Right side of the tracks
David D Jones elementary has no business being one of North Carolina's highest-flying schools - a 2004 "honour school of excellence" - nor should it have topped last year's Guilford County Schools' primary-school performance table.
Located in a poor, overwhelmingly black inner-city public housing scheme in Greensboro, the catchment area of Jones elementary has the kind of limited educational capital that should leave it struggling.
Approaching Jones's nondescript low-rise buildings, the casual visitor might suspect a familiar litany of US urban public education woes: a local community preoccupied with sheer survival, broken homes with detached parents and demoralised staff struggling against bureaucrats.
Instead, the 644-pupil school is the unlikely setting for a remarkably dedicated cadre of seasoned teachers with a laser-beam focus on reading, who are bucking the odds with hard-to-reach students.
A sit-in staged here in 1960 by black students who had been refused service at the local Woolworth's helped launch the national Civil Rights movement.
But Greensboro is a stark reminder of the deep racial divide still cleaving America. Black inner-city "projects" - akin to council estates - stand in vivid contrast to the imposing homes and country-club feel of the predominantly white outlying suburbs.
Jones, however, goes against the grain. Its sought-after Spanish language immersion programme, in which roughly half of the school's pupils receive instruction almost entirely in Spanish from age five, has bridged the educational divide, drawing a waiting list of children from affluent surrounding communities to its inner-city classrooms. Sixty per cent of Jones's pupils are black, 27 per cent white and only 3.6 per cent are Hispanic.
Alongside regional accolades, the school has gained US-wide recognition after receiving a coveted award from the Education Trust, an influential Washington DC think-tank, in 2003, for raising overall achievement and closing the gap between low-income and ethnic-minority pupils and wealthier white pupils . Last year, all of Jones's 10 and 11-year-old students passed North Carolina's standardised tests in reading and maths, alongside 99 per cent and 97.3 per cent of eight to nine-year-olds and nine to 10-year-olds, respectively.
The attitude transmitted to pupils is key, say staff, who make a point of drumming it home that they expect no less of their charges than they would of students from more comfortable backgrounds.
"I say to the kids, 'Where you come from has nothing to do with it - it's where you're going,'" explains third grade teacher Rachel Burnett.
Expectations can be self-fulfilling, she says. "When you start getting the philosophy that a child from the poor side of town is only expected to get a D, kids will give you what they think you expect. When you've got these higher expectations, they'll do whatever they need to make sure they meet them."
But high hopes will only carry you so far with pupils exposed to scant educational stimulation at home, whose parents are often dropouts, and in some cases are homeless.
Principal Maria Palmer focuses the school on intensive literacy learning and cultural enrichment, and tireless teachers who know how to get results from local children.
This means taking nothing for granted. With her class of eight to nine-year-olds, Burnett picks apart the wording of exam questions to ensure pupils do not sell themselves short on testing day by misunderstanding what is being asked of them.
"These kids haven't necessarily been exposed to the idea of pulling out the main idea in a test question," she explains, sitting near her "word wall", listing the vocabulary that students are expected to master.
Reading instructor Kim Gilyard uses Venn diagrams to get her class of six to seven-year-olds to visualise the idea of comparing and contrasting different things and employs a simple formula, spanning the basic ingredients of story-telling, to encourage pupils in their own writing.
To kick-start reading among a populace unaccustomed to reading for its own sake, Jones unabashedly urges the use of incentives and appeals to pupils' competitive side. In the school's "accelerated reading" programme pupils sit a computer test that determines their reading level and assigns books from the school library. Following each assignment, their comprehension is tested by further computer tests, encouraging them to progress through more challenging material.
But the most appealing feature for pupils is that for each book read and understood they accumulate points that are redeemable for gifts in the accelerated reading "store". By the last week of term, in May, it had nearly been picked clean, with the most prolific readers having scooped the bicycle and other big-ticket goodies. But there were still a few Harry Potter games, backpacks and headphones up for grabs.
"We are giving them something tangible to work for," says Palmer.
A league table, posted like an office sweepstake, details pupils' standing in the scheme. To reach the top, they must devour hundreds of books.
Such methods represent the refinement of an approach 10 years in the making. Jones wasn't always winning awards. In the mid-1990s, many of its students were languishing, recalls then-curriculum facilitator Jennifer Partrick. That is when its trademark emphasis on literacy was introduced.
"If you can't read, you can't learn on your own," Palmer adds, "and we want our children to learn to be able to get the information they need."
Jones's "balanced literacy approach" spans phonics techniques to teach pronunciation, guided classroom reading and writing exercises. There is a concerted effort to "build the connections between word study, reading and writing that are so important for comprehension later on," says Partrick.
"Nothing's done in isolation - teachers here have a much better understanding of the continuum of reading."
In a typical lesson, six to seven-year-old pupils, grouped by reading level, form clusters around three learning stations that are presided over by separate instructors. They learn to sound new words and recognize word families, before moving on to test their comprehension with teacher-led reading and striking out on their own with a guided writing session. They rotate through the different activities every 20 minutes during the hour-long lesson.
Pupils are also stimulated by a lively cultural eclecticism. Jones's May "Multicultural Week" is a colourful pageant celebrating different nationalities. At the opening event, troupes of students perform Central American, Uruguayan, Israeli and Japanese dance moves before parents in its assembly hall.
"Now tell me that (Latin American) culture doesn't enrich kids," enthuses Palmer, herself of Polish-Peruvian extraction, swaying to the infectious beat of a Colombian dance number.
Cultural activities owe much to Jones's 11 international teachers brought into its Spanish immersion programme by the Visiting International Faculty Program, which arranges up to three-year visas for teachers outside America who want to work in US schools.
Jones counts staff from Spain, Columbia, Chile, South Africa and the Philippines thanks to VIFP, which Palmer credits with helping launch the Spanish programme by bringing in Spanish-speaking teachers before the school had built enough of a reputation to readily attract scarce home-grown language instructors.
The "magnet" Spanish immersion programme was introduced 13 years ago "to bring white middle-class children into a predominantly black school in a poor neighbourhood", Palmer says. She credits their presence with focusing attention on the "egregious" achievement gap between minority and non-minority pupils and galvanising the school's efforts to bridge it.
The influx of middle-class pupils has also brought an effective lobby group of well-connected, politically-savvy, activist parents who have proved powerful allies in the fight for funding, Palmer adds.
But the Spanish programme has proved a tough sell among local parents, a problem which Palmer hopes to address by offering "more support" such as after-school tutoring for struggling children.
In establishing its academic programme, Jones has commanded striking loyalty from staff, with at least four teachers counting more than 25 years' service.
Such continuity and experience might explain the "shared vision" that stood out for a team of British educators from Coppins Green primary school in Clacton On Sea, Essex, who visited Jones earlier this year as part of a 10-day professional development "bursary trip," organised by the VIFP.
The visits are put on annually for British staff to soak up best practice in US classrooms, said Graham Weston, VIF UK regional director.
Coppins Green serves a similar student population of "challenging children in difficult circumstances," explains deputy head Sue Mann, who says she and her staff were particularly impressed by Jones's "relevant and pertinent I motivational strategies," something they are interested in replicating back home.
"What's worth emulating in Jones is not so much any singular leadership (from the top), but leadership throughout the school," says Guilford County Schools chief Terry Grier.
Engaged, motivating parents are not something Jones's Rachel Burnett can count on to supplement her teaching, but she is not resigned to the problem - she actively addresses it.
"They know that if they don't come into school (for an appointment) that 'that lady is going to be knocking on my door'," she says. "I tell them, 'If Mohammed can't come to the mountain, the mountain's going to come to Mohammed.'"