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More Than We Think Is Possible: Schools That Help All Children Succeed

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    Ron Berger

This afternoon I was witness to something beautiful and inspiring. I sat in a packed school auditorium, every seat and floor space crammed with students, parents, and staff, the space exploding with banners, balloons, and cheering. This was not a graduation, pep rally, or performance. The event was Declaration Day, a ceremony in which every high school senior announced to the entire school community—to raucous applause—where he or she planned to attend college. Since the school opened more than a decade ago, every single graduate has gotten accepted into college, and almost every student has graduated high school on time.

The Springfield Renaissance School, an EL Education School in Springfield, Massachusetts, is a regular public district school with 700 urban students from neighborhoods challenged by poverty. How can it be that these students—exactly the profile of students that America’s schools have most often failed—are reaching this level of success? What is going on that’s different there?

Author Paul Tough, in his bestselling book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, explains that research shows that the key to success in school and life is not what we think. Success has less to do with test scores and more to do with “non-cognitive” capacities and mindsets, things like responsibility and perseverance. Tough’s just-released sequel, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, explains that these capacities cannot be taught like math and reading skills—they are built through children’s environments and experiences at home, in school, and in the world.

In Helping Children Succeed, Tough describes two schools in the EL Education network—Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago and Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) in New York City (part of the NYC Outward Bound Schools network)—as places where the environment and experience of school builds these capacities and cultivates success for all students. Students at both of these schools, almost all of whom are low-income students of color, demonstrate extraordinary achievement. WHEELS, like Springfield Renaissance School, is a public district EL Education school that has reached 100% college acceptance for every graduating class.

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If these capacities and mindsets—which EL Education calls “character”—are not typically learned through direct lessons or campaigns with banners and posters, how do these two schools build character in students? Helping Children Succeed points to two main factors in the EL Education model that are a part of the fabric of Polaris and WHEELS:

  • Character is built by succeeding, together, in challenging and meaningful learning
  • Character is built by social structures and relationships in the school that ensure every student is known and cared for; and every student is pushed to be courageous, kind and reflective.
EL Education believes that character is built through culture. It is tempting to see character skills as inherent, individual traits; either a person has perseverance and responsibility or they do not. But this is rarely the case. Most students learn to persevere through challenges and to be responsible with their work because they enter a school culture where their peers model, support and demand it, where working hard and treating others well is the norm. Students don’t succeed because they are born with character or because an adult told them to have character. They succeed because they enter a school culture where students work as a team to challenge, push and support each other and where showing courage, compassion, and tenacity is the expectation in their peer groups. To fit in, they become a part of this positive culture and develop the capacities and mindsets that Tough describes.

To see what that looks like at Polaris Charter Academy, view this video: it shows Polaris middle school students working together on a deep and worthy challenge, addressing gun violence in their neighborhood. Character is also built into the EL Education model of daily instruction. This video shows Polaris third grade students working together to understand fractions. The topic is not unusual, but the spirit of courage and collaboration in mathematics shows how character is inseparable from academics and is built in the small moments of daily life in the classroom.

At WHEELS, the fusion of character and academics can be seen clearly in this video, in which a seventh grade student shares her portfolio of work with her father at her student-led conference, describing her academic and character strengths, and her challenges and goals.


For those readers who find Helping Children Succeed a compelling argument for education, we hope that the resources at our EL Education website, almost all of which are free and open-source, can help give a picture of what that focus can look like in schools. Better yet, if you have the opportunity to visit an EL Education Credentialed School, you will have the honor that I experienced today: being inspired by talking with students who have achieved more than they, and too often the world, think is possible.