In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.
Turner Elementary School, a grade 4–6 school, is located in a small farming community 50 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Forty-two percent of the 200 students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches and about 18 percent have disabilities.
Four years ago, Turner and other schools throughout the district were struggling to improve student performance, especially in mathematics. At Turner, 64 percent of fifth-graders scored proficient or above in mathematics on the State test in school year 2010–2011. Three years later, the number has sharply increased, to 84 percent.
The school used Title II and Title VI funds to provide professional development opportunities during the school year and the summer.
Q. How did your school achieve such a turnaround in only three years?
Cynthia Alexander, principal: We created a team of staff across the grade levels. Known as the Advanced Tier Team, the group meets every five weeks to look at data and develop an individual learning plan for every student who needs extra support, not just special-education students. We determine if students need interventions in math or other subjects and what those interventions should be. Then, at the next meeting, the responsible person brings updated data so the team can see if the intervention is working and whether adjustments are necessary. But we don’t just look at academic data; we also look at behavioral data and trends so we are focusing on the whole child.
We also have professional learning community meetings once a week, during which teachers meet by grade level to review data and plan instruction for individual students.
If students need interventions, we want to make sure they get that support without missing regular class time. So we have Intervention Time 3 days a week for 40 minutes. During that time, students work on a specific skill, like fractions, so they can fill in knowledge gaps.
We also have an interventionist—a certified teacher who provides support both in and out of the classroom. And we have mini-groups that meet daily. For example, if students are having trouble with fluency, they will meet in the mini-group for eight minutes at the beginning of the literacy block. Teachers tell us that is really helping.
Q. Why focus on mathematics?
Becky Foley, assistant superintendent: Four years ago when I came to the district, I talked with the administrators,
and they really wanted to focus on math. Across the district, we were not doing well in math on any level.
Alexander: The first year, the district math committee came to the school and observed three different math lessons on the same day. At the end of the day, the committee gathered to discuss what they had seen.
Foley: This experience was very effective because all the observations happened on the same day and the discussion was immediate. We held similar observations for the first two years we were phasing in a new math curriculum and will probably do it again in a year or two.
Alexander: We looked in particular at implementation for math. If we don’t have implementation practices in place, we get gaps in the curriculum, and students don’t have access to the same instruction. That means over a period of years, we are creating gaps among students.
We need to teach all of the units in a curriculum. We aren’t giving teachers a script, but we are making sure they have a guide to stay on track and cover the same skills, without missing some units because they run out of time. We have built extra days into the plan for use if a teacher needs extra time to cover some material. But if a teacher is two weeks behind, we need to look at what we need to do to support that teacher.
We also look at how we can educate parents. The way we teach math now is different from the way we learned it when we were in school. So we need to help parents understand it. At our fall Open House/Curriculum Night, teachers meet with parents by grade level. They show parents the math curriculum so parents can help their students. In the spring we have Math Night. Teachers set up displays at cafeteria tables, and parents come play math games at each booth. They get a ticket for each game they play, and at the end of the night we hold drawings for prizes.
Foley: We use a very systemic approach—we need everybody working together to help students improve achievement.
You can learn more about Turner Elementary School’s efforts and success here.