St. George’s: A Distinctive Model Addressing the Achievement Gap

I had the pleasure of seeing this presentation last week at NPEA: I found the program described extraordinary and profound, and the presentation inspiring and moving.

The slides include in the beginning some colorful (and tragic) images of Memphis and some appalling stats about the poverty there, but the key pieces begin on slide 42.    The graphs are for some reason a tad off-kilter in this slide format, but I think they are still mostly legible.

The story runs like this.   An independent (private) suburban/affluent/nearly entirely Caucasian PK-5 school until about 15 years ago, St. George’s now is a three campus PK-12 school.  That story by itself is anything but unique.    The difference is this: one of those three campuses hosts a second, entirely parallel educationally, elementary program, but in a mostly African-American (but now also increasingly Hispanic), inner city Memphis neighborhood.

Both programs are of course entirely equally St. George’s; the ECE and elementary students at each campus regularly do activities together, such as Skype conversations, field trips and as they grow older overnight trips;  and both elementary campuses feed into a single middle/high school campus.   Whereas because of geography the suburban campus is mostly white (though less so now than it used to be) and the Memphis campus is mostly non-white, (though not entirely– it is appealing to Caucasian families seeking a diverse urban educational experience), the 6-12 campus is an integrated multi-racial program.

I believe myself to be very knowledgeable about NAIS/independent schools nationally, and I have to say, I don’t know of a single other comparable program.   I asked Bill Taylor, St. George’s head who presented this session along with his excellent Memphis campus principal, whether he was aware of any similarly structured institution, and he told me he was not.

St. George’s success in closing the achievement gap for the Memphis campus students is breathtaking, and evidenced by the stats seen on slides 45-50.   Slide 45 demonstrates that 100% of their 3rd grade students have achieved reading proficiency, compared to 42%state-wide and 20% in Memphis.  In the upper elementary grades, slides show proficiency rates in the sixties to eighties– not perfect, but still vastly higher than the city numbers.

They explained in the session that some additional educational interventions were called for– a slightly longer school day, an additional teacher in some classrooms– but on the whole, the effect, they believe, is a result of a combination of the quality of school culture, the excellence of their instructional program, and the height of academic expectations they have for all students.

In my opinion, every independent school, particularly K-12 programs,  in the US should be examining the extraordinary and exemplary St. George’s model, and exploring whether when they can match it.  Perhaps it will take a decade, (perhaps two), but it shouldn’t be impossible– indeed, now we know it isn’t impossible.