Los Angeles Principal Transforms School

Principal Mikara Solomon Davis helped turn the Los Angeles-area Bunche Elementary, one of California's lowest-performing schools, into one of the state's best. Farai Chideya talks with Solomon Davis about her plan that boosted test scores among Bunche's low-income, mostly black and Latino students, and how she has taught them to aim for academic excellence.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And politics has a clear impact on American education. Take the schools across the United States struggling to meet state and federal standards, including No Child Left Behind. Ralph Bunche Elementary used to fall below all standardized measures. It's a school near Compton, California whose students are low-income, black and Latino.

Eight years ago, Bunche's poor test scores made it one of the lowest-ranking schools in the state - that is, until Mikara Solomon Davis arrived. The young, first-time principal taught and then went to graduate school, and she put in place a no non-sense accountability plan. I recently got the chance to ask Solomon Davis about how she's made the school a model of success.

So I just have to say, first of all, that you look even younger than I expected.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: And I say that only because you have done tremendous things with Bunche. One thing that happens a lot if you go in as a young person in an older person's game is to get a little hateration. How did people react to seeing you show up?

Ms. MIKARA SOLOMON DAVIS (Principal, Ralph Bunche Elementary School): Well, I have to say if the hateration was there, that it was definitely kept to themselves and amongst themselves. Now, I heard about it from people, you know, throughout the year. But in terms of respect and, you know, following policy and contributing, I have to say that my veteran group was easier than your younger group at that time.

I think what happened was - especially with the veteran population - they came in to this profession for a reason. Kind of like the reason my grandparents, my grandparents on my father's side - African-American - were educators. And in that time, there was segregation. They lived in Florida. And the one thing my grandmother always says to me is while segregation definitely was negative, the positive was the chosen one were being taught by people who cared and love them. And now some people argue whether that's the case.

And the veteran population at Bunche was that population. They were like my grandparent-type of - they really, I think, got excited that…They always would say to me you're an old woman in a young person's body. That I believe in education, I believe that our kids can learn and there's no excuse for them not learning. But they're not going to come here and disrespect you or us, either. And so, within about six months, the majority of the veteran group was like okay, hey. I can do this. They call me baby, which I love. I have no problem with that.

CHIDEYA: So what did you do? The basic line now is that your school has extraordinary achievement levels.

Ms. DAVIS: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: Tell me about those levels, and what did it take to get there?

Ms. DAVIS: Okay. There are a couple of levels. The main one in California is -and now with No Child Left Behind, it's changed to a national dialogue. But it was the academic performance index, and basically every school in the state, the goal is 800. And so what you'll find, unfortunately, is in your wealthy, middle-class areas, you'll find the schools at 800 and above. So we were a four - I think it was 450-something. But then the year I came, I think they were up to 501 that year. We are now 868. So that's a - it's almost doubled in…

CHIDEYA: That is dramatic.

Ms. DAVIS: …six years, which I've been told by various people that is almost unheard of with the population we're working with.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned that there is also a different measurement…

Ms. DAVIS: Yes.

CHIDEYA: …that has come with the federal No Child Left Behind program.

Ms. DAVIS: Right.

CHIDEYA: How's your school doing on that?

Ms. DAVIS: Okay, that's called the Annual Yearly Progress. And basically, what No Child Left Behind has required is that every state set a mark that by 2015, I believed, 100 percent of your children on your standardized tests in your state are at mastery. The AYP measures how many people are - how many students are proficient and advanced. Each year, there's a mark that you have to get to. In the English language arts, we've tripled the requirement in AYP. And then in math, we have tripled it as well, to where it's three times higher than where we're supposed to be.

CHIDEYA: How did you get there?

Ms. DAVIS: We do a weekly assessment. Every Friday, we assess. And our kids are responsible for knowing their scores. So what we do is, before they come on the playground, what you get today? And they'll tell you. I got a 75. That's a C. I have five more points before I get a B. I'm going to try and get five more points. That's kindergarten through fifth grade. They all know. The assessment is seen as a tool to get to college. We talk about college. Every classroom is named after a college. Everything is seen as where do you want to go in life.

CHIDEYA: So you're essentially creating a lot of the same behaviors that you would find at an elite prep school, but within a public elementary school.

Ms. DAVIS: Exactly.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk about politics for a second.

Ms. DAVIS: Okay.

CHIDEYA: No Child Left Behind.

Ms. DAVIS: Yes.

CHIDEYA: Why is it so problematic to so many educators? A lot of educators who I've talked to say this constant testing, teaching to the test is destroying the schools. You seem to be focus very much on assessment.

Ms. DAVIS: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: Is that a contradiction with the idea that you should be teaching for learning and not just teaching to the test?

Ms. DAVIS: Well, in terms of the Friday assessments, really, the way we sell it to the kids and to the teachers is I want to make sure as a teacher that I'm doing a good job, that you're getting it.

So it's not only an assessment of how you're doing as a student, but it's an assessment of how I'm doing as a teacher. And I think it's very much teaching. I don't think that when we're assessing on Fridays that we're not teaching. And I don't think that you're teaching to the test. You're teaching to California State standards, which are assessed formally at the end of the year. I'd completely disagree with saying that it's ruining schools.

I think that it's focusing schools, because I think it's time for schools to get really honest about what we want to do with our children and what we expect of our children. And everybody has to be held accountable to that.

CHIDEYA: So if you had to create a tiny little playbook for a new principal who is stepping into shoes like the shoes that you stepped into six years ago…

Ms. DAVIS: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: …just like a one-page go-for-it note. What would that playbook be?

Ms. DAVIS: Love your kids, first and foremost. If you love your kids and you put that first, you will always do the right thing. That's what my mom always said to me. Secondly, I would say have some type of faith. You're going to have to have something to keep you grounded. And then thirdly, be a good teacher before you become a principal. Have the results yourself before you ask others to have the results. And then take no excuses and make sure that you hold yourself and everybody else accountable. And the last piece is you're going to have to work really, really hard.

CHIDEYA: Well, Principal Solomon Davis, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. DAVIS: Thank you for having me. It was my pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Principal Mikara Solomon Davis is currently on maternity leave from Ralph Bunche Elementary School near Compton, California.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today, and thanks for sharing your time with us. As always, if you'd like to comment on any of the topics, you can call us at 202-408-3330. Or you could e-mail us, just log on to npr.org. To listen to the show, you could also visit npr.org because we are a one-stop shop. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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