Low performer becomes a star
Theresa Jensen, a principal has two choices when really bad news hits her desk: freeze with fear, or move forward.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.