Hardy Brown College Prep School in San Bernardino achieved remarkable double-digit year over year improvements in student proficiency in both English/Language Arts and Math on this year’s standardized tests—far exceeding average performance improvements at both the statewide and local levels.
“We always want to have our absolute proficiency with students be higher, but the double digits growth we experienced in English/Language Arts and Math in one year is extraordinary,” said Margaret Fortune, President and CEO of the Fortune School of Education.
During an exclusive interview with The IE Voice/Black Voice News, Fortune spoke with openness and pride regarding the progress of the “young scholars” who attend Hardy Brown College Prep (HBCP). A public charter school located in downtown San Bernardino, HBCP opened in 2010. “We have made a lot of progress in a few short years,” she proclaimed. The school, which serves children from kindergarten through eighth grade, has an enrollment of about 311 students. The student body is predominately African-American (68 percent), and 25 percent Latino with a female to male ratio of 55 to 45 percent respectively. In addition, at least 90 percent of the students are from low-income families.
Beyond employing a diverse, very experienced teacher corps, the school boasts an 80 percent year over year teacher retention rate. “They are very committed to the school,” Fortune shared, attributing the school’s success in teacher retention to the high degree of investment they have in the school’s mission—to close the African-American achievement gap. “We are also making significant progress toward our goal,” she continued. “I think they see the fruits of their labor as student achievement goes up and up.” Fortune also attributed part of their success in this regard to the school’s fostering of an environment where expectations are very high.
HBCP operates under the auspices of the Fortune School of Education (FSE) system that works to create an environment where teachers receive quite a bit of professional development. “We also offer competitive salaries at our school,” she noted, “about five percent more than the salary schedule for the San Bernardino School District.”
In addition, HBCP pays full benefits for their employees and their families with no employee contributions. “Those health care costs have gone up and up, in some years by double digits, and we have kept up with that and made it our priority. We want our teachers and staff to have affordable health care,” Fortune stressed.
In addition to the advantage of having a stable team of educators, HBCP has also adopted a new curriculum from an organization in New York called, Achievement First. The mathematics portion of the curriculum is used in grades two through eight, and grades five through eight utilize the English literature segment.
“Achievement First is a successful network of charter schools in New York and Connecticut,” she explained. “We looked to Achievement First because New York, as a state, is ahead of California in the implementation of Common Core” (a set of educational standards for teaching and testing English between kindergarten and 12th grade). “They [New York and Connecticut] had an opportunity to experiment with curriculum and stumble a little bit before we did, and we thought we could learn from them.”
FSE has studied Achievement First for about five years. “The curriculum is much more rigorous, so we increased our level of academic rigor,” Fortune explained. “For example, in language arts we moved away from text books, moved toward novels and really focused-in on teaching kids how to closely read novels and annotate the text so they can really understand the main idea of what they are reading.”
In mathematics, HBCP increased their rigor by focusing on students’ conceptual understanding of math rather than rote memorization. “We are really focused on critical thinking, whether its interpreting math or the written word, encouraging kids to think through the problem or paragraph or chapter of the story.”
According to Fortune, the focus on critical thinking made a difference in terms of HBCP’s leap in students’ ability to demonstrate their understanding on student assessments.
The school’s embrace of best practices did not end with Achievement First. “We also engaged with an organization called the Relay Graduate School of Education for our principal training,” Fortune shared. “We sent all of our [FSE] principals through a year-long, rigorous course based on a book called, ‘Get Better Faster.’”
‘Get Better Faster’ was written by educators at a charter school network in New York and New Jersey called, Uncommon Schools. The focus of the principal training is to coach them on how to instill in their student population the routines and procedures to follow in school, that are conducive to a culture of high expectations.
“We teach everything and assume nothing,” Fortune emphasized. “We teach kids how we want them to walk down the hallway. We teach them how we want them to get up out of their chairs. We teach them a series of signals and sign language to use when asking their teachers frequently asked questions, in a way that is not disruptive.”
Fortune provided the following examples: If a student wants to go to the bathroom—they are taught a signal for that. If a student wants to pick up their pencil—there is a signal for that. If a student wants to get a drink of water—there is a signal for that.
It’s not hard to imagine how, in a classroom with 25 students raising their hands asking those kinds of questions, it can eat up a lot of class time, especially for a teacher who really wants to focus on his/her instruction. “If a kid quietly gives you a signal, the teacher can approve that, and if you are an observer in the classroom you won’t even realize it happened,” Fortune shared.
“We all choose to be in this environment, so we have to be committed. That means that we will do whatever it takes in order for our students to succeed.”
The Fortune School of Education
In their ‘Get Better Faster’ training, principals are also taught how to analyze student work against an exemplar of what it should look like, as well as how to guide their teachers on how to monitor their students’ work in real time against an exemplar. The technique is called, ‘aggressive monitoring.’
“Principals are teaching teachers how to take laps around the classroom. The first lap is going to be around compliance. Does everybody have their name on the paper? Is the heading correct?” Next, according to Fortune, if the assignment is to read a text and find the main idea and jot it in the margin, “the teacher now has an exemplar of what that should look like and they go around the classroom and check the work of every student to assure they met that bar.”
“You will very rarely see our teachers sitting down behind the desk. Our teachers are engaging with students, making laps around the classroom, comparing actual work against exemplar student work. And in giving that individual attention and having that active teacher style, they are raising the rigor to a college ready bar,” she stated.
With the adoption of ‘Getting Better Faster,’ FSE is leveraging the leadership of principals as instruction leaders whose role is to teach teachers how to set the culture of procedures and routines that define how school is done. Fortune defined the principal training program as compelling and well worth the $25K per principal investment.
“When our principals think about their school year, they think about, ‘How can I have a championship year, not a rookie year.’” Fortune continued, “You can be rookie of the year, and a lot of what you’ve created is because you hustled, and you put out fires. And, while you are going to get a lot of credit for grit, you may not get a lot of credit for being strategic.”
Fortune believes schools that have championship years do what champions do. “They are coached. They study a play book. They video tape themselves and review those tapes after the game. They study other winning teams. We do all of these things at Hardy Brown College Prep.”
In that same spirit, at HBCP the principal carries around a tripod and video tapes teachers instructing their classes. During the process of observation and feedback, the principal sits down with the teacher—and following a protocol about how to facilitate these feedback sessions—and provides feedback on the teacher’s classroom instruction. “Not based on what they remember, but on what they both teacher and principal can see,” Fortune stressed.
Last year, the school also introduced a new program in ‘hands-on’ science. “One of our goals is to continue down that pathway and we are really excited about that. For the last four years, we’ve taken our 5th graders on an overnight trip to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to do science experiments in their ‘Learn by Doing’ science lab. Our students really enjoy that opportunity and last year we introduced ‘hands-on’ science going all the way down to kindergarten. You can see kids doing science, not reading a text book but doing it, getting their hands dirty and doing experiments. That kind of hands on work really peaked their interests,” she proclaimed.
This year for the first time, the school is taking students in grades 6 through 8 to the Cuyamaca Outdoor School in San Diego. Although the four-day experience will be part bonding for the students, the outdoor education camp focuses on ‘next generation science standards.’ Students will not only be exposed to nature, they will also do nature-based science experiments. “We think this is going to be another neat tradition for kids,” she said.
Another important element of HBCP’s success is parent participation. “We really believe in parent involvement and we ask parents to volunteer for 49 hours per year.” It is a completely voluntary service to the school and can include parents doing homework with their child, reading to their child, etc. “Those activities parents do at home, can bolster the education of their children by creating a learning environment at home and at school, Fortune explained.
HBCP also offers a parent academy that is modeled after the book titled, Parenting Practices. The book is a study of practices employed by low income, minority parents who were successful in getting their children into and through college. The academy focuses on 12 practices and brings in speakers to train on those characteristics. The major pillars of the academy are parent involvement and how to understand and get involved in your child’s school.
The parent academy also focuses on school attendance, i.e., you must show up to learn, academic rigor, Common Core and education technology. Parents learn about college and career readiness. The academy also brings in directors and advisors from colleges to explain to parents the requirements to go to college.
“Our largest attendance at these sessions are from kindergarten and first grade families. Parents of kindergarteners are learning about the ‘A through G” requirements for the University of California.”
Fortune continued, “We also hold a parent convention in Sacramento every year and we fly up a delegation of parents from HBCP to join the families of students of our other six schools. We have a theme that is different every year. Last year our theme was around, Teaching the Culture. The same culture that we have for the kids, we teach it to the parents, so they can understand the environment of the school.
HBCP provides additional opportunities for parent engagement. For example, this year the school launched a parents’ support group led by Linda Hart from the African-American Mental Health Coalition of San Bernardino.” The group meets the second Wednesday of every month. According to Fortune, HBCP is very excited about the holistic support the school is providing its parents.
The social and emotional support extended to parents is also part of the learning experience of their students. In addition to academic rigor there are other dimensions to the HBCP school experience which includes a daily yoga practice for every child. “We have a social and emotional learning curriculum that is new to the school this year,” Fortune highlighted. “Kids at all grade levels are being taught about coping skills for school and life. The program called, Second Step, is taught for 10 to 15 minutes every school day.”
HBCP also has a team of counselors and psychologists that work with students with various special needs. The school works to mainstream these students as much as possible and provide them with the same exposure to academic rigor as general education students.
“Our model benefits students with special needs. Our education philosophy is called the Five Pillars, it includes High Expectations, Choice and Commitment, More Time, Focus on Results and Citizenship. The More Time pillar is of great value to students of special needs because we do what we call, intersessions.”
HBCP operates on trimesters and in between each trimester, the school holds what are called intersessions for children who need extra support. During an intersession which lasts two weeks, students performing at grade level go home with a project, and the children who need more support stay with their classroom teacher and have small group instruction. According to Fortune, this approach is helpful for all students and is a particularly beneficial model for students with special needs.
Another element of HBCP’s strategy includes a longer school year (190 days of instruction versus the standard 180 days) and longer school hours (7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., kindergarten 7:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.). “It’s not just the magic of time,” Fortune advised, “It has to be time well used.”
All these efforts played a role in the overall year over year progress achieved by HBCP scholars as compared to local area schools and the State of California. The year over year growth in English/language arts and math at the state level was one percent. For HBCP, the growth was an amazing 11 percentage points in English/language arts (ELA) and 14 percentage points in math.
Fortune also noted the good year over year growth attained by schools in the City of San Bernardino. They grew by four percentage points in ELA and three percentage points in math.
The results attained by HBCP and San Bernardino are before you control for race or income. “What Hardy Brown is doing because we have a predominately African-American, low-income student population, is achievement gap closing work,” Fortune stressed.
In describing the school’s goals for the coming year, she explained they will work toward improvements in academic performance. “We aren’t satisfied with where we are although we are excited about our growth. We know there is more work to be done. Our goals are to continue to engage our parents and families in meaningful ways that will lead to the long-term success of our scholars.”