THE BUSINESS COUNCIL'S PATHFINDER AWARD 2001
The Business Council created the Pathfinder Awards to recognize elementary schools that showed the most improvement from one year to the next as demonstrated by their results on the 4th grade English Language Arts test. As approved by the Board of Directors in December of 1999, the purpose of the Pathfinder Awards program was two-fold.
- To provide recognition and reward to individual schools that are making strong progress in meeting the higher educational standards we believe are needed to prepare students for success in the 21st Century.
- And to publicize the fact that these higher standards can be achieved – by calling widespread attention to the example set by these schools.
Award presentations for 2000 were made mostly in conjunction with chambers of commerce in the late fall (2000) through early spring (2001). The Pathfinder Award consists of a $1,000 award and a specially designed trophy by an upstate artist (Richard Harrington). To insure statewide distribution of the awards we decided to honor the two most improved schools in a Judicial District (except in special circumstances where only tenths of a percentage point difference in improvement separated the schools). Winning schools had the greatest percentage improvement in their Judicial District with a threshold of at least 50 percent of their students performing at levels 3 and 4 (meeting and exceeding the standards).
A total of 27 awards were given out because three schools received the award in one Judicial District and four schools received it in another. We utilized Judicial Districts because they correspond to the regions from which members of the Board of Regents are elected.
Where we could arrange it, the award was presented at an event hosted by a local Chamber of Commerce or other business group. And a Business Council staff person attended almost all of the award presentations.
Learning from the Winners
Attending the award presentations gave us the opportunity to met and learn from the winners.
One crucial observation was that the winners are winners: they are fired up, they know what they're doing, they believe in themselves,and they believe in their students. They were not generally the suburban schools that everyone points to as models of excellence; whether upstate or down, they generally had higher-than-average poverty levels.
Here are some common themes of the award winning schools:
- Outstanding leadership. The principals were all impressive, energetic, and focused.
- Using data for improvement. They had studied their past results and focused on improving them.
- Commitment to all student's learning over promoting a fixed ideology.
- Breaking any rule necessary to ensure learning takes place.
- Collaborating with teachers and parents and the wider community
- Communicating across and between grades
Here are a few snapshots of what we learned in meeting these winners.
- Elaine Moon, principal of the Thomas Marks Elementary school in Wilson, New York (outside of Buffalo) was especially pleased and gratified that the business community, state and local, through the Eastern Niagara Chamber of Commerce, recognized the great strides her school had made. When the 1999 ELA scores were made public her school was at the bottom in her county, and was soundly lambasted in the press. Rather than make excuses for the results, she pulled the teachers, school board members and community together to see what they could do to make improvements. She did exactly what reporting of results is meant to do – provide a platform for improvement. And her school, teachers and parents with school board support, made huge gains. Did anybody notice? Here is a quote from a letter she sent us:
"When we received our 2000 ELA scores we were again surprised. Although we had expected to see an improvement from the previous year, we had no idea it would be so dramatic We were thrilled to see such a turn around. But frankly, although the papers had been quick to criticize, no one seemed to notice the positive change. You cannot imagine how much it meant to my staff to have such a prestigious organization recognize their accomplishment. Not only that but to reward it with a generous financial contribution and a trophy was icing on the cake."
It cannot be over-stated what it meant to Elaine Moon that the business community noticed!
As gratifying as that experience was, it got even better when we presented the award to a school in Bedford-Stuyvesant – the poorest community in Brooklyn.
- Dr. Renee Young, principal of Crispus Attucks Elementary School (Community School 21) lays to rest all the myths that poor-minority youngsters have insurmountable personal and social barriers making them unable to learn. She presides over an all minority school where 98% of the children quality for free and reduced price lunches (the most commonly used measure of poverty). Yet, her school was among the most improved in the entire state. Seventy-seven percent of her 122 fourth graders read at levels 3 and 4. How is this possible in a neighborhood, where most strikes are against the children from the outset? Through committed leadership and an unshakable belief that all her students can and will learn. She does what must be done to make sure kids learn, including ignoring rules and regulations, union and otherwise, including dumping methods that don't work and constantly seeking out better ones, including constantly providing training for her teachers, including using test data to improve. Her kids come first and nothing stands in the way.
consider our final Pathfinder Award presentation, to Public
School 175 on City Island. Ena Ellwanger, the principal,
told us her school is the fifth most crowded school in New
York City, yet parents still try to sneak their kids in.
In fact the Catholic elementary school principal accused
Ms. Ellwanger of trying to put them out of business because
she was losing students to P.S. 175 because of its reputation
as being a better school. If kids are creating disciplinary
problems they get threatened with being sent to the Catholic
school. Competition at it's best!
How does Ms. Ellwanger do it? Leadership. She too has created a haven for learning, over-crowded as it is. By putting children's learning above ideology she encourages her teachers to constantly seek better ways of teaching. When she can teach 50 children with one teacher she does it. When they need to break up into smaller groups, they do. She fosters communication, and collaboration amongst her whole staff and doesn't let union or board of education rules and regulations deter her. Nor does she let the statewide testing program intimidate her and her staff into "teaching to the test." Her focus is on teaching skills and knowledge. She knows when kids are well-taught they will do just fine on the state tests without an excessive focus on test preparation.
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