At Alcy Elementary, a school up for closure as recently as last year, and where only 24 percent of the students are reading on grade level, hosting an event where 300 people show up to read to students was enough to bring the principal to tears.

“This is the largest turnout we’ve had so far and I’m so grateful to all of you,” Principal Sunya Payne told the group earlier this month. “I always wanted one adult to be assigned to one student.”

The 7th annual Read Around the Christmas Tree event was held Dec. 12 in the school’s cafeteria. The purpose of the event was twofold: to reinforce the importance of literacy, and to give students books to take home.

Volunteers came from all walks of life: a former Alcy student, now grown, and his mother, a teacher at the Lichterman Nature Center, and representatives from sororities, fraternities and various civic groups and businesses.

Alcy was one of 13 Shelby County Schools officials considered for closure last year, not just for academic deficiencies, but also because the district hoped to cut from its budget the $1.2 million cost of maintaining the building.

A focus on improving literacy is how the school managed an almost 10 percentage point jump on state reading tests earlier this year.

But there’s still a long way to go: even with those gains, just over 75 percent of Alcy’s students are reading at a below basic or basic level.

Alcy students are fairing better in math with 35.3 percent of students proficient and advanced on the 2014 TCAP, which is an 11.2 percentage point improvement over 2013. Still, that leaves almost two out of three Alcy students performing at below basic and basic level in math.

“Literacy was the area where we declined (in 2012-13), but during 2013-14 we came out of the bottom 5 percent and with the help of community support, the school stayed open,” Payne said.  “We were all in this effort together.”

The pressure is on to continue the momentum and move the struggling readers to higher ground.

“The pressure is intense,” Payne said.  “When the district was considering us for closure, we had a talk, as a team, and decided how we were going to work together. Each of my teachers build each other strength.  They work after hours with students and on Saturdays without pay. We use a variety of strategies to meet students where they are and take them to the next level.”

In one example of the school’s teaching strategies, Alcy teachers model the expectation of a lesson, practice it with students and check for their understanding. The school also is part of the district’s blended learning pilot to use laptops in classroom instruction. Students will use the technology in math and reading beginning in January.

Alcy offers students before and after-school tutoring and started Saturday school a month ago. Many Shelby County Schools that are working their way off, of trying to stay off, the state’s priority list are using similar strategies, hoping it will have a positive impact on student achievement. The Tennessee Department of Education updates its priority list every three years. The list consists of the lowest 5 percent of schools as measured by standardized test scores. Alcy was on the state’s priority list in 2012-13, but the school earned its way off the latest priority list released in August.

Another feature of Alcy’s work to improve student achievement is the involvement of parents and the business community.

“We realized that some of our parents couldn’t help their children with their work because they needed help themselves,” Payne said.  “So we started a GED program for parents.”

Alcy receives help from two local businesses: Barnheart and Crane and Supply Chain Solutions. Barnheart and Crane supplies instructional materials, Smartboards, school supplies, cd players and the company rented the chairs that were used during the Read Around the Christmas Tree event. Supply Chain Solutions pays its employees to come and tutor our students in reading and math during the school day. Payne said.

During the reading event, Dory Lerner, a teacher at the Lichterman Nature Center, read to third-grader Andria Nunnally. Lerner brought two books, “If You Take a Mouse to the Movies” and “Big Tracks, Little Tracks” as presents for Nunnally. Ursula Fullilove and her son Joshua Erby, volunteered as well, providing books from the Olivia adventure series.

“Reading wasn’t my favorite subject, but I know it’s important to know how to read well,” said Erby, who was a student at Alcy 10 years ago.

Fullilove, who was part of the community effort to save the school from closure. supports the school and its teaching staff.

“There is a lot of support for this school,” Fullilove said.  “Whenever they call or need anything, volunteers show up.”