school snapshots

Sharpe Elementary sets high expectations to increase student literacy by 60 percent

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Students in Memphis help each other with their vocabulary at Sharpe Elementary, one of 85 Tennessee schools recognized by the state Monday for test score growth in the 2014-15 school year.

More than 70 percent of Sharpe Elementary’s students read below their grade level.

It was a troubling statistic for principal Gary Zimmerman and his staff.

In the last 12 years he’s been the principal, his school has met its academic goals, but Zimmerman said it’s not acceptable that barely 30 percent of his students are proficient or advanced readers.

At the beginning of the school year, more than 70 percent of the school’s kindergarteners and second graders were not reading at their grade level, and more than 60 percent of first and third graders were below grade level.  Nearly all of the schools’ fourth and fifth graders were not reading at their grade level.

The push to turnaround the school is evident in the work that goes on in the classrooms before and after school and even on the weekends. It’s hard for anyone visiting the school to miss the vocabulary-covered walls that resemble a never-ending sentence.

Sharpe’s story is only a snapshot of Shelby County Schools’ overall push to address the district’s literacy problem. According to a study of third-grade readers across the district, 61 percent of the students were not reading on grade level. District administrators and board members are concerned about this problem because education research has shown if a student is not reading at grade level by the third grade, the student will not graduate high school on time, according to a national study commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The study says the dropout rates are highest for the low and below-basic readers with 23 percent of the children dropping out of high school or failing to finish on time. The dropout rate for children with basic reading skills is 9 percent and 4 percent for proficient readers.

Memphis is one of the least literate cities in the country, according to a literacy survey conducted by Literacy Mid-South.

Almost a third of adults read at or below a third-grade level and 41 percent of adults have less than high school diploma or GED, according to Literacy Mid-South.

“We’re fighting demographics,” Zimmerman said. “Some of our children leave our schools and they go home and there’s not a lot of help.  We can only do so much in the seven hours that we have them, so there’s a gap all of the time.”

Sharpe Elementary’s goal is to increase student literacy from 28.1 to 45 percent – a 60 percent jump – on this year’s annual state tests.

The school’s goal is aggressive and higher than the state’s target, which is 32.5 percent of students reading on a proficient or advanced level.

Zimmerman, Sharpe’s principal,  said considering the progress students have made so far, higher expectations are achievable.

Students are monitored regularly to gauge their progress.

This month’s testing showed that 70 percent of kindergarteners and fourth grade students reading below grade level in October decreased by 43 percent. The 60 percent of first and third graders reading below grade level decreased by 36 percent and 12 percent, respectively.  Fourth graders made significant progress as well, cutting the percentage of below basic readers from 95 percent to 54 percent.  The percentage of below basic fifth grade readers dropped from 100 to 65 percent.

Zimmerman said the progress is a reflection of the school’s efforts. 

“If you only reach for the minimum, then you get minimum results,” he said.  “Forty-five percent of students reading proficient or advanced isn’t the best when you consider half of the students are still reading  at a basic or below basic level. This is hard work and we’re doing all we can.”

In October, Sharpe Elementary started the Emerging Readers Saturday School program for students that were reading below their grade level. The program is funded with federal Title I money, which can be used for extended school day programs, Zimmerman said.

School officials couldn’t enroll the entire school in the Saturday program, so they specifically targeted students they felt needed the most immediate help.

All the students will stay in the program for the remainder of the school year and  Zimmerman is even looking into the possibility of offering a five- day, five-week  summer reading program for students.

The students spend six-hours every Saturday, even during breaks, at the school practicing reading skills.  Students receive computer instruction using a system called Istation, one-on-one and small group instruction, and they are given time to read independently.

Currently there are 22 students enrolled and there’s a growing waiting list.

The computer system, Istation, provides students with reading lessons that test their vocabulary and reading comprehension skills.

Stephanie Gatewood, the school’s family services specialist, is the facilitator of the program along with a classroom teacher and teacher’s assistant.

Gatewood is a former Memphis City School Board member and education researcher at the University of Memphis.  She spends her days monitoring student progress, teaching lessons, conferring with teachers and students and reaching out to parents.

Fifth-grader Chasity Coleman didn’t want to come to Saturday school, but with Gatewood and her mother’s nudge, Coleman started the program in November.

Chasity Coleman
Chasity Coleman

“Sometimes I read too fast and I don’t remember everything,” said Coleman, 11.  “Now, I know I need to read slower and focus.”

Coleman said her teachers are starting to notice an improvement in her classroom work. She’s growing to enjoy reading more and reads at least 20 minutes every night.

“I’m reading The Princess Diaries and Dork Diaries,” she said.

Gatewood said fourth grader Michael Gutierrez, another Saturday School student, is now reading on his grade level after being behind earlier in the school year.

“When I started, I didn’t like to read,” said Gutierrez, 9.  “But now I do.  I like to write, but spelling is hard.”

It’s the opposite for third grader Rolando Pastor, 8, who finds it difficult to write his sentences while spelling has become his fastest growth area.

Every day at Sharpe, students begin the day with a 90-minute reading block. Some students receive small group instruction and other students receive before- and after-school tutoring.

Rolando Pastor
Rolando Pasto
Michael Gutierrez
Michael Gutierrez

The school’s commitment to improving literacy not only prompted the start of Saturday school for Emerging Readers, but also a small library in the cafeteria.

Gatewood’s office, located in the school’s cafeteria, has several computer terminals set up for students to grab a quick lesson during lunch time.  She also has a library for students to check  out books, but not only just to read and return.

Gatewood uses a notecard system requiring students to write all of the words they didn’t know in the book, write its definition on the notecards and turn the cards in when they return the book.

If a student returns a book without any notecards sticking out, Gatewood says she’s quick to correct them.

Last week in Ikeysha Hall’s fourth grade science class, Gatewood reviewed an Istation lesson with the  students.  Students had to define several words from the lesson on marine life.

“I’m doing this work because it’s important,” Gatewood said. “We have a reading deficit, specifically  in vocabulary.  That’s why we have a school-wide push to strengthen vocabulary. Children deserve a quality education.”

Two for one

Schools in Pueblo, Greeley up next as state sorts out struggling schools

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Department of Education is expected Monday to suggest that five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, including one that was once considered a reform miracle, hire outsiders to help right the course.

The department’s recommendations for the schools — three in Pueblo and two in Greeley — are the latest the State Board of Education are considering this spring. The state board, under Colorado law, is required to intervene after the schools have failed to boost test scores during the last six years.

Like all the schools facing state intervention, the five before the state board Monday serve large populations of poor and Latino students.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.

Among the schools still on the list and facing state intervention is the storied Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The school, which sits in the shadow of the city’s downsized steel mill, has been in a similar situation before.

After the state first introduced standardized tests in 1997, Bessemer was flagged as the lowest performing school in the state. District and city officials rallied and flushed the school with resources for students and teachers. Soon, students and teachers at the Pueblo school were being recognized by President George W. Bush for boosting scores.

But a series of leadership changes, budget cuts and shifts in what’s taught eroded the school’s progress.

Pueblo City Schools officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

The 17,000-student school district was preparing to make slightly more dramatic changes to improve things at Bessemer. Officials were going consolidate the school into just three grades, preschool through second, and send the older students to a nearby elementary school that is also on the state’s watch list. That school, Minnequa Elementary, is expected to face sanctions next year if conditions don’t improve.

But the district and its school board backed down after the community rejected the idea.

“With the input gathered, we determined that, at this time, changes to the grade reconfiguration were not in the best interest of the communities involved,” Pueblo Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a press release announcing the changes. “We realize the sense of urgency and will continue to support our schools while closely monitoring improvement at each location.”

The decision to not reorganize the schools was made earlier this week.

Suzanne Ethridge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the city’s teachers union, said the last-minute pullback was troubling. The district, she said, has held up staffing the schools until a final decision was made.

“I just hope we can get to a final plan and we can move on and get these schools going in the right direction,” Ethridge said.

According to documents provided to the state, district officials are expected to tell the state board they want to go along with what the state education department is proposing.

But some in the city are wary of involvement by outside groups because the district has been burned by outside groups in the past.

According to a 2012 Denver Post investigation, Pueblo City Schools had a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school improvement company. The company was hired to boost learning at six schools. Instead, school performance scores dropped at five of the six schools.

“It wasn’t a lot of fun,” Ethridge said.

Other schools in Pueblo that will appear before the state board are the Heroes Academy, a K-8, and Risley International, a middle school. The state is recommending that Risley maintain a set of waivers from state law. The flexibility for Risley, and two other Pueblo Middle Schools, were granted in 2012.

The hope was the newfound freedom would allow school leaders and teachers to do what was necessary to boost student learning. That happened at Roncalli STEM Academy and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.

But Risley has lagged behind.

Macaluso was the principal of Risley before being appointed superintendent last fall.

Like Risley, the state is recommending that two Greeley middle schools be granted waivers and hire an external manager to run some of the schools’ operations.

The state’s recommendation in part runs contrary to what a third party review panel suggested last spring. The panel, which visited all of the state’s failing schools, suggested Franklin be converted to a charter school. That’s because the school lacked leadership, according to the panel’s report.

Greeley officials say the school’s administration team, which has not changed, has received training from the state’s school improvement office, which has proven effective.

As part of the shift, Franklin and Prairie Heights middle schools will change the way students are taught. The schools will blend two styles of teaching that are in vogue.

First, students will receive personalized instruction from a teacher, assisted by digital learning software. Second, students will also work either individually or in teams to solve “real-world problems” on a regular basis.

“These schools have students with some important needs,” said Greeley’s deputy superintendent Rhonda Haniford, who helped designed the plan. “It’s more reason to have a personalized curriculum.”

The 21,000-student school district has already contracted with an organization called Summit to provide the digital curriculum and a cache of projects. The organization will also provide training for the school’s principal and teachers.

Haniford acknowledged that when struggling schools make major shifts it can be difficult, and sometimes student learning fall even further behind. But she said Summit is providing regular training for teachers and principals.

“The district made an intentional decision to support the turn around of these schools,” Haniford said, adding that she was hired last year as part of that effort. “This is one of my top priorities.”

chancellor chat

Chancellor Betty Rosa hits back on criticism that New York is abandoning education reform

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York has moved sharply away from innovative education reforms with “bewildering and humbling speed.” That’s what Robert Pondiscio of the conservative-leaning Fordham Institute wrote in an op-ed posted earlier this month on the organization’s website.

Here in New York City, he writes, Mayor Bill de Blasio is ushering in the “bad old days” by pumping money into struggling schools and relaxing school discipline.

At the state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state officials, after trying to pack too many reforms into a short period of time, have largely backed away from education reform. That coupled with the growing opt-out movement and the departure of New York State Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Pondiscio wrote, spurred the end of an “era of high standards and accountability for schools, teachers, and those who train them—an era that never entirely gained traction in New York.”

New York State Chancellor Betty Rosa hit back Thursday with her own piece for the Fordham Institute, saying that she “could not disagree more.” She argues that focusing on high-stakes testing is not synonymous with having high standards — and that while her standards take a different form, they are no less rigorous.

For example, she cites the Board’s decision to jettison the controversial Academic Literacy Skills Test as part of teacher certification. While Pondiscio blasts the move, Rosa says New York’s certification process remains among the country’s most stringent. “We simply eliminated a costly and unnecessary testing requirement that created an unfair obstacle for too many applicants,” she writes.

Her op-ed is part of a broader push by the Board of Regents to articulate a new vision of accountability that moves away from a strong focus on New York state’s much-maligned 3-8 math and English tests. She and the Regents seem eager to convince critics that those changes do not, in the end, represent a watering down of the goals the state sets for its students.

“We need an opposite narrative,” Rosa said in an exclusive interview with Chalkbeat. She sees her job as not simply setting high bars, she said, but more importantly, “building the steps” to help students succeed.