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High-Flying Schools' Scalability

It's always heartening to read about a school that manages to overcome daunting odds to deliver a quality education to its students ("Black Men Speaking Latin," The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 18). These high-flying schools are cited as evidence that too many excuses are being made when outcomes are abysmal.

The latest example is Boys' Latin, an all-black charter school in West Philadelphia that has distinguished itself by making Latin a requirement for graduation.  For example, two students had perfect scores on the National Latin Exam, which is taken by students around the globe.  Sixty percent of its seventh-graders were cited for achievement. Most importantly, it sends more of its graduates to college than any other school in the city, with a wait list for admission.

Each high-flying school claims to have one overriding factor that accounts for its success.  I won't argue with that.  But I think the larger question is whether these schools are scalable.  That's because what works so well in one venue does not necessarily transfer to another. 

We saw that in the career of Jaime Escalante of "Stand and Deliver" fame.  He produced miracles at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles but was unable to repeat them when he transferred to Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento. Although he was the same outstanding teacher, he found himself in a new environment, where the same strategies he brought with him didn't work.

It's so tempting to assume that excuses are what hold back underperforming schools.  But I say they are explanations that deserve serious consideration.

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