If you were looking for the best elementary school in West Hartford, you might start in the classrooms with the highest Connecticut Mastery Test scores.
This would lead to the obvious - schools in neighborhoods dominated by middle- and upper-middle-class families score the best.
In the process, you would miss the remarkable, emerging story of Charter Oak Academy of Global Studies in the Elmwood neighborhood just over the Hartford line.
The lesson here is that the search might not always lead to where the rich kids are, but also to where the good schools are. Good schools are where more children are learning more - not just the schools where the top achievers already attend.
It's time that we paid more attention to rewarding the achievement at Charter Oak, and others, such as New Beginnings Charter School in Bridgeport, Holmes School in New Britain and East School in Torrington.
"We keep every child visible. We know where they are and what their needs are," Charter Oak Principal Mary Thompson told me when I visited with her and school curriculum specialist Kate Jerram.
A closer look at the latest test scores - assessments of reading, writing and mathematical skills - shows that the percentage of Charter Oak fourth- and fifth-graders meeting state goal jumped 18 points from 2006 to 2007. This isn't "teaching to the test," but a measure of whether these children can read fluently, write an essay and make sense of numbers.
The results are a welcome slap to the face - children who don't happen to be white and affluent can outperform others.
Looking at gains in student performance, Thompson's school scored better than nearly all 600 other elementary schools in Connecticut. Charter Oak is about 75 percent minority. About 40 percent of its students are from low-income families.
"There are only seven other schools in the state that made a bigger jump," said Marc Porter McGee of ConnCan, a business-funded reform group.
Focusing on performance gains, instead of schools with just high test scores, will show us where the real learning is occurring, McGee said. Interestingly, among the top 10 elementary schools, seven are traditional public schools.
"It's a much more fair way to hold people accountable," he said.
The so-called "value added" approach looks for schools that take large numbers of children and turns them into achievers. The list reveals a striking diversity, which means that it's not about where these schools are, but what goes on inside.
"A great school is a great school, regardless of the demographics," McGee said. "It's not about just moving kids along. It's about making more progress every year."
Other states are paying attention to this data. In New York this week, the state will start grading schools based on how much students improve. In Connecticut, it remains nearly impossible to even find mastery scores on the state Department of Education's website.
Meanwhile, yet another trial in the decades-old Sheff v. O'Neill school desegregation case begins today. Politicians and educators - who debate whether to pour millions of dollars into new schools to remedy Sheff - might also consider rewarding schools that actually succeed.
At Charter Oak, Thompson and Jerram told me that their success is certainly due to more training for teachers, more resources for the school and intensive intervention for children who need it. But there's also something else, they said.
"We have huge expectations for every child," Jerram said. "It's not just something we say."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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