Friday, July 28, 2006

Level One to Level Four

Here's a 2004 article about another Delta school that jumped up a few levels (hat tip to Cathy Hayden).

School rebounds 3 levels in 1 year

·Maintaining staff key to staying at Level 4, says Ruleville principal

By Cathy Hayden

RULEVILLE - Test scores at Ruleville Central Elementary in Sunflower County made an impressive rebound in just one year, going from rock bottom to just one rating from the top.

But maintaining the high scores will depend on the school's ability to retain its staff, said eight-year veteran Principal Bessie Gardner.

In 2002-03, "we had three people quit in fourth grade," she said of the school that had respectable but not stellar test scores until spring 2003. "That's what caused us to go on probation. It wasn't that teachers weren't teaching, but it was instability in the grades where we really needed it.

"We corrected that. ? If we get stability, we'll be able to maintain" Level 4, she said.

Scores in reading, language and math at the 400-student school were so low in spring 2003 the state rated it among the 10 worst-performing schools in Mississippi.

After spring 2004 state tests, the school is now rated exemplary and is no longer pegged to get intensive state guidance and extra federal dollars.

Making such a change is a difficult task for many schools in the Mississippi Delta, where keeping teachers has been a chronic problem for many years.

"The turnover of teachers and changes in staff can make a big difference," said Susan Rucker, associate state superintendent.

A number of schools across the state had stellar gains in state accountability levels this year.

Three former priority schools - Ida Greene Elementary in Humphreys County, Nichols Middle in Canton and Quitman County Elementary - rose from Level 1 low performing to Level 3 successful status. Greenwood's Davis Elementary, last year Level 2 under performing, jumped to Level 5 superior-performing.

"It goes to show you what can happen when a school and a community are committed and are motivated. They can jump that much," Rucker said.

Ruleville Central Elementary fifth-grader Sarah Williams, 10, said she can tell a difference in the school's teachers.

"Before last year, they didn't give us as many problems," she said. "They kept pushing us to do more and more and more."

Hattie Jordan works at the Double Quick gas station around the corner from the school. Her five children went through Ruleville schools and six of her 17 grandchildren are at the elementary school.

She calls it an "excellent" school but says she was worried about the test scores last year. "The kids weren't learning, and the teachers probably weren't pushing it," she said.

And now, "everybody is probably just working harder," she said.

The no-frills Ruleville Central Elementary building is sandwiched on the same campus between Ruleville Central High and a boarded-up, dilapidated elementary wing. Because the schools are boxed in by houses, teachers must park wherever they can find a place, including on the street.

The school has a high poverty rate, with about 93 percent of the students eating a free lunch. Researchers say student poverty is often closely tied to test scores, although schools such as Ruleville Central Elementary can and do break out of that mold.

Ruleville, population 3,500, is surrounded by cotton fields and catfish farms.

Many of the parents don't have jobs and the ones who do work at Tunica County casinos, in nearby factories or at the State Penitentiary in Parchman, also in Sunflower County.

A lot of the teachers don't live here; they drive in from surrounding towns, such as Drew, four miles away.

Kindergarten teacher Marcia Hargett drives eight miles from Cleveland.

An 18-year teaching veteran, she credits the state-sanctioned America's Choice reform model - with its heavy emphasis on reading - and a new reading program called Trophies with the rise in test scores.

"We never started them with these books this early," she said, holding a board book with two- or three-word sentences on each page.

When Gardner started using America's Choice last year, she still kept elements of a 1999 "brain-based" program that advocates encouraging students to drink plenty of water, getting physical activity, playing classical music in classrooms and grouping them at tables instead of individual desks..

To ensure that the school has enough teachers, Ruleville has had to rely on programs such as Teach for America, a national program that recruits college graduates and gives them enough training and mentoring to take on a classroom.

Gardner is no fan of the program, despite her past dependence on it to keep classrooms staffed.

Teachers come without any experience, stay long enough to get it and then leave. "It messes up your program," she said.

Matt Thomas, 23, a Pennsylvania native in his second year of teaching at the Ruleville school, is a product of Teach for America.

Thomas is considering staying a third year, but his commitment expires this year.

Because of his training at Ruleville, Thomas said he thinks he is a far better teacher than he was last year. He was among the teachers state evaluators put on a plan of improvement.

"I didn't think it was a bad thing. I definitely needed" a plan of improvement, he said. "I didn't know how to control them (students). I've been a lot more consistent and clear in my expectations."

Although some of his fifth-graders are still reading on a second- or third-grade level, he says he can see a marked difference in the caliber of the fifth-graders he has this year compared with the ones he had last year. "The kids are a lot more invested this year in improvement," he said.

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