COVINGTON, Ky. -- Sometimes the character of a school presents itself at unexpected moments.
Latonia Elementary students were visibly excited when a WCPO videographer and reporter recently visited to tell the school's story. A handful of students whose parents did not grant permission for their kids to be photographed were asked to step out of a classroom.
Outside the room, one of those children began pulling unrelated photographs of students off a wall by the handfuls and throwing them on the floor.
Principal Joann James spied the boy in the act, calmly approached him and asked him why he was doing something he knew was wrong.
"Are you upset that you won't be on television," she asked.
The student rolled across the carpet and into a large, empty shelf of a bookcase, cradling himself.
"I'm mad at my dad for not signing the permission slip," he said.
In a few moments, the boy was putting the photos back up on the wall, and classmates even volunteered to help him.
James, a veteran teacher and administrator, explained how she and her staff focus on de-escalating bad behavior rather than punishing students and, especially, avoiding time away from the classroom.
That philosophy is part of a formula that has Latonia outperforming its peers among schools with high percentages of low-income families.
Latonia scored 70.9 on the most recent state tests, a proficient score that is two points away from Kentucky's highest category of "distinguished."
The school has achieved those high marks by lifting scores among African-American students and students with disabilities -- two groups that, on average, typically lag behind their peers.
The number of black students who fell short of proficiency dropped 7 percent. The number of disabled students who weren't proficient dropped nearly 20 percent.
"That is huge. It's like the students who need the most help are getting just that at Latonia," Debra Vance, Covington Independent Schools spokeswoman, said.
Does the school have a miracle cure for the perennial problem of low achievement among the Tri-State's low-income students?
The bad news is no, they have not stumbled upon a novel path to success. The good news is that just about any district already has the tools they need to replicate what Latonia is accomplishing.
Setting the bar high for everyone
"Just because a student has disability doesn't matter to us. They may feel that they're never going to be able to achieve higher standards, but we hold them to high expectations," said Nick Staples, a special education teacher.
The 12-year veteran works with students with any and all learning, mental or physical disabilities, pushing each student to make full use of whatever strengths they possess.
"We're very consistent with that, with providing accommodations, modifying tests, and just providing the support to students as well as providing support for families at home," he said.
Jenny Batchelor, a third grade English teacher, laughs when asked if there is an adjustment period for students to realize they can't skate by.
"Oh, there is definitely a ramp up period," she said. "We spend the first six weeks in third grade focusing on expectations, appropriate behavior, providing examples of what's OK and not, social skills, focusing on the positives," she said.
Batchelor began teaching in low-income schools in Louisville before coming to Covington, purposely seeking out a school where she could work with students from low-income families whose home lives are often difficult.
"Home life can be a barrier in a child's learning -- lack of exposure to text at home, lack of exposure to vocabulary, basic needs not being met," she said. "But here at Latonia, we try to let them know that that's not an excuse when you come here because when you get to school, you're safe, you're fed and you should be ready to learn."
Batchelor employs a "no opt-out" policy in her classroom. If a student is called on to answer a question, he can't shrug and wait for the teacher to ask someone else.
"Every kid is important, and pushing them teaches them that they are accountable for their learning, that they're not going to get out of it and that they do need to pay attention," she said.
Covering the basics
Teachers and administrators can't control what happens at home, so they set the tone at the beginning of every school day.
"They know from the time they get off the bus in the morning or they walk into school that we're there to greet them, that we're happy to see them, that we want them to be here and that we're ready to get down tot the business of learning," Principal James said. "No matter what's going on in other places, once they're here, they're safe and we're going to focus on education."
About 85 percent of Latonia's students qualify for free or reduced lunch, so Covington provides lunch and breakfast to all students.
"My favorite food is in the morning. I usually eat Cheerios without the honey on them. I get non-fat milk, and for lunch my favorite thing is pizza," said Josh Johnson, a 9-year-old third grader.
His favorite subjects are math, where he is learning about distributive properties, and English, where he is enjoying chapter books.
Johnson wants to be doctor.
Marlee Collins, 8, is a third grader who is proud to report that she reads at a ninth-grade level, according to her test scores.
"I really like that all the teachers are really nice to you and if you're someone who is new in the school, you can just really adapt to it nicely and fast," she said.
Collins like reading about fossils "because I want to be a paleontologist."
Jamikeia Turner, an 11-year-old fifth grader, said reading, math and social studies are his favorite subjects.
"It gives you the chance to challenge yourself but at the same time you see what you're capable of," he said. "I want to be a doctor when I grow up because the way I think about it is when you help people more, it helps you think about the way other people feel and the way they need help. I want to be one of those people who help people and get them through surgery."
James and her staff encourage all the students to dream big for themselves. They huddle regularly to review how students are faring and to identify and remove impediments to learning.
The staff emphasized collaboration to support each other.
"We have a strong team," Erin Key, who teaches fifth-grade math, said. "Our teachers are excellent, and we do a great job collaborating with one another and to try to make sure that if I'm not giving them what they need that there's another adult who can provide that for them."
James said the school draws in parents as much as they can, with regular family nights, volunteer opportunities and an open-door policy.
"We always welcome parents to come in, 24 hours a day. We would like parents to be more involved than they are," she said.
Batchelor plans to stick around for the long haul, helping students to get the most of their time in school.
"It all starts with the teachers and staff and the community around the school. If we all share a common goal and hold every child accountable, I truly believe we'll be able to grow," she said.