Karin Chenoweth

What does it take for schools to succeed? Karin Chenoweth offers good news for underfunded districts.

Steubenville, like many other towns in the Rust Belt, never quite recovered from the decline of its industrial base. The median income of the Ohio town, about 40 miles west of Pittsburgh, is approximately $33,300, about $22,000 less than the national average.

But academically, Steubenville’s three elementary schools are among the best in the nation, even though they are underfunded in comparison to many schools.

What makes Steubenville different?

Simply, the educators’ belief that their students can succeed.

“They absolutely believe the kids can do it,” says Karin Chenoweth, author of “Schools That Succeed: How Educators Marshal the Power of Systems for Improvement” (Harvard Education Press).

Karin Chenowyth
Karin Chenoweth

And the teachers believe they themselves can do it, too.

“It’s not like Tinkerbell. It’s not like you believe and clap hard and it’s magic,” Chenoweth says. “It’s really hard work to teach every kid. Kids are off the wall, they misbehave, they have all kinds of issues. … It’s really difficult to teach every kid everything that kid needs to learn. It takes a lot of work, and that work is impossible to do if you don’t think you’ll have an effect.”

Chenoweth will share her findings on Oct. 3 at Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty as a guest of A+ Schools, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for equity and excellence in Pittsburgh Public Schools. Parents and educators are invited.

As the writer-in-residence for the Education Trust, a national education advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., she often writes about high-performing schools in poor areas.

“What Karin really does in (“Schools that Succeed”) and her other books is she shows that it’s possible for schools who work with kids from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds to succeed with all children at high levels,” says James Fogarty, executive director of A + Schools. “She breaks it down in a way that practitioners, advocates, and funders can all understand and start to put to use.”

The success in Steubenville’s elementary schools goes against the popular idea that as poverty increases, academic achievement decreases. Chenoweth has visited many schools that buck that trend and are considered successful.

But according to Chenoweth, many education researchers fail to acknowledge that schools succeed despite being located in impoverished areas.

“They will say that’s an outlier and we look at the general trend,” she says. “What other field would do that? If you would talk to bridge engineers after the Brooklyn Bridge was built – and the Brooklyn Bridge is an extraordinary engineering feat – they wouldn’t say `Oh, that was an extraordinary engineer, we could never replicate that.’ They would say, `I wonder how they did that’ and then go build the Verrazano Bridge. No other field dismisses outliers as something weird and don’t pay attention to it.”

In order to succeed, teachers in all school districts – but especially in impoverished areas – need support. Counselors, social workers, food agencies and other professionals must be available so that teachers can concentrate on education.

Chenoweth advises that teachers be allotted more time during the school day for administrative duties. But most of all, teachers need to be able to concentrate on their students’ academic welfare and be led by good administrators, especially principals.

“I think educators have an enormous investment in the success of their kids,” she says. “If they understand how to make their students more successful, they will do that work. But they’ve been so discouraged. They’ve been told there’s not a whole lot you can do. That’s been kind of ingrained in them.

“When they work in schools that are properly organized for them to be successful, and they get a taste of that, you can’t take them out of that. They won’t permit themselves to be taken back into an unsuccessful school.”