I am honored to serve as the principal of a thriving traditional public middle school in the Connecticut suburb of West Hartford. Last year, Kiplinger Personal Finance Magazine listed West Hartford as one of our country’s “10 Great Cities for Raising Families.” Why? Great public schools are one reason and my school, Sedgwick Middle School, is part of that proud tradition. Since Cranston recently received its own accolades, named by GoLocalProv as Rhode Island’s number one community, I know that residents here understand all that goes into creating a flourishing place to live.
But there is more work to be done in our communities and our schools. While we in West Hartford have been generally successful in raising the test scores of all students, we found that the achievement gap between low-income students and their wealthier peers had persisted. Year after year, though our scores went up overall, the gap remained.
In 2004 I met with my faculty and challenged them to look at programs that were finding success at closing the gap, even if they were serving a distinctly different population, so that we could adopt, adapt or even create something unique to our building that had the promise of reducing the achievement gap for our students.
Shortly after that meeting, one of my teachers asked if I would purchase the PBS special on the success of Achievement First’s Amistad Academy for our teachers to view. After viewing the documentary, they asked if they could visit the Achievement First schools in nearby New Haven. We sent our first team of teachers for a visit in April of 2005. Since then, over 70 members of our staff members have visited Amistad Academy.
One of my grade six team teachers attended the first Amistad Academy visit and came away so impressed that he asked his team to immediately implement their REACH values, which stands for Respect, Enthusiasm, Achievement, Citizenship and Hard Work. The Achievement First model teaches these values as explicitly as academics.
Other faculty members suggested that this teacher wait and start fresh in the fall. They felt that having only two months to test out the impact of the REACH principles was insufficient. He could not be dissuaded and felt compelled to start right away. He was committed to the concept of teaching children the behaviors critical to academic success.
Within two weeks, teachers reported a significant difference in the way students who were being taught the REACH values entered their classroom, behaved in the hallways, came prepared for instruction and performed academically.
The next fall, all three grade six teams adopted the REACH principles as the foundation for their instruction. They were quickly able to change the culture of sixth grade students from one where doing well in school was not “cool” to where doing well in school was “cool.” A focus on homework completion resulted in an increase from 50 percent to 60 percent on daily assignments.
Now all three grade levels and all teams use the REACH principles as part of our instructional model. As with any change, some teachers and some teams have progressed further in its implementation than others. We have, however, gone from borrowing the ideas from the Amistad Academy to sharing our ideas with one another to further improve our performance.
Bringing successful programs like Achievement First into communities provides a model and an inspiration to other public school programs looking for ways to improve their own performance. I doubt there is a single school in Rhode Island that is sitting idly by, unaffected by the embarrassment of an achievement gap. There may be some who choose to explain it away. But there are many who could benefit by learning from those who have real students in real educational settings with real results. Our job as educators is to look for answers wherever they can be found. At Sedgwick we have found some answers by looking at the work being done by Achievement First.
Benjamin J. Skaught, Ph.D. is the principal of Sedgwick Middle School in West Hartford, Connecticut.