Lately I’ve been browsing the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading website, which has a feature called “Bright Spots,” a collection of local success stories about reading programs.

One of those bright spots is Morningside Elementary School in Brownsville, Texas. About 99 percent of the kids are Hispanic. About 99 percent are on the free or reduced-price lunch program (FARM). About 80 percent are Spanish speakers.

This is a demographic that typically haunts the less- than-excellent categories of statewide standardized performance tests. Not at Morningside. Quoting from the website:

“During exam time at Morningside Elementary, big posters appear with a simple message: 90%. ‘I expect everyone to get at least 90 percent on the test,’ says Principal Dolores Cisneros Emerson. Ambitious? Yes, but consider that 100 percent of Morningside third graders — virtually all from low-income families —were reading at grade level on the state assessment test last year, and 55 percent were commended for having no more than three questions wrong. Emerson expects excellence from Morningside students, no matter where they come from. Benchmarking, regrouping, individualized instruction, tutorials, and relentless optimism get results.”

“It’s true,” said Morningside Principal Delores Cisneros Emerson, when I asked her about the bright spot description. “We’re awesome. Let me tell you. We’re the best.”

The school uses the aforementioned benchmarking to determine individual strengths and weaknesses. Kids who are performing poorly are placed in smaller sized classes and meet with an “interventionist” to work on skills.

The school has regular tutorials, three days a week in the fall and spring, to help kids who are not doing well and kids who could be doing better with a little push. Ten times a year the school has tutorials on Saturdays to make sure the kids get enough time with the teachers.

“There are a lot of facets that contribute to students’ success on the campus,” said the principal. “One of them is the teachers really caring about the kids and doing everything possible to make sure they get what they need and treating each child as an individual. Second, the interventions with the kids who aren’t doing well and benchmarking the kids really often and seeing what skill they are lacking and working on that skill for those kids.”

The third key to success, says the principal, is parents. “I have a very strong parental base,” she says. “They may not be here every day sewing or cutting or making copies, but they support the school. They send their kids to school. Last year I had an ADA (average daily attendance) of 97 percent. They are trying to survive themselves, but the best way they can support me is to make sure they get their kids to school.”

Research tends to bear this out. One of the critical barriers to performance by low income kids is poor attendance.  Attendance is one of the three critical areas the campaign is asking schools and communities to focus on as a way of upping reading performance. The others are school readiness and the summer reading gap, the fact that low income kids lose ground during the summer months if they are not reading regularly.

Another key to success: “I know where the kids come from,” she said. “I know what their future is if they don’t become educated.”

She grew up in Brownsville, a city of about 175,000, across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Mexico and attended local public schools, a local university and a local graduate school. She learned her management skills from another dedicated educator, Ernestina Treviño, who recently retired as principal of A.S. Putegnat Elementary, another school with mostly Hipsanic low income kids that has shown excellent results in the performance tests.

“She would always try to think what she could do more for those kids to succeed,” she said. When she got her own school, she was determined to duplicate her mentor’s performance. When she came to the school, it had not made the AYP (average yearly progress) benchmark under the “No School Left Behind” law. Her first year, it made the AYP but just missed being classified as exemplary. “The second year, we became exemplary and we have been exemplary ever since.”

We used to run an awards program for outstanding educators, and I interviewed a number of the honorees. How to describe? “Dedicated,” doesn’t quite get it, “energetic,” yes, “confident,” that would be an understatement. I’m talking teachers and principals who work in low income, high crime parts of our cities and seem to have no problem mobilizing kids, parents, teachers, community and business people—any and everybody—to buck the expectations and statistics. It’s like what the NASA guy says in the movie, Apollo 13. For these people, failure really isn’t an option.

(This item was originally posted on the State of the Re:Union Website)