Just looking at the demographics, De Queen Elementary is supposed to fail.
Sixty-five percent of its students are Hispanic, and more than half of the student body speaks Spanish at home. Eighty percent of the students come from families whose incomes qualify them for free and reduced lunch prices. The district’s millage rate is the second lowest in the state. It spends less than the state average per pupil.
And yet 96 percent of De Queen’s third-graders scored proficient or advanced in math in the state’s benchmark exams in 2012, and 92 percent scored that well in literacy. Schoolwide, the same percentages of Hispanic and Caucasian kids, 93.59, scored at least proficient in literacy, and math scores for both groups were an inch apart at the 94 percent level. (The school has only a small number of African-American students.)
The numbers jump off the page, which is why The Education Trust, a national education group, honored De Queen Elementary last year with its Dispelling the Myth Award. Only two other schools, one from Boston and one from Compton, Calif., also received the award, which is given to schools that demonstrate that demographics don’t have to be destiny.
How does De Queen Elementary succeed? Principal Terriann Phillips points to the school’s use of the Direct Instruction teaching method for literacy, where students are grouped according to ability and then practice concepts until they get them right. It’s very scripted, but it works, at least in De Queen.
Students also are tested for English language fluency at the beginning of the year and then, if necessary, placed in intensive instructional classes with a low student-teacher ratio so those who are behind can learn the language.
But people are more important than policies, and some of the most important things De Queen Elementary is doing can be done anywhere. According to Phillips, literacy facilitator Gayla Morphew and math facilitator Maribeth Revels, the entire staff is committed to making sure no child gets left behind – a commitment reinforced by what Morphew called "positive peer pressure." Staff turnover is rare, teachers are close, and they have fun together.
"I’ve gone to some facilitator-type trainings," Morphew said, "and the biggest majority of it was discussion on how to get people to work together or how to be a part of the culture and all this kind of stuff. And I would just look at Maribeth and I’d say, ‘Why are we here? This isn’t what I need to hear. We’ve already got that. Do some schools not have that?’"
Meanwhile, the students and their parents are committed to education. Parent-teacher meetings are well-attended, and they are presented in both English and Spanish.
Many of the Latino families are intact, and in many cases, the parents work opposite shifts. But they came to America for greater opportunities for their children, and so they support the school and back the teachers.
"Very rarely will you have to call that parent more than once if a child’s misbehaving," Phillips said. "It’s taken care of."
After one year had been disrupted by a series of snow days, two teachers played an April Fools’ prank on their students by telling them that they would be in the classroom all day on Saturday and Sunday after church if the students voluntarily wanted more instruction. The next day, every student had said they were coming. One student’s parents said going to class was more important than a scheduled basketball tournament.
Phillips knows that some of her students aren’t here legally, and a higher percentage of their parents aren’t. A few years ago, a school mother died crossing the border from Mexico, leaving the dad behind in De Queen to take care of all the parental responsibilities. As an educator who loves her students, she has to deal with that.
But it’s against the law for her to inquire about immigration status and, besides, that’s not her responsibility. The entire system is broken. Educators like Terriann Phillips shouldn’t be asked to fix it.
Their part is to teach kids, and in De Queen, they’re succeeding.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org