by Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • June- July 1997

I will never forget our principal, Bernadine Hawthorne, as she addressed her new school faculty for the first time. With confidence and a gentle, but powerful determination, she explained: “Whatever you know about this school from previous years, whatever you’ve read in the papers about schools in this part of the city, whatever you saw when you drove into the neighborhood, I want you to know that these students can and will succeed academically. You will teach them and I will be here to help and support you as you make it happen. We’ll just do whatever it takes.”

Three years later, after much hard work, self-analysis, experimentation and refinement, our school had gone from being one of the lowest achieving schools in the city of San Diego, California, to being one of the highest. We proved to ourselves that issues of poverty and ethnicity did not limit our ability to teach, or our students’ ability to learn.

It has been my privilege to observe many schools in Texas achieve even greater levels of academic success. When the Texas Education Agency put forth the goal of 90 percent of all students passing each section of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test, many assumed that this was an impossible dream for schools challenged by poverty. Yet, in the 1995­1996 school year, 428 Texas schools with 50 percent or more of their students meeting free­ or reduced­price lunch criteria received “recognized” ratings, and another 54 such schools received “exemplary” ratings. Thus, the dream of having almost all students passing the TAAS test was actualized.

I have had the pleasure of visiting and studying several of these schools. My career as an educator has been powerfully affected and my faith in public education restored. My belief in the potential of parents, teachers, principals and support staff to work together to transform lives has been renewed and deepened as a result of my interactions with these schools.

When leaving Scott Elementary in Houston, you walk away believing that any goal can be achieved. When you visit Milam Elementary in Grand Prairie, you cannot help but be affected by their powerful passion for excellence. When you visit Dovalina Elementary in Laredo and walk around the surrounding area, you inevitably will tell yourself, “If they can accomplish this here, it can be accomplished anywhere!”

The less informed might assume that these schools have become “TAAS mills” B places where students and teachers have resigned themselves to focus on arduous rituals of drill and practice on TAAS­related issues. In general, these successful schools are not TAAS mills. In fact, studies by the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin conducted through the STAR Center (the comprehensive regional assistance center funded by the U.S. Department of Education to serve Texas, a collaborative of IDRA, the Dana Center at UT Austin and RMC Research Corporation) indicate otherwise. The findings suggest that the great majority of these schools are places where creativity abounds, there is a rich and full curriculum, and students and teachers enjoy a challenging educational experience. Part of the reason these schools are successful seems to be that they recognize the centrality of human relationships in the educational process. They recognize that students are not learning machines to be programmed, rather they are individuals with a broad range of valuable interests, abilities, curiosities and needs. They recognize that parents should not be considered scapegoats or obstacles, instead they should be treated as respected partners who bring important perspectives and often the untapped potential to grow in their capacity to support their children’s education. Similarly, at these schools, it is recognized that teachers, principals and support staff are not robots or drill machines. Instead, these schools are places where every educator is recognized as a valuable contributor with unique strengths and impressive potential to learn, grow and improve.

Again, the less informed might assume that these schools are satisfied with their accomplishment of state achievement goals. In spite of their high rates of poverty, many of these schools have achieved better results than some of the most affluent schools in their districts or regions. Yet, it does not take long to recognize that the passion for improvement goes far beyond state achievement goals and far beyond TAAS scores.

Any conversation with the principal or staff members from Pietsch Elementary in Beaumont will reveal that their focus far exceeds TAAS. They work to change the quality of life for children. A visit to the school library at Hueco Elementary in Socorro Independent School District (ISD) will reveal a mission that goes far beyond TAAS and focuses on developing strong literacy skills and interests among families. A visit to the HOSTS program (Help One Student To Succeed) at Marcell, Pearson, Waitz or Leal elementaries in Mission Consolidated ISD leads you to understand that their focus is not just on improving test scores, it is also on building a stronger community where adults and children recognize and value their ability to contribute to each other’s lives. At these schools, educators have dedicated themselves to whatever course of action they believe is necessary to make an intensive and sustained impact on the lives of the children and families they serve.

I am a better educator today because of my experiences with these high­achieving schools. I have a deeper sense of responsibility regarding my work because I better understand the difference that schools can make. These schools have given me a great sense of optimism about the future of public education because they prove what can be done. At the same time, these schools have given me a greater sense of urgency, because their accomplishments demand that we ask difficult questions of ourselves: “If it can happen here, why not everywhere?”

The number of successful schools is growing rapidly. I can envision a day when every child in a Texas public school B regardless of his or her income, race, ethnicity, language background or home situation B will attend a school that establishes an educational environment that enables that student to attain challenging levels of academic skills and secure the educational background that will allow that student to pursue a wide array of exciting opportunities upon graduation. It can happen. In some schools in Texas, it is already happening, with whatever it takes.

Critical Elements of High Performing Campuses

Certain elements are critical to assuring that high poverty schools become high performing schools. Activities alone will not notably improve student performance. Activities intended as minimal or remedial responses start from weak premises, they assume that students “don’t care,” “can’t learn,” or “won’t make the effort,” and they quickly lose strength. In direct contrast, activities gain strength from the critical elements (listed below). This is because the elements themselves derive from sound educational precepts: the valuing of students, their education and teachers. The critical elements assume that properly supported, students can learn and teachers can teach.

Effective administrative leadership – The principal sets the pace of change and promotes standards, exemplifies and encourages a positive atmosphere and enthusiasm for learning, expects creative problem solving from teachers, shares decision making with faculty, encourages academic leadership, supports professional development, evaluates programs, gives innovative programs time to work, and seeks faculty and student opinions.

Positive expectations – The principal is finely tuned to negative attitudes among students and faculty and reverses them.

Strong, integrated curriculum – The principal works with the faculty to develop a long­term campus plan with specific expected outcomes.

Shared decision making – The principal maintains close contact with the site­based management teams to coordinate goals and objectives. Decision­making teams include department chairs or core teachers, counselors and at­risk coordinators.

Campus­wide responsibility for teaching and success – Within the context established by other critical elements, successful schools initiate emphasis on reading, writing and mathematics across the curriculum.

– Adapted from Project Pathways: Programs That Work (San Antonio, Texas: IDRA, 1993).

Dr. Joseph F. Johnson, Jr. is a site director for the STAR Center and is the director of school improvement initiatives at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Comments and questions may be sent to him vie e­mail at

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June- July 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]