For six years No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been a punching bag for parents, teachers, pundits, and politicians. Among the most concerning assessments is the charge that the act has made already chronic divides -- race, class, inner-city versus the affluent suburbs -- even more pronounced. In a recent piece for the Huffington Post , journalist and former teacher Sarah Seltzer sums up the criticisms of many, arguing that curricula beholden to NCLB testing regimens have robbed the underprivileged of the opportunity to develop their talents. "[T]hese students," she writes, "because their lives are absorbed with the rote test prep among other reasons, are left behind in terms of social, creative, and personal development."
Cleveland-area Brush High School has proven the exception to this rule by finding a way to comply with NCLB, stimulate students' creativity, and return outstanding graduation rates. And in doing so, Brush may prove a model for struggling schools throughout the nation.
In the late 1990s Brush underwent a massive demographic and socioeconomic shift. Lisa Rab of the alt-weekly Cleveland Scene reports that the 1,600-student school went from "lily-white" to more than 60 percent black within a decade. With roughly half of the nation's black male students not reaching graduation, Brush's administration knew they had to change their approach to keep their new students from a similar fate. The key to the school's success has been to focus on students' individual improvement, not just the bottom line of aggregate NCLB scores.
So far the results speak for themselves. For the past five years Brush has graduated more than 90 percent of its black students, due in large part to a demanding curriculum and programs that engage students' specific talents, reports the daily Cleveland Plain Dealer . One of those programs is the Minority Achievement Committee Scholars, which cultivates leadership skills in black students and trains them as tutors who then try to convince other students to pursue a college degree. Other programs help students catch up on missed work and allow them to earn valuable work-study credits. The Advancement Via Individual Determination class targets mediocre students and puts them on the path towards college.
"It's almost like everybody is looking for that magic wand," Brush's superintendent, William Zelei, tells the Plain Dealer. "It's about trying to understand what the barriers are to black males achieving. Support the kids or knock down those barriers." Zelei's work has paid off; Brush has twice won the prestigious Schott Foundation for Public Education's Award for Excellence in the Education of African-American Male Students. But perhaps the school's most important distinction has been closing achievement gaps between races and classes by opening advanced placement and honors courses to most students. "They're in the business of not changing the way that you teach and what the standards are just because you have black kids," Schott Foundation researcher Michael Holzman tells the Plain Dealer.
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