On Solid Ground


Even in troubled surroundings, Detroit Public Schools find stability in Success for All.

The Detroit Public School district has had its share of issues, including a revolving door of district leadership with ten superintendents in the last nine years, numerous school closures, and high student turnover rates. But even amidst these challenges, Oakman and Thomas Edison elementary schools are thriving.

Looking for stability, schools in Detroit found the Success for All Foundation’s whole-school reform strategy. Oakman and Edison, along with three other Detroit elementary schools, adopted Success for All (SFA) in fall 2011 with help from a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant. Five more schools received i3 grants for implementation in fall 2012, bringing the total to ten schools in Detroit that have turned to SFA. So far, they have found that despite the disorder, every child can succeed when his or her teachers and school have the right tools.

It’s not difficult to fathom why Oakman was on what Principal Cheryl Price called a “roller coaster ride” with its test scores. Though the school made adequate yearly progress (AYP), scores fluctuated annually. “I was looking for a program that would help take us over that hump,” Price said. After investigating SFA, she found that its core parts were on target. “I was sold,” she said.

Edison Elementary was in a similar situation. While it met AYP, the school had issues with student performance and attendance. Principal Beverly Green found that SFA’s whole-school reform strategy included all the pieces that she felt it would take to address the school’s needs.

“A Partnership Made in Heaven”

Throughout her twenty-year tenure as Oakman’s principal, Price has been a constant in a sometimes unstable environment. Using techniques that mirrored some of SFA’s tenets, she utilized support teams and implemented differentiated instruction. However, some teachers struggled with this style. She discovered that SFA not only organized the instructional techniques already in place at her school but also provided the continuity and support that was missing for teachers. She also credits Laura Jawor, the school’s literary coach, for helping with organization and support. “The Success for All program just put it all together,” Price said. “It was a partnership made in heaven.”

Her worries about staff reluctance dissipated as she quickly found that “everyone was on board,” she said. “I didn’t have to go through continual explanation about why we were doing this. I think it was very clear.” Staff, students, and parents were all excited to see SFA implemented, and they eagerly awaited positive results.

They didn’t have to wait long. The first reading assessment in fall 2011 showed that 20 percent of students were reading on or above grade level. In spring 2012, that number had jumped to 46 percent. “We were flabbergasted,” said Price. “It was just an awesome response.”

Price credits SFA’s phonemic and cooperative-learning methods in helping to close the school’s achievement gaps. “By placing them in the SFA groups, they picked up what they were missing,” Price said. “They definitely became more confident.” She noted that students seemed more enthused to learn and that chronically tardy children were coming to school on time so they would not miss the SFA reading block (a ninety-minute period of uninterrupted reading time).

Though Oakman had intervention teams in place prior to implementing SFA, Price struggled with staff accountability. After reorganizing staff using SFA’s Leading for Success Schoolwide Solutions teams format, she discovered that members’ participation had greatly increased. All staff—including custodial and food service employees—chose which team to join, making them far more invested in seeing positive outcomes. “These teams were now connected to ‘What are the barriers to our students not performing?’” Price said. The difference in involvement was palpable. “They were just phenomenal,” she added.

Oakman’s Schoolwide Solutions Attendance team had especially noteworthy success. Prior to implementation, data indicated that only 52 percent of students were present on half days. After implementing incentives such as dress-down days, students were eager to come to school, and the numbers reflected the change in attitude. At the end of the last quarter, attendance on half days had increased to 94 percent.

Edison Elementary also used its Schoolwide Solutions Attendance team to address attendance issues. Sending postcards to parents and offering schoolwide incentives such as dress-down days proved effective. Facilitator LaShauna Harper credits the attendance committee’s “laser-focused efforts” for raising attendance from 86 percent in the first quarter to 90 percent in the third quarter. Green also noted that the Getting Along Together component—an aspect of the Schoolwide Solutions Cooperative Culture team that focuses on behavior—has decreased conflict among students.

“I’ve Never Seen Such Substantial Growth”

Edison has also seen noteworthy results after just one year of SFA implementation. In fall 2011, 20 percent of students were reading on or above grade level. In spring 2012, that number jumped to 43 percent—an increase of 23 percent. “I’ve never seen such a substantial amount of growth within one year’s time,” said Harper. “That speaks volumes to how well the program is working for our students.”

Harper and Green are quick to credit Edison staff, whose high expectations and collegial work ethic immediately meshed with SFA’s principles. Because “there was 100 percent buy-in,” according to Harper, “it seems that the transition has been seamless.”

As it did at Oakman, SFA combined all of Edison’s instructional components in an organized, cohesive package, something staff members appreciated. “Overall, they are really impressed with SFA,” said Harper.

Staff also valued SFA’s highly collaborative structure. “They, for the first time, felt like we have a common language,” Harper said. “Never have I experienced a schoolwide laser focus on a specific area, where we’re all looking at the same data, we’re using the same tools, the same resources, just to drive one particular focus.”

Parents have noticed improvements as well, Harper noted. Students come home excited about doing their reading homework, and parents are more aware of their children’s assignments.

No one is more convinced of SFA’s efficacy than Harper. She feels so strongly, in fact, that she struggled to contain her emotion when recounting a meeting with a concerned parent. Worried that his child was lagging in reading, she recalls fondly the parent’s huge smile when she reassured him that the school has proven, effective measures in place to ensure his child’s success.

A Steadfast Approach to Rigorous Standards

Michigan state assessment tests are given in the fall, which leaves teachers scrambling to prepare their students after a long summer off. Oakman’s and Edison’s positive results with SFA have so impressed school leaders that both schools opted to continue SFA instruction in summer school. “Our students made such fantastic gains during the school year, it was only fair that we provide the same opportunity for our summer learning academy,” Harper said. Both schools hope the continuity will better prepare students for fall testing.

SFA’s focus on problem solving and critical thinking also gives students tools that will be imperative for upcoming Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Because Edison students are already using these methods in everyday instruction, Harper feels they’re prepared for the new exacting standards. “With SFA, the rigor is embedded,” she said, “so when Common Core comes around, our students will definitely have the confidence to address any test.”

Price concurred, noting that SFA has also helped Oakman students prepare for CCSS. “We are feeling pretty comfortable that the standards will be achieved with the continued use of SFA,” she said.

Opportunities with i3

Oakman and Edison, along with three other Detroit schools, were able to implement SFA thanks to i3 grants. “I am very, very pleased with the program,” Price said of SFA, lamenting that without these funds, adopting the strategy would have been difficult, if not impossible. The i3 grant will continue to help schools in need, providing funds to enable five more Detroit public elementary schools to implement the strategy in fall 2012.

Harper aspires to be an example for other schools in Detroit and looks forward to opportunities to share Edison’s achievements. She is hopeful that administrators “will want to extend the same opportunity to other students in our district to allow them to experience the same success.”

In a district with its share of challenges, Oakman and Edison demonstrate what can be accomplished with a vision and solid structure to carry out that vision. Pleased with positive results after just one year, staff members are optimistic that Success for All will continue to help their students excel. As Harper summarized, with SFA, students are “no longer looking at where they are; they’re looking at where they’re going.”

The Success for All Foundation, founded in 1987, was awarded a $50 million federal Investing in Innovation (i3) scale-up grant in 2010. It enables eligible Title I elementary schools to receive grants of $50,000 or more toward first-year implementation costs. To learn more about available i3 grants, contact us at (800) 548-4998, ext. 2372, or visit www.successforall.org.