How a Memphis state-run school improved math scores 9 percentage points in one year

In the lobby of a Frayser elementary school, the first thing that greets parents, teachers, and students is a huge wall of testing data.

Six charts show how each classroom performed last year on school mathematics and reading tests. There’s a line across each image, showing the level of expected growth. Each classroom surpassed expectations.

But where Cornerstone Prep Denver Elementary School students really grew last year was in math. Almost one-third of the school’s third- through fifth-graders scored proficient on state math exams, an increase of 9 percentage points. This is the second year scores have increased significantly.

Still, two-thirds of its students aren’t scoring on grade level in math. And only 10% of its third- through fifth-graders scored proficient in English, on par with student scores the previous year.

Six charts show how each classroom performed last year on school mathematics and reading tests (Caroline Bauman)

But in math, Cornerstone Prep Denver’s student achievement is the highest of all 30 schools in the Achievement School District, the district of charter schools tasked with turning around Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools. Districtwide, 12% of students scored proficient in math last year, an increase of 3.6 percentage points, leaving them far below the statewide average.

Nationally, achievement districts like Tennessee’s have struggled to significantly boost their academics. Researchers have said that for the Achievement School District to continue “it needs its charter school providers to get the results that will give the system of school takeovers legitimacy,” and while the district as a whole hasn’t achieved this, Cornerstone’s progress is noteworthy.

This is the third year Catherine Holt’s two children have been at Cornerstone Prep Denver, which educates around 600 students. While she said she was a little overwhelmed at first by the amount of data provided to parents – like all the charts on the walls and in classrooms – she’s now used to it. And she likes it.

“I always know how my boys are doing, whether its behavior or schoolwork,” Holt said of her fourth-grader and fifth-grader. “That’s really comforting as a parent, especially seeing the boys go from really behind in school to making As and Bs in every class. I wasn’t surprised when they started doing well, I had seen it coming.”

Measuring student growth through weekly assessments – and using the results to focus on what students need – has been a huge priority for Cornerstone Prep Denver principal Michelle Lyons. This is Lyons’ third year of leading the elementary school and her 23rd year in Memphis education.

“I can say that my boss sent me an email in January highlighting that our math weekly assessments were not showing the growth and kids were not performing at the level we thought they should,” Lyons said. “So we created an action plan that focused on what we were going to do about getting the math scores up and making sure our students are where they are supposed to be.”

Principal Michelle Lyons greets one of Cornerstone Prep Denver’s students.

Part of that action plan included a greater focus on re-teaching certain math lessons in the last hour of every school day – an extra hour of school that was already devoted to math and reading intervention.

Ben Holloway, in his third year of teaching at the school said this extra hour has been instrumental in moving students forward.

“That extra hour is difficult because teachers and students are tired, but that hour really helps us hone in on specific student needs, and I believe it really helped our math scores,” Holloway said. “It’s difficult but necessary for schools like ours that historically have been underperforming.”

Holloway added that he thinks Lyons and her leadership team are good at helping teachers and other educators understand their student data. They also provide feedback often.

“I could likely teach less hours and maybe even make more money elsewhere, but there is something about this leadership team that I want to stay for,” he said.

Cornerstone Prep Denver’s progress, while encouraging, has to be maintained until all students are at or above grade level in every subject, said Drew Sippel, executive director of Capstone Education Group, which runs Cornerstone Prep Denver and two other schools in the Achievement School District.

“We’re trying to prove that for the city of Memphis, every kid can do it,” Sippel said. “We’re having success in math, and that’s great. We want to continue to have that success, but we also believe we can have more success in English language arts and reading. So across the network, we’re focused on that.”

But as the district settles into its seventh year, districtwide results show student progress remains woefully short of the original goal.

Cornerstone Prep Denver was taken over by the state in 2015, and in three years has increased student achievement at greater rates than its peers. For the second year in a row, the district as a whole scored at the lowest level of student growth, 1 on a scale of 1 to 5.

Only five schools in the district scored a 5, or in the top level of student growth – and Capstone’s Cornerstone Prep Denver and Lester Prep were two of them. This is the second year in a row both schools have received the highest rating.

Sippel credited Lyons and her leadership team as the biggest factors leading to the school’s growth but added that consistency in teaching staff and curriculum have also been key. This is Cornerstone Prep Denver’s third year using the Engage New York curriculum, which Capstone has now spread to all its schools.

“It’s a heavy load when you make a shift to a new curriculum,” Sippel said. “And so you want to make sure you’re all in helping your teachers. There’s so many things a teacher can’t control. So, the more we can be consistent in curriculum and assessments, the more successful I think our teachers can be.”

Now, the charter network is zeroing in on improving literacy scores in a district where only 7.5% of third- through eighth-graders scored on grade level in English compared with 34% statewide.

Lyons launched Accelerated Reader, software for monitoring the practice of reading, at the school in November. She said while implementation of the software “started a little shaky,” they are starting to see results.

“We were able to look at some data and see the kids who did most of the assessments and read more books in their independent reading time are the ones who made the biggest gains,” Lyons said. “We want that joy of reading to come alive in the school, versus kids just reading when they have to.”

Sippel said Capstone has increased the amount of time students read independently at all of its schools – and he has also hired three new people who will work with students who are furthest behind in reading. Two are based at Cornerstone Prep Denver.

“As soon as they get our first round of assessment data, they will create a caseload of students and provide extra support throughout the day to those students,” he said.

When Holt bought a house near Cornerstone Prep Denver and started sending her boys there, she said their reading skills were “OK,” but at the end of last year, she was told her boys are reading above grade level.

“We went from helping them with homework most nights, to when we ask now, they say, ‘Nah, I’ve got it,’” she said. “To me, that shows the teachers are doing what they are supposed to in the classroom. Ms. Lyons is constantly pushing my boys in a good way. She will tell them what they are doing well, but she won’t let them stop there.”

Lyons calls this her not “yet” strategy, a phrase laminated and plastered on many of the school’s walls.

“I tell students and parents, your children may not be on grade level yet, but we’ll get them there,” Lyons said. “We’re trying to change the mindset of what’s possible. A 10% jump in math scores shouldn’t be impressive. When are students are starting behind, it should be expected every year.”