Low performer becomes a star

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Theresa Jensen, a principal has two choices when really bad news hits her desk: freeze with fear, or move forward.

Mrs. Jensen chose the second route eight years ago when, newly into her tenure at Engelhard Elementary School in Louisville, Ky., the school was tagged as one of the lowest performers in the state. Freshly minted state assessments rattled off the worst areas: African-American males weren't doing well, writing scores were weak, and too many kids were reading below grade level.

The news may not have surprised those familiar with the school. Eighty to 90 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. Children speak 11 different languages. Many have home situations that could be seen as a barrier to success in school.

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But Jensen and her staff went on the offensive. Armed with the conviction that the school had the right ingredients to thrive, they rejected the usual suspects as causes and undertook an in-depth study of the testing data to home in on areas that needed improvement.

Reexamining the whole operation

The result was fundamental changes in everything from the school calendar to afternoon dismissal procedures. And eight years later, the school has moved from Kentucky's lowest ranking to a "reward" school by exceeding state-mandated goals.

Last year, for example, more than 82 percent of fourth-graders were reading at grade level, with more than 14 percent above grade level. In 1992, by comparison, only 38 percent could read at grade level. And this spring, fourth-graders scored 92.8 in writing portfolios, higher than any other school in Jefferson County.

In the process, Engelhard has cut through two key challenges: consistently boosting a failing school's performance, and closing the achievement gap between whites and blacks.

"We knew we had good teachers, caring parents, and smart children - but bad tests," Jensen says, who has worked in a wide range of public and private schools. The key was to get everyone united behind a plan to change the last part of the equation. "It's not complicated," she adds. "We're just intentional about what we do."

The story of the past decade has been one of intense focus on school performance. Kentucky was at the forefront in the early 1990s when it instituted higher education standards and started holding schools responsible for student achievement. Currently, virtually all states have adopted academic standards for schools, and 24 require students to pass certain tests to receive a high school diploma.

But hard on the heels of the tougher measures - and uncompromising data - has come a host of new concerns. In Massachusetts, schools are scrambling to hire tutors to help the many students expected to fail the state graduation test, which takes effect this year. In Nyack, N.Y., parents are divided over data that they say reveals racially based inequities in school. And federal data released last month indicate that the achievement gap between blacks and whites has widened despite concerted efforts to close it.

Engelhard's ability to buck that trend has attracted the attention of educators from around the United States and as far away as South Africa.

"What they did was truly amazing," says Ben Birdsell, president of the Association for Effective Schools, a not-for-profit corporation in Stuyvesant, N.Y. It works with districts to improve educational performance, and assisted Engelhard. "[Jensen] was able to show every group that was involved how they were going to come out and win in this."

That sense of common ground and support is noticeable at the front door, where a sign reads, "The best families in the country walk through these doors."

It's a statement of warmth and expectation that permeates the unassuming brick structure. Children attired in the parent-prompted dress code greet the principal as she passes through a brightly decorated cafeteria, and some reach out to hug her. Jensen greets them right back by name. Doors stand open and frame neat but comfortable classrooms. Two teachers work together and a specialist is often at a table working with small groups.

Beat the clock

To set itself on a trajectory toward better performance, the school first tackled time - for learning, for teacher preparation, for communication. "You hear a lot about how educators have no time," Jensen comments. "Well, you do have enough time - if you use it differently."

The 500 students in the K-5 school attend classes 11 months each year to prevent learning loss over long summers. But more unusual is an academic week that runs Tuesday through Friday. Mondays are optional - though attendance is the same as the rest of the week - and devoted to remedial work, field trips, and special endeavors like chorus. The shift prevents teachers from losing instructional time to pull-out programs.

The school also targeted teachers' out-of-class time. Working within union rules, Engelhard devised a system to allow teachers in the same grade to meet one hour per month to discuss student work and such things as setting up math centers in their rooms. Teachers also gather across grades for one hour per week.

And Engelhard often brings special professional-development programs, which are typically held outside of school, to the teachers. A former science teacher, for example, will come in eight times this year to work with the staff on content.

To Lisa Graft, who teaches second and third grade and has been at the school for 13 years, the approach has opened new doors. "Before, you were pretty much on your own. There's an improved communication between staff, and we're encouraged to work with teams." Better training, she adds, "helps us work together, and to remember what we have to do."

The goal is a school where everyone knows what's going on and is constantly thinking about how to improve the school.

"Vision and mission are critical," Jensen says. "If you don't have that, you can't stay focused. Each time we come together [as a faculty], we rediscuss our mission and history." And, she adds, "People choose [to teach] because they feel they have been called to make a difference. You need to keep up that inspiration."

In part, that's accomplished by encouraging teachers to think outside the box. "When we want to try something different, it's OK," says Michael Sanders, a former engineer for KFC Inc. who now teaches kindergartners and first-graders.

When he realized that he needed to do more music, he started by teaching the song, "Take Me Out To the Ball Game." The class then went to Louisville's Cardinal Stadium and sang before an audience of about 400 - a risky proposition, Mr. Sanders says with a grin, but one that proved to be worth it.

It's an attitude that's also communicated to kids, who know much is expected of them. "It's a friendly school, and you have to work hard," says Shacoyia Elery, a third-grader, with a confident smile. "That's good because you learn."

Reclaiming disengaged learners

But the school had to look beyond lively lessons and a better curriculum to help close achievement gaps among kids. "The children with low scores were those who had exited from learning," Jensen says. They pretended to fall asleep in class, acted up and got removed, or didn't come at all. She says it's often because they're behind and frustrated.

Step 1 was to handle as many discipline situations as possible in the classroom. Security guard Derrick Robinson, who is a ubiquitous presence and knows kids well, will often come into classrooms to help a child. Staff also give extra assistance to boost kids' performance.

"Real self-esteem comes from being able to compete," Jensen says. "I talk to children who choose to exit and I say, 'this is Engelhard. You owe us six hours of education. If you don't start till 2 p.m., I'll be here with you till 8 p.m.' "

She recalls staying "day in, day out" with one child. Finally, "he started producing, stopped being angry," recalls Jensen, who would drive him home every evening. She says such measures are crucial. "If we send them out of elementary school failing, they won't make it. So we look child by child, give them effective, engaging lessons, and tell them, 'You can't fail here. You can do it.' "

To teacher Scott Beldon, who transferred to Engelhard from a rural school, it's an attitude that makes a tremendous difference. He says a major emphasis on reading and character development help, as do the longer year and Monday programs. But he repeatedly fingers the sense of mission. "There's a real cooperative feeling that we are working together for the common good of our families."

That drives teachers forward, adds colleague Tamara Bass. "You can get stuck in a rut in teaching," she says, "but here you know you can't do that."

Jensen knows that success is a result of daily hard work. This year, one new target for improvement is science, since test scores came in on the low side.

The big issue, she says, is having everyone understand how the school operates.

"We need to develop the community and culture whose mission is success of all children," she says, noting that volunteers, teachers, and retirees have all been crucial to the turnaround.

Then she laughs, pointing out that a visitor couldn't tell which teachers were substitutes that day. "Now that's sustainability."

*E-mail newcomba@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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