Last fall, Tacoma, Wash., public school students fared so poorly on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills that The Tacoma News-Tribune labeled their performance the "academic nadir" for Superintendent Rudy Crew.
But the tide turned for the 32,000-student district in a special retest the next spring. Mean scores for 4th graders rose 21 percentage points to the 65th percentile, and 8th graders jumped 13 points to the 63rd percentile.
Crew attributes the increase in part to the district's two-year partnership with the Efficacy Institute of Lexington, Mass.
Founded by social psychologist Jeff Howard in 1985, the institute trains educators to set high standards and specific performance goals for all students. Its philosophy centers on the notion that intellectual development is a continuous process rooted not in innate talent but self-confidence and hard work. Its motto: "Think You Can. Work Hard. Get Smart."
"It has heightened our awareness of what is possible for children," Crew says. "It is not surprising to me that these test scores would be a direct outcome of that."
"The magnitude of the results is nothing short of dramatic," agrees Howard, the institute's president. But, he adds, the primary credit belongs to Tacoma educators. "It is their courage, it is their commitment that is going to turn the tide here." School-reform activities, he suggests, only support the work that actually takes place in the classroom.
Since Education Week profiled Howard nearly two years ago, the Efficacy Institute has shifted its emphasis toward working more with entire districts rather than isolated schools or clusters of schools. The institute has currently joined up with 18 districts; Oakland, Calif., Memphis, Tenn., and Columbus, Ohio, are among the newest on board.
The institute is urging the districts to ratchet up graduation requirements using its "21st Century Standards" model. Under it, all graduating seniors are expected to demonstrate mastery of Advanced Placement calculus and a second language. They must also write, present, and defend a "literate, cogent, and well-researched" 25-page essay.
"This is not about the gifted and talented, or getting more minority students in the gifted-and-talented program," says Arthur Kempton, the institute's executive director. "It is about across-the-board change in a district and that all kids can achieve those standards."
Four years ago, Detroit's religious, education, and business communities came together to collaborate on an unprecedented joint venture: an interdenominational school for inner-city children. Since then, officials say, the Cornerstone Schools have nearly tripled their enrollment and extended their outreach to underprivileged families.
"We have become a strong presence in the community," says Norma Henry, the schools' executive director.
The schools are thought to be the first-ever interfaith schools with backing from both Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders. They offer a Christ-centered moral education with rigorous academics and discipline, and they feature a lengthened school year.
Henry says the year-round schedule has enabled many parents to continue their education or secure jobs, knowing that their children are in a safe place. She reads from one parent letter: "Thanks to Cornerstone, I'm off of welfare, and I have a new job."
The schools have run into a few logistical problems. "Just getting a facility that we could work with was a major hurdle to overcome," Henry says. "With charter schools becoming so popular, school sites have been at a premium."
The Cornerstone schools originally set up shop on three campuses, two of which were former Catholic schools. But inevitably their schedule conflicted with parish activities at those two sites, and they had to move. Now, there are two Cornerstone locations: a 300-student pre-K-8 school at the only remaining original site and a K-5 school with about 110 students.
Tuition has remained fairly steady at $1,875 a year, Henry says, while funds raised through the community to support financial aid have "probably tripled in size."
Henry has no immediate plans to expand the schools. "Our plan is to refine what we have, look at where we are, and where we need to go," she says. "It's time for self-reflection."
For others, however, now is the time to take the idea elsewhere. Officials of the El Shaddai Inner-City Ministries School in Birmingham, Ala., have transformed it into the first "Cornerstone School of Alabama." Modeled after the Detroit original, the school opened this fall with 61 students in kindergarten through 5th grade.
Charles Molton Williams, the school board's chairman, says the long-term goal is to open other campuses in Birmingham and have all programs accredited. "We hope to have as many as 10, located primarily to serve public-housing projects," he said.
The only one-room schoolhouse left in Maryland will, at least for another year, manage to stay open in the face of drastically declining enrollments.
Although perennially threatened with a shutdown, the Tylerton School, on Smith Island in the southernmost reaches of the Chesapeake Bay, will remain open for the 1995-96 school year.
The Somerset County board of education granted the K-6 school its reprieve in August. For islanders, many of whom are deeply religious, the board's decision seemed the answer to a prayer. But the reprieve came none too soon.
When the board made its decision, April Tyler, the school's only teacher, had already moved her belongings out of the school in preparation for a transfer to a school on "the mainland," as Smith Islanders call Maryland's Eastern Shore.
But the board remained firm in its determination that the school, which enrolls only six children, will need to enroll at least 10 by next fall if it wishes to stay open next year. Three children are scheduled to graduate to schools on the Eastern Shore.
The aging residents of the island, many of whom trace their ancestry directly to the original Cornish settlers of the 1600s, have vowed to "search the nation" to find the needed students. They have even entertained the idea of having the local Methodist church open an orphanage on the island.
"If you know anybody with young children, tell them to move to the island," one school board employee said.