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Another Voice: School 61 shows the power of teacher transformation

By Eric J. Cooper

When I first walked into the Arthur O. Eve School of Distinction (School 61) last school year, the first thing I noticed was that there was little student work displayed on hallway bulletin boards or in common areas. While there was some artwork on the school walls that captured the excellence of the school, there were few examples of student writing, the unpacking of word problems or work in the content areas that captured the comprehension and critical thinking students gain when guided by their committed and caring teachers.

This academic year began as usual with School 61’s students, teachers and administrators having eagerly returned to learning and teaching with a shared high energy and a hope that their school of “distinction” would be recognized for the dramatically improved academic trajectory they are on. It may come as no surprise to learn that it’s now been a few weeks since the state Education Department released the results of last spring’s state assessments and no one has yelled from the rooftops, “Look at us!”

They should, because while a Buffalo News editorial was reporting that “our public schools are not doing a good enough job of educating our kids,” growth on the state tests for School 61’s students improved 20 percentile points from last school year. In fact, students from this small, unassuming, red brick building showed the largest gains among elementary schools in the district in English Language Arts — jumping from 14.8 to 34.7 in 2018.

In the fall of 2017, the Arthur O. Eve School partnered with the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education (NUA), a professional development organization focused on changing teachers’ perceptions and expectations of underachieving students, and the Center for Urban Education (CUE) at Canisius College — one organization a not-for-profit and the other a revered Jesuit college — both committed to using education to support social justice.

NUA mentors in, conjunction with Canisius College, taught and modeled what it looks like when teachers collaborate and students take control of their own learning. The partnership helped teachers overcome a lack of belief in students’ ability to succeed, something that had become ingrained over many years. By the time the state assessments were administered teachers were implementing the kind of enrichment in their classroom instruction more typically reserved for gifted and talented programs.

The results of the state exams at P.S. 61 show what can happen when teachers come to embrace the belief that all students have the potential to succeed at the highest levels — and then everyone involved, guided by professional development, put that belief on full display through improved performance on assessments, grades and student projects.

Eric J. Cooper is president and founder of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, an organization founded at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the College Board.

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