Close the Achievement Gap by Closing the Development Gap

Carol P. Ray, the principal of Asheville High School, described how she and the staff of Hall Fletcher Elementary School used the Comer SDP to make dramatic gains in student achievement. When Carol became the principal in 1998, only 50.2% of Hall Fletcher students had achieved proficiency on the North Carolina state tests. Her determination to turn the school around was both personal and professional. Her daughter was in the 4th grade and had attended Hall Fletcher since kindergarten.

Carol outlined the steps she and her staff took to use the Comer SDP for "total school reform." She got a laugh from the audience when she said that they didn't change the children, 78% of whom were African American with more than 85% qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Hall Fletcher served children and families in nine federal housing projects.

Carol and her staff used the three guiding principles of no-fault problem solving, collaboration, and consensus decision making to build strong relationships with all the stakeholders: the students, parents, faculty, staff, and the community. "By using a no-fault approach, we identified the areas of the school that needed improvement. And we went public, asking for assistance from parents and the community," she said.

In the second year of Comer SDP implementation, they began to "actively engage and empower our students in their developmental process, and we did this by our intentional and specific instruction of the six developmental pathways." Dr. Comer has identified six areas of developmental that are critical to academic learning: physical including brain development, social-interactive, psycho-emotional, moral-ethical, linguistic, and cognitive-intellectual.

They wanted all the children and their parents to know about each of the pathways and what they meant to them "as a student, as a community member, but most important, as a human being. And we called this strategy simply Comer in the Classroom." Hall Fletcher teachers were "intentional in weaving the developmental pathways into all areas of the curriculum." Working through their School Planning and Management Team (SPMT) they aligned all existing programs with the developmental pathways, "moving child development theory into practice."

When the district saw the dramatic achievement gains Hall Fletcher students had made after the second year of implementing the Comer SDP, the Asheville City Schools agreed to participate in a Comprehensive School Reform Quality Initiatives grant the SDP had received from the U.S. Department of Education to work systemically in five school systems. The following charts are examples of the gains that Hall Fletcher and the other Asheville elementary schools made:

Asheville Grade 5 Math

When Hall Fletcher began implementing the Comer SDP in the 1998-99 school, 59% of the 5th graders had achieved proficiency in reading on the North Carolina state test, the lowest of Asheville's elementary schools. By 2004 the percentage jumped to 100%. The other elementary schools made comparable gains.

Grade 5 students at Hall Fletcher and the other Asheville elementary schools made equally impressive gains in math. Carol thinks their greatest achievement was closing the gap between African-American and white students.

Asheville Math Gap Chart

In 1999 there was more than a 40% proficiency gap between African-American and white 5th graders in reading. By 2004 the gap closed to within 6%. The gap in 5th grade math scores also closed to within a few percentage points.

In recognition of her outstanding leadership as a principal, Carol received the prestigious Patrick Francis Daly Award for Excellence in Educational Leadership from Yale University in 2004. She received the 2001 Asheville City Schools Principal of the Year Award, the 2001 North Carolina Western Regional Principal of the Year, and received the Congressional Black Caucus Leadership Award for empowering families and communities.

To view Carol's presentation at the NCATE press conference, click here and to view Dr. Comer's presentation, click here.

To read "It's th Development, Stupid!" by Sam Chaltain in the Huffington Post, click here.

Note: Hall Fletcher's initial work with the Comer SDP was supported by a Comprehensive School Reform grant they received from the U.S. Department of Education. The SDP's systemic work in Asheville was funded by a grant from the United States Department of Education: CFCA#: 84.332B  PR01#: S33B050015.