Fulton principal on defying the odds: ‘Good is never an option when better is possible.’

Despite a 98 percent poverty level, Conley Hills Elementary in East Point outscored many other elementary schools in Fulton and the state. (Fulton County Schools photo)

Serena Lowe, the principal of Conley Hills Elementary School in East Point, sent a note about her Fulton County school, which, despite high poverty levels, scored an 80.2 on the state’s latest College and Career Ready Performance Index.

The College and Career Ready Performance Index is used to show which Georgia schools are “persistently failing.” Determined by several factors including test scores, student growth and reduction of achievement gaps, CCRPI scores are supposed to be roughly equivalent to the result a student can get on a test, with a grade in the 70s being average.

If voters pass Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District in November, the state will take over schools based on chronically low CCRPI scores. According to Department of Education data from the 2014-2015 school year, the average CCRPI score for a Georgia elementary school is 76; the average for a Fulton County elementary is 77.4.  Conley Hills Elementary’s score of 80.2 surpasses the state and Fulton averages.

“For those who believe poverty and poor performance are synonymous, Conley Hills has proven them to be wrong,” said Conley principal Lowe.

I asked Lowe to share the policies, practices and programs responsible for her school’s success. Here is her essay:

By Serena Lowe

In the wake of a possible state takeover of low-performing schools, I would like to introduce you to an impoverished Fulton County School that is beating the odds, Conley Hills Elementary in East Point.

With 700 students, a 98 percent free and reduced lunch rate and a high special education population, this Title I school not only consistently outperforms schools with like demographics but also boasts scores above some upper middle-class communities based on Georgia’s College and Career-Ready Performance Index. Our latest score — released by the state in May — is to 80.2. (Past scores: 2013-57.6, 2014-70.5, And 2015-73.6.)

With the majority of the Georgia schools eligible for the proposed Opportunity School District being elementary schools, the AJC Get Schooled blog asked for our “Secret Sauce.”

Many educators are looking for the “perfect fix” to improving student achievement. They hear about schools with amazing gains and are eager to seek out the administrators from those schools to help them duplicate the same success at their own schools.

Unfortunately, educating students is not a “copy and paste” process. The schools that are most successful in improving student achievement have been through the fire and have tested enough strategies/programs/curriculum changes to know what works and what doesn’t. They take the time to learn what motivates their students, parents, and teachers. They do not accept defeat and strive daily to make the greatest impact possible.

Our approach is simple. We do what we need to help our students succeed. Teaching and learning at Conley Hills is student-centered, needs-based, research-driven, and unapologetically HUMAN.  We have taken intentional steps to get to know our community, our families and, most importantly, the needs of the students we serve. We believe in strong leadership, results-based teaching, and high expectations of staff, students and parents as well as stakeholders. We cultivate and promote a never-stop learning, never-stop growing, never-stop striving, and never-stop believing in our abilities as a school.

We take our role as seed planters into America’s future seriously. Therefore, if an instructional initiative does not work, we stop it. If an instructional initiative is successful, we promote it, and continuously refine it.  We adopt and implement many innovative teaching practices to stay on the cutting edge.

However, we still use a few “old school” practices that are tried and true. We expose our students to experiences they may never have access to otherwise and we continuously promote college and career readiness.  At Conley Hills, good is never an option when better is possible.  In this spirit, we have adopted the following beliefs and practices into our school culture

1. Belief: All students can learn.

Practice:  Conley Hills is a place where teaching and learning is personal. We offer differentiation for both our students and teachers. We want our students to learn in multiple ways. Conley began the journey to differentiation by examining achievement data, conducting needs assessments, identifying individual learning styles, and conducting interest inventories. It is commonplace to see students engaged in custom work stations, choice boards and flexible groups. Teachers participate in professional learning in cohorts, through “speed dating,” or based on choice.

2. Belief: Teachers must continuously learn and be scholars of the subject matter they teach.

Practice: Not only do we implement needs based learning for students, but we also offer need-based professional development for teachers. At the beginning of each school year, every teacher receives a risk-free diagnostic observation for coaching and goal setting purposes only. We then determine the professional learning needs of our teachers by considering their evaluation scores, examining student achievement data, conducting needs-based surveys, identifying instructional trends, and conducting interest inventories.  We provide ongoing professional learning, personalized professional development, instructional coaching and support.  And we desire for our teachers to instruct in a manner that reaches all of their learners.

3. Belief: Our student population does not have access and exposure to the same educational opportunities, programs or enrichment as the majority of their same-age peers.

Practice: We became a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Charter School. This has been a three-year process which involved the full engagement of all of our stakeholders. Students engage in frequent STEM labs, experiences, competitions, and problem solving. Additionally, we have increased stakeholder involvement by bringing them in to show our students how they can make connections between what they learn in school, the real world and their career goals. We are also pursuing Georgia STEM Certification. So far, we have seen a steady increase in reading achievement, STAR math scores, and our overall CCPRI score.

4. Belief: Behavior and culture are important. Our students and parents want to learn in a safe, orderly, and stimulating environment. Even so, they still need encouragement.

Practice: We implement and promote Positive Behavior Intervention Systems; also known as PBIS. This program is a research-based approach to improving both school discipline and culture through the implementation of universal expectations, emphasis on school attendance, student centered-approaches, relationship building, focus on positive behavior, and restorative practices. Over the past three years, Conley Hills has experienced a steady decline in discipline referrals up to 15-plus percent and an increase in student attendance by 4 percent. We are now a state-recognized PBIS school.

5. Belief: Exceptional instruction is essential.

Practice: We recruit, retain, and cultivate top-notch teachers. This is done by careful selection processes.  Teachers who desire to join our team must not only meet Fulton County’s requirements to enter the teacher pool. They must also complete a panel interview, a demonstration teaching lesson, and additional reference checks. Additionally, new teachers are automatically engaged in our Teacher Induction Program, which is led by a team to include administrators, teacher-leaders who also serve as mentors, a virtual coach, and instructional support staff. We also ensure that experienced teachers receive ongoing instructional coaching, differentiated support, and opportunities to reach their full potential.

6. Belief: We believe in educating the WHOLE child. Our parents love their children, and expect us to also.  Many of our families need help outside of what happens in a classroom.

Practice: We provide numerous wrap-around services and support for our families.  In these efforts, we offer extensive support for students experiencing homelessness to ensure they are still attending school and try to limit transfers as much as possible. We also have a unique relationship with a community counseling agency that provides mental health services to our students on-site. We rely on the generosity of several donors and business partners who provide emergency financial support to our neediest families.  Students who need food over the weekend participate in our “Blessings in a Backpack” program.  We seek the help of programs such as “Toys for Tots,” local mentoring programs, and any other program that might meet the specific needs of our students.

 

Reader Comments 0

58 comments
gactzn2
gactzn2

 Private charter industries largely commodify the education of poor students.  They are there to capitalize from the poverty of poor students (black students) before passing  it along to the next group who will do the same.  The schools they select: Memphis, New Orleans, Atlanta, Detroit, etc.  They are capitalizing off of children residing in low SES communities that are in and around urban centers, because Title 1 schools have much larger budgets.  Why are they not attracted to similar schools in much poorer rural areas?

Deneice Web
Deneice Web

Congratulations on a job well done Christina Lewis Freeman!

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

Where is that @Astropig?!


I want him to take the multiple choice test.


It was created with him in mind.

class80olddog
class80olddog

And then thee students go on to Tri-Cities High School where the graduation rate is 67%.

class80olddog
class80olddog

There is a little disconnect here - how can their CCRPI score be above 80 when their EOC rating of proficient or above is never above 35%? (in 3rd grade it is not above 20%)

Christie_S
Christie_S

@class80olddog CCRPI is based on several things, not just EOG scores.  From the DOE website: 


"The CCRPI includes four main components: 

Achievement, Progress, Achievement Gap, and Challenge Points. These components, encompassing multiple indicators, are combined for a total CCRPI score on a scale of 0 to 100, with a possibility of 10 additional points. The CCRPI also reports other information, such as the performance of student subgroups, school climate, and financial efficiency status. "


Emphasis is mine.




BRV
BRV

CCRPI isn't based on absolute performance. Without looking up their CCRPI I'm certain that they received a big bump in the "Closing the gap" component. I think that test-based accountability ramking systems are deeply flawed. That said if we're going to have them they need the have a component that attempts to measure actual vs expected performance as is the purpose of closing the gap. Simply labeling Conley Hills and other low-income schools as bad in comparison to schools with fewer disadvantaged students makes no sense when we know that there is an extreme correlation between family income and test scores.

Starik
Starik

@Christie_S @class80olddog CCRPI is weighted to give a lot of emphasis to factors other than academic performance.  Quite an achievement nevertheless.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@class80olddog CCRPI (Called Crappy by many) seems to be generally random and capricious.  You can even ask some "high performing schools" which sometimes don't seem so extraordinary on CCRPI.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

Ah yes. "We became a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Charter School....."

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

Hot dang!  Apparently, an educationist, a leader, in Serena Lowe.

Now, a multiple choice test:

Select one or more of the following habits of mind a school can adopt only if the school is a charter school.

[ ] A. “Unfortunately, educating students is not a ‘copy and paste’ process.”

[   ] B. “Teaching and learning … is student-centered, needs-based, research-driven, and unapologetically HUMAN.”

[   ] C. “We cultivate and promote a never-stop learning, never-stop growing, never-stop striving, and never-stop believing in our abilities as a school.”

[   ] D. “[I]f an instructional initiative does not work, we stop it. If an instructional initiative is successful, we promote it, and continuously refine it.”

[   ] E. “[G]ood is never an option when better is possible.”

[   ] F. “At the beginning of each school year, every teacher receives a risk-free diagnostic observation for coaching and goal setting purposes only.”

[   ] G. None of the above.


Wascatlady
Wascatlady

I'd love some specifics: How did they get the on-site counseling?  How did they even get it approved to be on-site (in terms of liability, etc) if a private group would offer it?  What other community supports do they have, and how are they funded or arranged?


What is involved in this behavior-management turn-around? How are non-compliars handled (parents and children)?  Examples?


Also, more discussion about their high percentage of sped students--how are these students accommodated--push in, pull out, what?

iwd
iwd

I applaud the author and the school. However, somewhat rare exceptions to well-researched evidence should not make us lose sight of the fact that high-poverty schools tend to face much greater challenges than other schools and require more resources (yes money) to help kids succeed. To pretend otherwise feeds into the canard that money and other resources do not matter. In addition, we must recognize that higher-wealth schools have all sorts of "off the books" resources (PTAs, booster clubs, greater volunteer time) that high-poverty schools do not have. Poverty has a cost to children. Students come in - yes on average - less prepared to learn. We need to invest more in higher-poverty schools (and ideally to desegregate schools so there are fewer high poverty schools - the evidence that poor kids do better in less poor schools is overwhelming) to provide for equal opportunity going forward. To merely say, "this school succeeded so all can" is not an intelligent response.

sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

@iwd Thank you for your post and for pointing out in a very honest way that you cannot always scale up these type of success stories. There are those who believe that the only option for our schools that struggle is to pass the OSD and put their trust into the hands of the privately managed charter industry, even though it has been a miserable failure at almost every turn. 


When it comes to the privately-managed charters, you will see them swoop in with promises of turning around our schools and then, if and when they fail to do so or they deem that the schools and the children are no longer profitable they schools will not be returned to the community but will be passed on as another experiment to another privately-managed charter company. 


Here is a piece worthy of reading by Jack Hassard:

http://www.artofteachingscience.org/open-your-eyes-georgians-the-misfortunate-school-district-is-on-the-way/


and here is another piece in the NY times about the charter industry in Detroit


http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/29/us/for-detroits-children-more-school-choice-but-not-better-schools.html?rref=collection/timestopic/Charter Schools&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection&_r=0

Astropig
Astropig

@sneakpeakintoeducation @iwd


" Thank you for your post and for pointing out in a very honest way that you cannot always scale up these type of success stories"


You can't if you never try.

sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

Again you're being disingenuous; it has been tried numerous time and failed numerous times.

sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

Just because it hasn't been tried in Georgia doesn't mean it hasn't been tried in other states. We can look at that data, we can look at the outcomes, we can look at the lack of accountability and transparency, we can look at the enriching of politicians coffers, we can look at the removal of funding from local schools, we can look at the enriching of privateers and CEO's salaries/bonuses, we can look at the chaos that is invited by adding a state-controlled charter system, we can look at the removal of a democratic process, we can look at the layers of beaurocracy, we can look at the loss of a community school.

Ypu want the state to follow a tried and tested system that has failed. You are insane.

sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

@Wascatlady @sneakpeakintoeducation

Exactly, why should we believe that after failed experiments elsewhere Georgia will suddenly have the magic sauce. This experiment cannot be undone once set in place. If the private management charter companies don't cut the mustard or decide that they can't make a big enough profit off our children, the school and it's contents will simply be turned over to the next private management charter company and not returned to the community.

Astropig
Astropig

"the AJC Get Schooled blog asked for our “Secret Sauce.”"


From reading Ms. Lowe's essay,it would appear that there is nothing secret about it. The "secret" is out there for all to see.It involves hard work and no allegiance to the status quo mindset that exists in the schools that don't  achieve at an acceptable level. She is essentially saying the same thing,the same way that Governor Deal is saying it-that poverty is no excuse to accept anything less than success in public schools. She has the modalities in place to make this a reality-namely that she is in charge of a charter school that has the flexibility to realize that all students have different needs and require different approaches. Why some here would deny that to other students is a mystery to me,but for nakedly political,selfish reasons,they would. Governor Deal's proposal would give all failing schools a chance to find a Serena Lowe and turn them loose on the problems that have defied repair for decades.


Now,there's only a certain number of talented folks like her out there,so don't expect instant miracles (the "secret sauce" query implies that there is some shortcut to improvement. If only...)


I could not admire Ms. Lowe's "can do" spirit and feisty non-conformist attitude any more if I tried. She's the best salesperson that I can think of for the OSD proposal that will be on the ballot in November.She shows what poverty-challenged families could have available to them,educationally speaking,if there was a way to bypass their local neglectful school boards and short circuit the lumbering bureaucrats that have a giant stake in the current failing system. I'm sure she scares the bejabbers out of the educrat potentates that have no way to muzzle or fire her.





sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

Your assumption is that only privately managed charters can provide this sort of turn around when the evidence doesn't back up that claim.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Astropig "Secret sauce" is the author's term. What I asked exactly:


Ms. Lowe, Can you write an op-ed column about what you did at Conley to improve teaching and learning? Also, what happens when these kids go to middle and high school? Have the other schools in feeder also adopted your approach? One of the trends I have seen is that these gains can be lost if the middle and high schools are not aligned. Maureen Downey

Astropig
Astropig

@sneakpeakintoeducation


Never made that assumption.She's walking the walk here in a public charter school.The kind that every poor family could have-if people like you would just go away.

Astropig
Astropig

@PJ25 @Astropig


"This will pass by a landslide."


It probably will.


I remember in my coming of age years another cartel that told me that I didn't really want safe,well made cars that got good fuel mileage.No, what I REALLY wanted were what they sold. Rusty,unreliable,gas guzzling-That was the way to go.I didn't realize how good a car could be until I bought a Toyota.I'm never going back.


This is a story as old as human existence-When someone or group comes up with something better,the incumbent(s) feel threatened because they have the most to lose and they react violently,politically,irrationally-But (as the article above points out) better always wins out over merely good.Thus it will be here.

sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

Again, no proof of ypur assumptions that the OSD is the answer. Just the same vile and evasive response we now expect from you.

sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

Are you being wilfully ignorant. The states laboratories have tried this in numerous cities and it has failed. The charter schools already in our state that are state controlled were recently reviewed and the report shows they are not the answer. If anything they are 1. undemocratic once put in the hands of the governor and his layers of beaurocracy, 2. inefficient since it creates dual systems with overlapping , embedded costs. The privately run charter industry will drain much needed resources from our public schools, 3. do not provide better outcomes for our students. The privately managed charter industry must first and foremost provide maximum profits for their shareholders and CEO's 4. the lack of transparency with the privately managed charter schools is a huge problem and has led to much fraud and theft. A recent report showed even though the industry is fairly small when it comes to the % of students it serves the level of fraud is massive at an estimated $1.4 billion in 2015.

BRV
BRV

Do you mean to tell me that if the item read, "the state shall create a charter authorizer that shall enable the charter industry to bypass suburban and rural school boards" (the true purpose of the state charter commission) that it might have had a lot less support? No way.

Astropig
Astropig

@sneakpeakintoeducation


Just another load of talking points BS.You status quo defenders and your media allies have let your blind,irrational hatred of Nathan Deal render you incapable of anything but histrionics.Any refutation of his OSD proposal always founders on the fact that your side has to defend the status quo,which has been a proven failure.The only clear path you can (apparently) see to defeating this is to make the public hate it just a smidgen more than they hate the system we have in place.You haven't done that yet,so I doubt that it will work this time either.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@Astropig @PJ25 Please look at BRVs note below. You are thinking this is a charter school in that special, magical way.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@BRV @Astropig Another example of that mendacity of referendum language would be that of the vote we had a couple of years ago to allow the state to charter schools, rather than requiring them to be chartered by the system.


I have GOT to remember to save the next national Republican party survey I get so that I can post some of its questions here.  If you had even a high school psych class, you would laugh at loud at the loaded language used to try to ensure your agreement.

Astropig
Astropig

@Wascatlady @Astropig @PJ25


I never said it was magical.I said (and say again),that the OSD can identify and hire people like Ms.Lowe and give failing schools a chance to improve.Believing that they will improve with no changes is a belief in magic.

sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

Assumptions again. I don't hate Gov. Deal. I do hate to repeat proven failures while you live them. That is the definition of insanity.

sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

I never said he has failed. Again, you hadvery a predilection for putting words into my mouth. I said the OSD's already tried have failed.

Astropig
Astropig

@sneakpeakintoeducation


You stated that you can't educate your way out of poverty,so maybe you need somebody to put some sentient words in there.

Astropig
Astropig

@BRV


The winners at the polls get to word the amendments and only then do the voters decide.If your side would run electable candidates,you wouldn't be sitting there griping.

BRV
BRV

@Astropig @BRV I'd be griping either way. That's what's implied by, "that's par for the course in politics". I didn't mention Republicans specifically because they certainly aren't alone in using sleight of hand when it suits them. 


Besides, the money behind the state charter commission effort came from D's too. DFER, TFA's 501c4 and others on the D side were major donors to the pro commission campaign. So once again you don't see the complete picture kinda like when you implied that Conley Hills isn't a district-run school.


Running electable candidates is important, but I'm not sure it's more important than being in control when electoral boundaries are created. 


Just as importantly money matters, a lot. When one side outspends the other by more than 10x in an election, the big money side wins generally speaking. That's one of the less admirable aspects of US politics, but it's the reality.



sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

Didn't you notice the number of community and wrap-around services this school gets? Putting a hungry, sick, neglected, abused child in front of a teacher is not going to do it. But, as I've always said and you refuse to acknowledge, when these other things are in place then true learning happens. Educate yourself on Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs for a fuller understanding of the needs that must be met before learning can happen.

BRV
BRV

@Astropig Conley Hills is a district-run, neighborhood-zoned public school. It's charter only to the extent that Fulton County Schools opted for charter rather than IE2 status. So you can save the straw men potentates for another day.


Replication and scalability have proven to be thoroughly elusive when it comes to successful examples of low-income schools that don't rely on cream skimming and/or significantly outspending their peers as part of their secret sauce. As the spouse of someone who has worked in high-poverty schools in both lower-poverty and high-poverty school districts I think that the intensity of poverty district-wide is an oft-overlooked factor in why low-income schools struggle. I'm less surprised when I see success stories in districts like Fulton. Kudos to the staff and families at Conley Hills nonetheless.


As for the OSD, I think its proponents sincerely believe that it will improve educational outcomes though it is at the same time a completely naked power and money grab. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary there are many people who believe that efficient market theory applies to education. So despite the fact that the OSD model hasn't improved outcomes in the US or the fact that market-based schemes haven't improved education in other countries (but they have increased segregation by race and SES everywhere they've been implemented) we'll keep marching down the market path. There are no data that will deter true believers from their faith. 


The mendacity of the OSD referendum language is impressive, but that's par for the course in politics.