Highland View: a Poor School that Works

Highland View Principal Pam Smith dispenses a hug.

Highland View Principal Pam Smith dispenses a hug.

by James A. Bacon

Highland View Elementary School educates children from one of the poorest districts in Bristol, a city where the poverty rate is nearly twice the state average. Poor families, mostly white, grapple with the same kinds of issues commonly associated with inner-city black families in Virginia’s urban crescent: broken families, high unemployment, alcohol and drug addiction, disorganized lives, abuse, neglect, hunger and a lack of interest in academic achievement.

Yet somehow, Highland View accomplished something that 556 other schools with large at-risk student bodies did not. Reports Jim Nolan with the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “For the first time since 2011, it earned full accreditation from the state Department of Education. More than 70 percent of its students passed the Standards of Learning exams in math, science and history, and 75 percent cleared the benchmark in English.”

How did Highland View achieve full accreditation despite a 11% cut in per-pupil spending over 10 years?

Much of the credit goes to Principal Pam Smith, who recognizes that it takes more than textbooks and teaching to help poor children. “The school is their counselor, their doctor, their nutritionist, their mother,”she said. “We’re their family.” As Nolan tells the story, Smith knows the story behind every child, whether he or she is homeless and couch surfing (sleeping on couches in different homes), is hearing disabled, is being raised by a grandparent or has a father with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Credit goes, too, to the Bristol community, which has rallied behind the school. Home Depot has given Kindergarten cubbies. O’Reilly Auto Parts chipped in $800 to fund snacks for the after-school program. The local Kiwanis Club provides free vision screening and has contributed 100 pairs of shoes. Churches donate “snack packs” for kids to take home on weekends. Families contribute second-hand clothing so the school can maintain an inventory for when children appear at school in hopeless dirty, ragged or inappropriate clothing. A not-for-profit group, Communities in Schools, works closely with the Highland View to help families obtain counseling, housing, clothing, food, school supplies and transportation from local government agencies and not-for-profits.

By providing essential needs that parents have failed to provide their children, Highland View gives its pupils a fighting chance to earn an education and become productive citizens rather than fall into the quicksand of inter-generational poverty.

Bacon’s bottom line: Highland View is a success story. It is an example to be emulated. However, the nature of poverty in America today is such that, despite the existence of food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, the earned income tax credit, Medicaid, nutritional programs for women with infants and young children, school lunch programs, housing assistance, child welfare services, and substance abuse & mental health programs, not to mention a host of private, not-for-profit enterprises filling gaps in the social safety net, the number of dysfunctional families appears to be increasing.

The problem is not simply that families are poor and have fallen on hard times, a predicament which some manage to work their way out of. The problem is that an increasing number of families are hopelessly irresponsible and disorganized. They lack the skills to function in contemporary society. They perform so badly as parents that society increasingly has to step in and fill their role. If children suffer from dysfunctional families in elementary school, does anything change when the children move onto middle school? How often are the gains achieved at Highland View lost in later years?

As a society, we are morally compelled to try to rescue these poor children. But I have to ask, do our good intentions aggravate the problems they are meant to solve? Do we make it easier for lousy parents to be even lousier parents? There has always been poverty in America. But I fear we are unintentionally creating a generation of poor people more lacking in basic life skills than at any time in American history.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

14 responses to “Highland View: a Poor School that Works

  1. You point out Highland View as PROOF that something can be done that actually works then in your “bottom line” you bail out, once again , preferring to assign blame rather than having other schools emulated the one that does work.

    good grief!

  2. As usual, and as my union friends used to say across the bargaining table , “You have failed to miss the point”, in this case, in the plural.

    1. Education is not about more money for public schools. 11% cut is not “more money.”

    2. It is not about government programs. Here, government provided the school building, and probably some Title I lunches and breakfasts, it doesn’t appear that the government did very much of anything useful in this instance. (Chasing the school breakfast/lunch rabbit for a second, See yesterdays’ Nobel prize winner in economics, Angus Deaton, whose research has shown that malnutrition is largely the consequence of a low income, but not the other way around. We commonly say that kids can’t learn and do things without a full stomach. Now that’s been shown to be the usual government hogwash).

    3. Good schools are about real people doing real things. Checking the box on government forms is not among those things.

    4. “Bailing out” is as you find it. Nowhere did I hear Jim suggest that the school should not be emulated.

    5. It is not useful to carp at the messenger unless you will make an observation that has some meaning.

  3. the point is that there are schools in Va that do successfully teach kids who presumably have equal percentages of “bad”, “lazy” , “irresponsible” parents.

    Point of Fact, I have pointed out numerous times in numerous ways that schools – run by the govt and funded by taxpayers CAN – successfully educate kids of all stripes and colors including those whose parents are “poor”.

    and yet – even when Jim finds schools that can do this successfully and for less money – he reverts to his instincts of blame – that solves nothing and perpetuates a cycle of failure.

    1. – money – I totally agree with you. The most efficient schools that are also successful are the ones that are solo ones in smaller counties.

    bigger schools districts – not only spend more money – on things beyond core academic and instead on the schools in that district that do have more challenging demographics. the money gets diverted to the schools that have the easier-to-teach and away from the schools with the harder-to-teach.

    That’s about priorities – not money.

    2. – you’re either just plain ignorant about the govt role in education or evading the reality. Title 1 is more than lunches. Title 1 actually provides higher qualified teachers that actually do better at teaching kids with deficits. Who do you think teachers are – if not government employees?

    3. – GOOD SCHOOLs are well run, well managed and prioritize money appropriately – it’s way MORE than “good” teachers which we seem to have problems actually identifying in terms of their performance and characteristics.

    4. – would you like me to copy/paste Jim’s comments again?
    ” Highland View is a success story. It is an example to be emulated. However, the nature of poverty in America today is such that, despite the existence of food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, the earned income tax credit, Medicaid, nutritional programs for women with infants and young children, school lunch programs, housing assistance, child welfare services, and substance abuse & mental health programs, not to mention a host of private, not-for-profit enterprises filling gaps in the social safety net, the number of dysfunctional families appears to be increasing.”

    please tell me why we have schools to can be successful even with these issues – and ones that are not – and apparently still blame parents when the “good” schools actually do perform in spite of the “bad” parents?

    5. – I’ve spent time over and over laying out remedies to these problems as Jim continues his one trick pony blame show.

    I even suggest this. Take the public school money and the harder to teach and give them to private schools – and leave the easier-to-teach to the public schools and let the private sector do the things that folks like you claim can be done – cost effectively.

    why not do that? Let the folks who think like you – have a free run at dealing with the problems – the only thing I insist on – is – accountability.

    instead of the typical Conservative blame game – you take the job and prove to others how you approach actually does work…

    Conservatives now days are a bunch of hypocritical blatherbutts whose primary game is blame – on most issues. They don’t have solutions – they have “ideas” and “concepts” that “work” – that they never actually get around to doing….

    conservatives have become a bunch of ideological blowhards… a chattering class of do nothings..

  4. we get confused here between what it costs to accomplish something and the concept of accomplishing a goal – cost effectively.

    Our goal should be to make sure dollars are spent effectively – not to short-fund because we’re failing to accomplish the intent of the funded activity to start with.

    Those who object – essentially are advocating abandoning the mission – i.e. capping funding and walking away.

    that’s NOT fiscally responsible – that’s fiscally irresponsible.

    If someone fundamentally believes that govt-funded public education is – conceptually – a failure – something that doesn’t work – then take a principled stand and make sure others know that’s your intent.

    If you fundamentally do believe in public education but you believe it’s done fiscally irresponsibly – then you need to address the things that need to be reformed to bring it back to a fiscally responsible operation.

    I just don’t get the critics who spend much of their time condemning and yet have little or no real alternative approaches that they intend to also be held accountable for working or not – as opposed to advocating ideological concepts with no intent to actually hold them to the same standards of fiscal effectiveness.

    in other words – it’s a totally dysfunctional and irresponsible attitude.

    that’s not what Conservatism is supposed to be – ever.

    the mission is to ACCOMPLISH the goal in the most cost effective way – possible.

    if one fundamentally believes the goal is wrong and/or not a proper function of government – from the get go – then one needs to say that UP FRONT instead of not saying it then pointing out the “failures” as a reason to de-fund or abandon with capped funding.

    In other words – Conservatism is supposed to be – responsible.

  5. You have to adjust for the cost of living before pronouncing any city “poor”. Bristol has a poverty rate that is twice the state average. However, that poverty rate is based on the same number of dollars across the state. In Bristol, 16.2% of the people live below the poverty line. However, the Weldon Cooper Institute reduces the poverty rate in SouthWest , Va by 23% to account for differences in cost of living and the prevalence of some targeted government programs. That generates a “Virginia Poverty Measure” of 12.4%. The Virginia Poverty Measure for Virginians living inside the beltway is 12.3%.

    I don’t mean to take anything away from the fine work being done at Highland View Elementary School. I just want to point out that the government generated poverty level, like most of what government does, is a crock.

    http://www.coopercenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/VirginiaPovertyMeasure_May2013_0.pdf.

    • This is one of the key reasons the state formula for aid to K-12 (the Local Composite Index or LCI) is flawed. It does not truly adjust for the differences in cost of living. It’s designed to keep RoVA real estate taxes low.

    • Terrific post. In Lynchburg the biggest excuse for poor SOLs is the poverty level and when you adjust for the COL, $30K a year here is rich and not poor.

      With regards to the original blog, we do not know how much an individual school’s spending increased or decreased…the figure you quote is the division spending and I have serious reservations about JLARC’s methodology. And we all should be reminded that the scores, on average, increased 4 or 5 % passing rates due to the expedited retests which is just about how much the Bristol Division’s SOLs went up over last year. Too bad the state will not let us compare apples to apples.

      JAB, I agree, LG not so much

  6. But for the press of time on other things, I would have written a comment to the preceding article “Maximizing the ROI on Investments in Human Capital”, asking the question “has any public school model in our recent past succeeded in giving our children the education they deserve, or even in matching their own performance levels since the 1950s.”

    My answer would be no. Should that answer be true, then is public education at the point of being beyond any reasonable chance of repair? Should we just toss it out, and start over?

    Jim Bacon’s latest articles throws light of some possible solutions short to junking the whole system and starting over. These might generally be described as wrapping our public schools up tight with private community action initiated by private citizens with skin in the game. This makes sense because at root our public schools fail because we as local communities – families, churches, business, or lack of them – allow our schools and our children to fail themselves.

    While at present I have close to zero confidence in the US Department of Education, perhaps some version of Boot Camps properly designed and implemented and funded with public monies offer some hope. An article out on this today can be found at:

    http://chronicle.com/article/A-Boon-to-Boot-Camps-US

    The City of New Orleans has has success here. The had a great advantage – the great storm wiped out much of there corrupt public school system. So they could start over.

  7. To stop the cycle of poverty, teach real “family life education”. Attaching that name to the sex-education program tells the students that family life is all about sex. Teach instead the skills and attitudes needed to be good, faithful spouses and parents. Teach them the attributes of happy families.

  8. I don’t think you can have a “happy” family if you “graduate” functionally illiterate and unemployed and unemployable.

    from that point on – “family” is a word with different meanings to different folks.

    My original point – repeated here – is that we KNOW that SOME schools in Va ARE successful and teaching kids who are from economically disadvantaged circumstances.

    These schools and their teaching staff KNOW that you cannot teach these kids the same as you would teach kids whose parents are well educated and economically secure.

    The real question is why, if the recipe for teaching these kids is known – and repeatable – why it’s not repeated in other schools.

    Same kinds of kids, same kinds of parents – at one school the kids are taught successfully – at others – they’re not – not one teacher or one class – the school as a whole.

    If you are a fiscal conservative and you KNOW that this problem is a solvable problem – then what do you end up advocating for the schools that fail at this?

    Now, if you are an ideological conservative – then you don’t really care that some of these schools succeed – it’s more an anomaly than anything to model or emulate. The failed schools become “proof” that public education fails and justifies blaming “liberals” , “unions”, bad teachers and bad parents for a chronic and unsolvable cycle of failure.

    this is why I ask if people are serious about trying to fix the problem or assigning blame and rationalizing abandonment.

    You can hold the principles and values you want – but you ought to own them honestly if you fundamentally do not believe in the concept of public schools.

  9. Jim says this –

    ” Much of the credit goes to Principal Pam Smith, who recognizes that it takes more than textbooks and teaching to help poor children. “The school is their counselor, their doctor, their nutritionist, their mother,”she said. “We’re their family.” As Nolan tells the story, Smith knows the story behind every child, whether he or she is homeless and couch surfing (sleeping on couches in different homes), is hearing disabled, is being raised by a grandparent or has a father with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

    Credit goes, too, to the Bristol community, which has rallied behind the school.”

    and the obvious question is – does Jim think this is a unique set of circumstances totally dependent on the machinations of individuals who just happen to all coalesce around central goal to get something done and it’s not something that can be repeated at other schools in similar circumstances?

    Or does Jim think there are no “bad” parents and “bad” teachers in this group… making it rare and unique and fundamentally without such fatal flaws that prevent other schools and communities and schools from repeating the success.

    I ask this because after he does credit he goes on later to say:

    ” However, the nature of poverty in America today is such that, despite the existence of food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, the earned income tax credit, Medicaid, nutritional programs for women with infants and young children, school lunch programs, housing assistance, child welfare services, and substance abuse & mental health programs, not to mention a host of private, not-for-profit enterprises filling gaps in the social safety net, the number of dysfunctional families appears to be increasing.

    …………They perform so badly as parents that society increasingly has to step in and fill their role. If children suffer from dysfunctional families in elementary school, does anything change when the children move onto middle school? How often are the gains achieved at Highland View lost in later years?”

    So basically Jim apparently believes that the success of this school is more happenstance than purposeful and he goes on to say he sorta doubts that it “works” longer term.

    This totally flummoxes me.

    Here you have something that seems to work – and the task ahead is to take it further into high school and graduate kids with the education that will be – 1. better than their parents and 2. give them a better opportunity to be employed and 3. perhaps escape the economic circumstances of their parents and 4. and maybe – just maybe – some of them will escape the cycle of poverty – and become taxpayers instead of entitlement takers.

    That seems like a worthwhile – fiscally responsible – goal that is not pie in the sky but rather something there is genuine reason to believe has
    promise.

    It certainly has at least as much promise as some of the cockamamie economic and societal “beliefs” of some folks on the right – and worth pursuing…

    but Jim, even when he cites success – then falls back to his gloom and doom perspective for what comes next.

    and I just cannot understand it.

    This is why I ask if folks fundamentally believe in public education – or not.

    If one does not – then one should be up-front and that then becomes a totally understandable reason why they doubt – even success stories and see them as anomalies.

    But if one BELIEVES in public education and knows that ANY endeavor DOES have flaws – and yes.. even failures – then one works to find the thing that work – and institutionalize them and repeat them – building on the things that do work.

    I just don’t see :

    1. – believing in public education but willing to stand aside and watch it crumble because you’re unhappy with some aspect of it

    or

    2. – fundamentally do not believe in the concept of public education and thus every “story” about it – even the success ones – are just continuing irritants… and reminders of something that should be done away with once and for all.

    I’m not sure I see a middle ground.

    Perhaps others do and can steer me to a different perspective.

    • Larry, this is a conundrum only in your mind. I think 50 years of anti-poverty programs are largely responsible for creating a growing and increasingly dysfunctional underclass in American society. I think we need to re-think our approach to the social safety net. At the same time, I believe that schools and the communities supporting those schools should do what they can to help poor kids overcome their atrocious home environments. Some schools, like Highland View, do a better job than other schools. We should learn from them and apply their lessons. But we also should temper our expectations; schools cannot fully make up for the failure of parents to fulfill basic parental duties.

      • Jim – you have no real solutions. You oppose and blame but you have no real substantiative solutions other than blame and abandonment which is your “solution” for the schools – even when we have examples of successful schools dealing with those issues – you still want to wash your hands of it.

        That’s not a legitimate position.

        but that’s the typical conservative story line these days.

        as I said – either you believe in the public school system or you do not – and you need to be honest about your view.

        If you donj’t believe in the public school system -I’d not agree with you but I’d respect your honestly and principles..

        but if you do believe in the public school system then you are bound to work towards fixing it … especially when we have multiple examples of where it DOES work with poverty kids.

        It’s unconscionable for you to walk away from kids whose only crime is their parents – whose only crime was to also have poor and uneducated parents…

        how do you fix that if you walk away ?

        you’re basically advocating continuing with the status quo… unless you have real alternatives – that actually do work.

        time to hold you guys feet to the fire on this.

        Here we have most schools in the world doing what you say – we cannot do… that we’re the only country with chronic poor that cannot be educated- and you have no solution other than to blame, once again, on our “entitlements” which are pretty much the same as the other countries that best us.

        somewhere the views here are not consistent.. and they don’t match up with realities in other places…

        apparently of all the OECD countries on the planet, we alone have a cycle of poverty caused by giving too much free stuff…which encourages irresponsible and bad parents combined with bad unionized teachers and god knows what else.

        I’ve said before and will say it again – anyone who thinks non-public schools can do this better – I’m all for it – but not the claim they can – the proof they can – the same accountability you want for public schools.

  10. I think the harsh reality is that you can give out free stuff til the cows come home – but if the recipient does not have a workforce education -what would you expect other than more free stuff?

    giving out free stuff does not alleviate poverty – that ought to be self-evident.

    all these roads lead back to education….

    without successful education – there is no path forward….

    and no – we will not succeed in educating every kid…but we can do more than we are doing now – and if that’s a wrong approach – I’m all ears for a better different one.

Leave a Reply