African American students thrive at this Iowa high school
It’s clear to see that Cedar Rapids’ Washington High School holds the distinction that its African American students far outperform the state average: Seventy-four percent of Washington's African American students are proficient in reading and math, compared to a statewide proficiency rate of 54 percent among African Americans.
What’s less clear is why.
Could it be the school’s clearly articulated vision? Its high expectations for all students? A welcoming environment? Tradition of celebrating student success? The leadership team?
Or a 35-year principal (yes, he’s been principal for 35 years) who knows nearly every student by name?
The long and short of it is “all of the above.” But there’s no question that Principal Ralph Plagman is the very foundation.
“I think it’s all about our school culture,” Plagman said. “We have rigorous academic expectations. We don’t have any magic programs – we tried them over the years. Instead, we have a very strong emphasis on high-end academics, particularly on AP (Advanced Placement).”
That no-excuse, educate-all culture led Washington High School to be honored for its work at the annual Breaking Barriers to Teaching and Learning Award, given by the State Board of Education. The award honors Iowa schools for their work to raise achievement among students who traditionally face challenges in the classroom.
Washington's success started with a clear vision: To insist upon high expectations for all, said Mike Johnson, associate principal.
“It’s a shared vision from the principal’s office down,” Johnson said. “It is communicated down that we want to have higher expectations for kids. To do that, you need to get to know the kids. The staff know the kids and the kids trust the staff. That goes a long way to getting kids to try harder and accomplish more. From top down, it’s a shared vision.”
The school’s success also comes from hiring the right people – from teachers to janitors, counselors to food service staff, secretaries to security guards – said associate principal Valerie Nyberg.
“It is very intentional what we do here,” she said. “When it comes to African American students, many schools’ approaches have been to be wary or concerned. Not here. In hiring staff, Dr. Plagman is purposeful. He shares his vision with everyone. Dr. Plagman and the staff make everyone feel welcome.”
Feeling welcomed is one of many steps the school has taken. The particular focus on high-level academics is extended to all by removing barriers that have existed in the past.
“Many schools use cut scores from the Iowa Assessments, in which a student has to have a minimum score to be allowed to take certain classes,” Nyberg said. “We all encourage everyone to take AP programs. We don’t use cut scores. It’s the individual desires and interests that will determine whether a student takes a class.”
Currently, of the 352 African American students at Washington, 44 percent are in AP classes. That compares to the student population as a whole in which 55 percent are enrolled in high-level coursework.
“We feel like when students take higher-level courses, they will do better in college entrance exams,” Plagman said.
In fact, counselors actively encourage students to take high-level classes.
“Our counselors get to know the kids and challenge them to take tough courses,” Johnson said. “They talk about college planning from day one when they meet the kids.”
Getting students to challenge themselves can be tricky, Nyberg said.
“Education is a risk,” she said. “You risk embarrassment by not knowing something. But we teach them that risk-taking is incredibly important. A student may not necessarily be an 'A' student, but students invariably can benefit by the high-level classes.”
Plagman said that there is a particular focus on the students’ classroom experiences early in their high school career.
“I see that classes like Spanish I and Algebra I are the most important subjects taught in school,” he said. “The students have to have a great experience in there, or they will not take high-level classes later.”
The high-level classes, after all, are considered to be the gatekeepers to postsecondary success. Still, Plagman says he’s seen numerous examples of other schools not fully understanding this.
“Most high schools in America have lower expectations for their students than they should,” he said. “We get transfer students nearly every day, and I see their transcripts and they are horrible. We had a senior transfer in the other day and I couldn’t see a single high-level class that had been taken. The student was bright, but had not been challenged. So we have amped it up for that student.
“I think some schools go out of their way to make students feel comfortable. We don’t mind if they are a bit uncomfortable so long as they are excelling.”
Johnson said Washington incorporates a unique scheduling process to ensure that wherever there is an advanced course, there is a similar lower-level course at the same time.
“We have a safety net,” he said. “If it’s necessary, we can drop them down without loss of face.”
“It is harder to move students up,” Plagman added. “You can always move them down.”
Washington High also enables students to choose specific teachers to teach them, Johnson said.
“That’s because they may already have a connection with a teacher based on an older brother or sister’s experience,” he said.
The school incorporates what they call “Warrior Time” – they are the Washington Warriors, after all – in which students can get additional help during the regular school day in a subject that they need extra help with.
And then they are leaning heavily on their teacher leader system to ensure classroom instruction meets everyone’s needs.
“He’s helping work on equity in the building,” Nyberg said. “He goes into a classroom and observes the teacher, and then says how we can do this better to meet the needs of all the students in classroom. It’s not a classroom full of kids, it’s a classroom full of individuals.”
And, as individuals, many students can present their own particular challenges.
“When we have a discipline issue, I first look at the student’s grades,” Nyberg said. “I then find out whether they are going to their classes. In one instance, I discovered a student had significant reading issues, and he reacted to that by not going to class. We worked to connect him with the teachers, who were able to help find strategies that would help him.”
Finally, celebrations mark academic success. On graduation, for instance, medallions are distributed to students who have taken four years of science, math, social studies and foreign language – high-level coursework or not. It’s done in a festive environment, meant to share the academic success with all of the students. It has a spin-off effect: When ninth graders first observe this celebration, they are that much more motivated when it’s their turn to graduate.
“By the time we get to graduation, I always do an informal count about how many kids don’t have some kind of recognition,” Nyberg said. “There is, perhaps, 10 in total. And those could be students who transferred in and wouldn’t qualify for four-year medallions.”
Even after receiving a statewide award for work with African American students, the Washington team didn't rest on its laurels. The award merely presented a challenge to do even better.
“We want to keep raising the bar,” Plagman said.