Is there a special sauce that makes an urban high school great? This question and more were discussed at a community conversation on urban education at Dayton’s Stivers School for the Arts last night.

Some 150 or so Daytonians turned out to listen to the school leaders of Stivers and Dayton Early College Academy, who shared their thoughts on what makes their schools great. Both Stivers and Dayton Early College Academy were featured in Fordham’s Needles in a Haystack. Needles schools are high-minority, high-poverty urban public schools that produce uncommon results for their students. The Seedling Foundation helped to organize the event.

Needles panel discussion (from left to right): Dayton Public Schools superintendent Lori Ward, Erin Dooley and Liz Whipps of Stivers School for the Arts, Fordham's Checker Finn and Needles author Peter Meyer, Dave Taylor and Judy Hennessey of Dayton Early College Academy.

According to these school leaders, the recipe for a great urban school goes something like this:

3 cups of sense of purpose; 2 cups of enthusiasm; 1 cup of committed, talented teachers; 1 cup of high expectations; ½ cup of making learning “cool”; a dash of community support and a dash of parental engagement; and finally, a bowlful of “spit”—a “whatever it takes” attitude (in the words of Stivers principal Erin Dooley).

Yet this recipe isn’t mechanically identical for both schools. In fact, there are differences. Stivers, an arts magnet for the Dayton Public Schools, uses the arts to inspire a love of learning among its students. Through the arts, Erin Dooley asserts, students apply academics and make learning real. Meanwhile, DECA, a public charter school, has a laser-like focus on college readiness. When asked about DECA’s educational theme, principal Dave Taylor’s answer was trite and to-the-point: “You’re going to college.”

Despite noticeable differences in educational philosophy and organizational design (DECA is a charter; Stivers, a district school), the recipe—and their achievement results—are strikingly similar. At the core, it’s about culture, attitude, and expectations for these high-performing, urban high schools.

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