May 19, 1999

May 19, 1999 | News Releases on Education

Poverty "No Excuse" for Failure of Children to Learn, Think Tank Says

WASHINGTON, MAY 19, 1999-All students can achieve when excellence is expected of them, says a new Heritage Foundation report profiling seven principals whose predominantly low-income Hispanic and African-American students score significantly above the national average in core subjects.

In "No Excuses: Seven Principals of Low-Income Schools Who Set the Standard for High Achievement," Heritage Bradley Fellow Samuel Casey Carter examines each local success story and finds a common thread: principals who refuse to tolerate failure. Although at least 75 percent of the students in these schools come from low-income families, they score in the 65th percentile or higher on national exams. Nationwide, schools with 75 percent of low-income students score below the 35th percentile on national exams.

The Heritage Foundation today presented these seven principals with its 1999 Salvatori Prize for American Citizenship. The $30,000 Salvatori Prize, named for entrepreneur and philanthropist Henry Salvatori, was divided among the seven principals, who lead schools in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Houston and Inglewood, Calif.

Heritage awards the Salvatori Prize annually to American citizens who have shown extraordinary initiative in helping their communities solve problems the government has been unable to solve. The principals receiving the 1999 Salvatori Prize are: Hellen DeBerry, Earhart Elementary, Chicago; Michael Feinberg, KIPP Academy, Houston; Gregory Hodge, Frederick Douglass Academy, New York City; Nancy Ichinaga, Bennett-Kew Elementary, Inglewood, Calif.; Irwin Kurz, The Crown School (P.S. 161), Brooklyn, N.Y.; David Levin, KIPP Academy, Bronx, N.Y.; and Ernestine Sanders, Cornerstone Schools, Detroit.

The awards ceremony is the kick-off event in Heritage's "No Excuses" campaign, which is intended to recognize and reward educators who focus on leadership, not dollars. "Participants in the campaign may disagree about vouchers, federal funding and other policy issues, but all agree there is no excuse for the failure of schools to teach poor children," says Adam Meyerson, Heritage vice president for educational affairs.

These principals wield no magic formula-just "hard work and tireless dedication to academic achievement," Carter writes-and their success could be replicated at other low-income schools nationwide. Despite large class sizes (35 per classroom in one school) and shoestring budgets, they produce outstanding students, undermining the pervasive myth that only "rich kids" can perform well in school.

"It's a lot of garbage that poor kids can't succeed," says Irwin Kurz, principal of The Crown School in Brooklyn. And Kurz ought to know. When he first came to the school 13 years ago, students were testing in the bottom 25 percent among schools in Brooklyn's District 17. Now they score in the 71st percentile in reading and the 78th percentile in math, and the 6th grade at Crown has the second-highest reading score in all of New York state. Nearly 100 percent of the student body at Crown comes from low-income families.

Kurz and the other principals say high expectations aren't enough. Schools must create an atmosphere of success, holding teachers accountable for student achievement, Carter says. For these principals, teacher quality supersedes seniority. They personally recruit the best instructors they can find and give them freedom to adapt their individual styles to the needs of their students. In return, the principals demand results-and get them.

"We put no limits on what teachers can do here," says Michael Feinberg, director of KIPP Academy in Houston. "But their signed commitment to excellence makes them morally and contractually obligated to see that their students succeed. They know they have to teach until the kids get it." Not surprisingly, the students at KIPP and the other schools aren't given a free pass to the next grade level-they must show they've mastered their subjects.

But before they can grant freedom to their staffs, principals must have it themselves, Carter says. The success of the Salvatori principals shows that principals must be free to decide how to spend their money, who to hire and what to teach. It's this kind of flexibility that allows them to succeed.

Educators frequently cite a lack of parental involvement to explain student failure. That's not a problem among the seven successful principals, who stress the need to have a home environment conducive to education. To ensure that the home is a "center of learning," these schools establish contracts with parents, who pledge to support the school's efforts by checking homework and reading to their children.

Hard work breeds success, these principals say. The motto of the KIPP Academies sums up this attitude: "There are no shortcuts." It works. At the KIPP Academy in Houston, a student body that is 95 percent low income scores in the 61st national percentile for reading and the 81st national percentile for math. The same holds for the KIPP Academy in the Bronx, where low-income students test in the 69th percentile in reading and the 81st percentile in math.

It also works at New York City's Frederick Douglass Academy, where Principal Gregory Hodge strives to have every graduate earn a full college scholarship. And not just any college: Members of this year's graduating class will attend Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Tufts and Amherst, as well as traditionally black colleges such as Morehouse, Lincoln, Morris Brown and Xavier.

And what of Chicago, whose public-school system former Education Secretary William Bennett once called "the worst in the nation"? Though the system is improving, 65 percent of that city's students still score below the national average in reading. But at Earhart Elementary, Hellen DeBerry built a school where the students-82 percent of whom qualify for the free or reduced-cost lunch program-score in the 70th percentile for reading and the 80th percentile for math.

"We instill a desire to overachieve," DeBerry says. "Economic status has nothing to do with intellectual ability. You have to set your standards regardless of constituency. Provide the free meals to those who need them, but keep your standards."

About the Author

Related Issues: Education