No excuses; just success

Published 9:01 pm Friday, October 31, 2008

Many in the education community waste a lot of time and energy on excuses for why their schools don’t succeed. Impoverished students, inadequate facilities and declining parental involvement are the ones I hear most frequently.

S.P. Morton Elementary School is too busy overcoming those obstacles to make excuses.

Amid much mediocrity in public education these days, Franklin’s citywide elementary school is a jewel.

It’s unfortunate that state and federal bureaucrats use a broad brush to deem school divisions as deficient and inadequate. Such designations for Franklin City Schools are no fault of S.P. Morton, its faculty and students, who pass every state and federal benchmark with flying colors.

As a result of last spring’s Standards of Learning, or SOL, testing, S.P. Morton, for the third consecutive year, earned full accreditation from the state Department of Education and recognition from the U.S. Department of Education for adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

Impressively, 66 students —out of the 200-plus third- through fifth-graders tested — earned perfect scores on their SOLs.

School officials invited me to a Tuesday ceremony honoring those young scholars. It was my second visit to S.P. Morton in the past year, and both times I walked away mightily impressed.

The factors that many schools blame for their failure or mediocrity apply, almost without exception, to S.P. Morton.

The school is located “across the tracks” — in an aging building with little in the way of modern technology — and serves a student populace that is largely impoverished. So high is the percentage of students from low-income families that the entire school qualifies for federal Title 1 funding, which is earmarked for students from financially disadvantaged families.

Parental support, while better than at many schools, is hardly overwhelming. Tuesday’s ceremony doubled as S.P. Morton’s monthly PTA meeting, yet only 30 or so parents attended.

Of the 66 students who earned perfect scores, only 22 were in attendance to receive their certificates and see their names displayed on permanent plaques that honor the school’s “600 Club.” A few of the honorees have moved out of the area, and some families undoubtedly had valid reasons for being absent. But many parents, I suspect, simply didn’t care enough to attend or even to get their children there.

I don’t recall ever acing a standardized test as a youngster, but if I had and the school had sponsored a ceremony to honor me, my proud parents would have had me there in coat and tie and spit-shined shoes. Times have changed.

Despite these obstacles, S.P. Morton succeeds.

As for why, I have my theories:

Strong leadership. It’s not impossible for a school to succeed under a weak principal, but the odds are low. S.P. Morton, conversely, is blessed with a no-nonsense, caring, passionate leader in Don Spengeman. He holds his teachers to a high standard and allows the good ones the freedom to run their own classrooms without micromanagement. He’s also quick to defend his teachers against meddlesome parents and disruptive students. Lesser leaders kowtow to external forces.

Quality teachers. Due largely to Spengeman’s leadership, S.P. Morton attracts — and retains — good teachers. They experience the same frustrations as teachers everywhere, but they’re not resigned to mediocre outcomes. They go the extra mile to help students overcome their disadvantages.

External support. S.P. Morton has a small group of committed parents whose enthusiasm and involvement helps offset the inaction of deadbeat parents. Also, while much has been made about the contributions of S.P. Morton to the Franklin Boys and Girls Club, which is housed on the campus after hours, the relationship is mutually beneficial. Many disadvantaged students whose parents have little involvement in their educations are participants in the Boys and Girls Club, which has a mandatory “Power Hour,” during which students study or do their homework. That academic support and emphasis are invaluable for students who wouldn’t otherwise get it.