Recap: JKCF "Closing the Excellence Gap" Summit


On February 5-6 in Lansdowne, VA, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation held a national convening of over 100 principals from many of the nation’s top selective public high schools to address the excellence gap in the American education system: the nation’s highest-achieving students with financial need are not receiving sufficient access or support to match the performance of their high-income peers.

hl_intro-1Cooke Foundation Executive Director Harold O. Levy

Over the course of the convening, principals heard from leaders in their field and were presented with cutting-edge research; together, these school leaders will form a coalition that will advocate on behalf of high-achieving students with financial need in an effort to close the excellence gap.

380 Years in the Making

Cooke Foundation executive director, Harold Levy, kicked off the unprecedented event with a story about the first public school ever created in the United States: Boston Latin School, founded 380 years ago in 1635. “This conference has been 380 years in the making,” said Levy, emphasizing that principals from schools like Boston Latin, as well as researchers and other educational leaders have a responsibility to advocate for high-achieving, low-income students, against whom the odds are stacked. Too often, it is assumed that these students will be fine on their own, when that is not the reality. Levy encouraged principals to begin thinking about how their schools accept—or do not accept—this demographic of students: “My pitch is very simple: the kids need your help.”

Opening remarks, Harold O. Levy

The State of Education in the United States

John King, senior adviser delegated the duties of deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, delivered an address outlining the challenges that lie ahead in America’s education system. He touched on Cooke Scholars who he had known in a charter school he founded and on his own background, and highlighted the impact of teachers and educational opportunities on his college and career successes. He outlined the current federal landscape and discussed the potential reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). King emphasized the importance of access policies in addition to equitable admissions practices, pointing out that families of limited means may not even be aware how to navigate admission to a selective high school. King stressed the importance of a federal role in any ESEA reauthorization measures and discussed the administration’s interest in moving towards a PreK-14 federal school system.

Dr. John B. King, Jr.

Laying the Groundwork

Todd Mann, executive director of the Magnet Schools of America and the National Consortium of Secondary STEM Schools, along with Crystal Bonds, president of the National Consortium of Secondary STEM Schools and principal of the High School for Math, Science, and Engineering at City University of New York’s City College, announced the creation of a new advocacy organization, which will empower principals to raise their voices collectively in support of high-performing, low-income students. The new advocacy group, C.L.A.S.S. (Coalition of Leaders for Advanced Student Success), will include principals from across the nation and will be led by a steering committee of experienced school leaders and educators. Attendees were invited and encouraged to add their voices to this important effort.

reb_panelCooke Foundation Director of Young Scholars and Alumni Programs Rebecca Cullen
leading panel on student outreach and preparation

Student Outreach and Preparation

A panel of educators, including Dr. Carol Horn of Fairfax County Public Schools, Dr. Jamie Lathan of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Dr. Jose Torres of the Illinois Mathematics and Science and Mathematics Academy, and Crystal Bonds, shared promising practices with the audience to better identify, recruit, and prepare high-performing students with financial need for success in selective high schools. Some topics discussed included improving the talent pipeline from local elementary and middle schools, utilizing distance and online education, and subsidizing exam-prep and bridge programs.

Student Outreach and Preparation

A Moment of Obligation

The day concluded with an inspirational keynote address from Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of Society for Science and the Public, founder of the Global Fund for Children, as well as a former student of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. In her speech, Ajmera discussed the opportunities afforded by attending a selective public high school, opportunities that laid the groundwork for her future achievements. She described experiencing a pivotal “moment of obligation,” when she knew she must use the education she received to do something positive in the world.

hlCrystal Bonds, Harold Levy, and John King

Cooke Foundation Grants Competition & Scholarship Opportunities

The second day began with a call for grant proposals from schools represented at the convening. Grants of $50,000-$100,000 will be awarded to five to ten schools that propose innovative ways to improve access, support, and advocacy within their districts for high-achieving students with financial need. Following the grant announcement, representatives from the Cooke Foundation, Gates Millennium Scholarship, Leadership for a Diverse America, the Horatio Alger Association, and the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Program shared scholarship opportunities and resources. The panel also answered questions about specific strategies schools can use to better support their high-performing students to identify and apply for competitive scholarships.

The Excellence Gap and a State by State Report Card

Dr. Jonathan Plucker, Raymond Neag Endowed Professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, presented compelling data that demonstrates the profound excellence gap that emerges between grades 4 and 8 in U.S. public schools. The excellence gap describes the disparate rates at which students from different socio-economic backgrounds reach advanced levels of academic performance. Despite years of reform that have managed to slightly close the achievement gap and help students reach basic levels of academic proficiency, little has been done to move the needle on increasing student achievement at the advanced level. Dr. Plucker presented new research, supported by the Cooke Foundation, including a report card to evaluate state-level policies and indicators for success for closing the excellence gap and promoting the success of high-achieving students from low-income and underrepresented minority groups.

Dr. Jonathan Plucker

Advocating at State, District, and Federal Levels for High-Achieving Students with Financial Need

Dr. Jonathan Plucker, Elizabeth Sciabarra, executive director of Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation and former superintendent of selective schools in New York City, and Jane Clarenbach, director of public education at the National Association for Gifted Children, facilitated break-out sessions for principals to discuss how to utilize data, community partners, and resources to drive advocacy efforts at the state, district, and federal levels of government. These sessions provided the opportunity for rich exchanges of best practices and innovative ideas, laying the groundwork for collaboration and action to support student achievement.

Next Steps

The convening ended with the C.L.A.S.S. steering committee and Harold Levy calling on attendees to continue cultivating partnerships that will help close the excellence gap. Participants were energized to carry the momentum of the convening forward to their respective communities in order to advocate for high-achieving students with financial need. Mr. Levy also called upon the principals to encourage their best students with financial need to apply for Cooke Scholarships.

Closing Remarks, Harold O. Levy


To read the resources the Cooke Foundation shared at the convening, download the documents below.