Achievement First's approach is not based on any "silver bullet" about how to achieve breakthrough student achievement. Rather, it consists of a set of basic principles that, when combined and executed well, have consistently demonstrated an ability to enable all students to succeed at the highest levels. Several critical elements of the school approach include:
More time spent learning
Regular use of interim assessments
Integration of performance data in planning
Recruitment and development of talented teachers and leaders
Intensive intervention for struggling students
Disciplined and joyful school culture
Immediately upon entering an Achievement First school, you can feel a sense of urgency, order, rigor, focus and joy. Key elements of Achievement First's school culture include the following:
Core values: We call them our "REACH" values, and they are: Respect, Enthusiasm, Achievement, Citizenship and Hard Work. They appear in every classroom and are taught, cultivated and reinforced as explicitly as academics.
Sweating the small stuff: In many urban schools, teachers and leaders "pick their battles," only addressing egregious instances of poor behavior. Achievement First, on the other hand, has adopted sociologist James Q. Wilson's "broken windows" theory that even small details can have a significant effect on overall culture, and we believe that students will rise to the level of expectations placed on them.
College focus: The message at Achievement First schools is that ALL students are going to college. We continuously expose students to college: all of our classrooms are named after universities, and students make field trips to college campuses, hear speakers talk about college, write research papers on colleges and, most important, master a college-preparatory curriculum. From the moment our students arrive, they know what year they are expected to graduate from college (our current kindergarteners are known as the "Class of 2029"). In our achievement-oriented culture, it is cool to be smart, and all students work hard to climb the mountain to college.
Teachers know and care: Achievement First schools are small learning communities in which all the teachers and leaders know the names of all the students. Achievement First schools use a co-advisor system in which a class of 25-27 students is co-advised by two teachers, which enables them to develop meaningful relationships with all the students in their advisory.
Parents as partners: At Achievement First schools, parents, students and school leaders all sign a contract that outlines their shared commitment to hard work and consistent support of one another. While this contract is not legally binding, it is an important symbolic commitment and plays an important role in strengthening the relationship between parents and the school.
Focus on attendance: At Achievement First schools, class time is sacred. Clear attendance goals are set, and strong, swift intervention with students and parents occurs if student attendance falters. A significant part of a dean's evaluation consists of his or her ability to maintain 97 percent or greater student attendance.
Uniforms: All Achievement First students wear their school's chosen uniform.
Joy factor: Achievement First believes that great education should be rigorous AND fun, challenging AND engaging, structured AND joyful. In fact, we evaluate teachers on their ability to ensure that the J-Factor (the JOY factor) is high in every class and dominates regular school-wide celebrations.