The 326 students at Blalock Elementary School are from the once-notorious Bankhead public housing community, many of them with families that have lived in poverty for generations. Ninety-nine percent of the students at this school of academic excellence and scholastic acceleration are African-American and 98 percent receive free or reduced lunch.
How do they overcome the obstacles? "When they get to the door, they drop their problems in the trash and spend seven hours focused on learning and instruction," explains the principal, Dr. Frances Thompson.
The students come first with this dynamic leader, who fully understands that she and her faculty and staff must "empower them with the tools that will help make them successful in life." Aligning the school’s goals with those of the district and state, the administrative team’s leadership has helped produce improved test scores and attendance and enhanced teacher qualifications.
The mission of the school "is to improve the academic achievement of all students, and to provide the support which will enable our students to become successful, responsible and caring citizens." And it’s working:
The school has made Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act for five consecutive years.
Student attendance has remained constant at 95 percent. Reading and math scores have continued to rise.
Blalock participates in the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce "Principal for a Day" program, a partnership with Atlanta Public Schools that has recruited more than 400 business, civic and political leaders to spend a day paired with a principal at every one of Atlanta’s public schools. My participation recently as Principal for a Day at Blalock was an inspiring, eye-opening experience.
One of the challenges for Thompson and staff is that many of the adults in the Bankhead community consider their school experience unpleasant, so gaining their trust - not just that of students - is vital. To help in that effort, Blalock and its business partners provide Thanksgiving baskets and Toys for Tots at Christmas; these two holidays, I learned, are stressful for poverty-stricken families.
Business partners also provide students with the uniform they wear daily. Each morning, smiling students file neatly into the cafeteria for breakfast and to meet their teachers, who wait in white tops and navy blazers bearing the school emblem. Students are lined up when passing in the halls, smiling, polite and happy.
The school is organized, clean, warm and welcoming. The classrooms are bright, clean, well-equipped with beautiful books, excellent resources and materials. Thompson insists on providing the school with these items, which most students don’t have at home. To that end, a federal Reading First grant has helped enormously.
After breakfasting quietly, the children recite the Pledge of Allegiance and head for 90 minutes of structured reading. When Thompson arrived at Blalock in 2000, there were fifth graders unable to read. Progress is evident, thanks to dedication and the "Success for All" reading program. All Blalock’s teachers are trained in the research-based principles of Success for All, which focus on early intervention and prevention and help students achieve grade-level performance. Results are evident: In 2007, 100 percent of fifth-graders met or exceeded standards in reading.
The literacy coach and math lab are also available every day for any student needing extra help, a new arrival or one struggling with a specific skill. And each year. Blalock welcomes the bright young college graduates of the "Teach for America" program.
The school faculty provides a shining example of the "No Excuses" philosophy promoted by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation among Georgia’s public schools. But Dr. Thompson puts it even more simply: "They want to be here - an inner city school with deep poverty - because they want to make a difference."
Dr. Holly Robinson is senior vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.