center, if they are rude to a CIS Wake volunteer, their parents will be called, they will have to go home, and they won’t be able to return until they have written a letter of apology.

Students know that if a B is not their best they will be asked to set a goal of an A, but if a B is the best they can do, they know they will celebrate with CIS Wake staff, students, and volunteers.

For many years, Americans believed getting a good education would result in getting a good job, a better future, financial security, and a chance to provide for oneself and one’s family. That faith has been shattered for many students living in poverty. Education has become woefully undervalued and a safe, prosperous future seems like a dream that is only for the athletically gifted or kids living in suburbia.

The future

With our knowledge and commitment and constant evaluation of our efforts and our students’ results, we, the educators of Communities In Schools of Wake County, are determined to restore faith in the idea that gaining a good education leads to a better life.

We continue to track student progress and look for improved ways to motivate children toward not just a better grade but also a genuine engagement in learning. Success requires new scripts featuring positive behavior reinforcement instead of negative discipline. We must help students connect their education to their heart’s desire and inspire them to believe in and become their best every day, in every class, for every assignment.

In short, we must convince all the Davontes we meet that “just passing” isn’t good enough — not in school and not in life.