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.”

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those perimeters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.