When educators at Boaz Middle School were trying to figure out the achievement gap between low-income students and their better-off peers, Principal Ray Landers took teachers and other staff members on a bus tour of the neighborhoods in northeastern Alabama the school serves. Many were shocked by the conditions their students faced each day, but the tour helped teachers design programs to help the youths tackle their school and family challenges.
Since that trip several years ago, the school has bridged that gap, a feat that brought recognition for Mr. Landers last week when he was named the 2009 Middle School Principal of the Year by MetLife and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
“From the highway, we don’t get to see the trailer parks and the government housing that our boys and girls live in,” said Mr. Landers, who has been the principal at Boaz, in the Alabama town of the same name, for eight years.
“So we loaded the bus up with our teachers,” he said. “We didn’t just drive through—we got off the bus and knocked on doors and sat on people’s porches, and that experience brought a personal face to those boys and girls coming to us each day.”
Within a week, Mr. Landers said, teachers had created a mentor program for students and revised the homework policy to help more students complete assignments in school, where they could get help.
Mr. Landers will be honored Oct. 25 and will receive a $3,500 grant for programs for his 520 students. Mark D. Wilson, the principal of Georgia’s Morgan County High School, named the high school principal of the year earlier this month, will also be honored. (“H.S. Leader Named Principal of Year,” Sept. 10, 2008.)
Boaz Middle School now ranks among the top schools in Alabama overall and on the state writing assessment. Its disadvantaged students—55 percent of the school’s students qualify for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program—have reached proficiency in reading and mathematics on state tests, matching the performance of their classmates who are not living in poverty.
Teachers embarked on a yearlong study of proven strategies for improving achievement among disadvantaged students and organized programs to ensure they had food, medicines, even eyeglasses.
“Our expectations of our poverty students are very, very high, but we just make sure we have the support programs in place to help them make it,” Mr. Landers said. The result has been that “there hasn’t been a single student fail at Boaz Middle School in the last four or five years.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week