It is good to be back following a two week break in the sunshine state of Florida. Whilst I was in Orlando, at one of the many theme parks the family visited, I found myself in a considerably long queue with a group of students and teachers from Somerset South Homestead, the Principal and I got talking. Somerset South Homestead is a Charter School, the equivalent of an Academy school in England. Apparently the benefit of a Charter School is that it operates outside of the regulations that in-district schools are forced to follow, however, they are still accountable for academic results and must prove evidence of their performance capabilities.

One of the topics we discussed was the Race To The Top (RTTT) initiative where $4 billion was provided through competitive grants to states to encourage education innovation and reform in four areas: (1) enhancing standards and assessments, (2) improving collection and use of data, (3) increasing teacher effectiveness and achieving equity in teacher distribution, and (4) turning around low-achieving schools. Points are awarded in six areas with many subareas. Winning states must use the grant money to implement the programmes and plans detailed in their grant applications. As you can imagine we discussed the pros and cons of a state competition amongst schools to bring about higher standards and also provide greater equity.

A large majority of students attending Somerset South Homestead are African-American students, and I was keen to learn how the school approached breaking down cultural barriers and dealing with the achievement gap. The Principal clearly outlined, ‘that by almost every measure of academic performance and achievement, black males are on the wrong side of a staggering divide’. According to a published College Board report, black male students are 2.4 times as likely to have been suspended and twice as likely to have repeated a grade as white males. High-school graduation rates tell the same story — just 42% of black males graduated on time, compared with 71% of white males.

Obviously, I was keen to understand what the drivers were, especially in a system obsessed with testing and benchmarking IQ. We kept coming back to poverty and disadvantage where poor children are often denied the opportunity to reach their own maximum potential. However, in the right environment, with a range of well-planned interventions, (referring to after school enrichment activities), the achievement gap might be significantly narrowed. The word opportunity, or rather lack of opportunity, was a word that kept being repeated by the Principal, where students even with an average IQ, within a programme of interventions, made a significant difference to their High School achievement. The Principal described innovation as reduced class sizes (where apparently there was measurable impact in Tennessee) and a health care programme to help regulate students’ emotions. It was a real privilege gaining a first-hand insight into an alternative education system and also appreciating the challenges and frustrations that exist for teachers and leaders in America.

Jon Abbey

Managing Director, Camden Learning

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