While appreciative of Bennet Middle School's assets, new principal Dr. Ann Richardson wants to make sure her students are ready to hop into the next phase of their lives. So that means more reading and more writing -- in every subject. Included: Strategies for improving middle school performance.
Frogs in various sizes and shades of green decorate the desk and office of Dr. Ann Richardson, Bennet Middle School's new principal. She collects and receives them as a reminder of her charges.
Her collections are inspired by an author who wrote that middle school children are like frogs: jumpy and a little rough on the outside, but with much promise. Dr. Richardson has devoted her 22-year education career to middle school students, so she knows that if it's not easy being green, it's no easier being a young adolescent.
"I think it's the most critical stage," Dr. Richardson says. "You can make the biggest difference at this age level. I also taught at the high school and college level, and this is the most critical age."
START YOUR PENCILS
She is determined that Bennet's students have the skills to hop into the next phase of their lives. "My job is to prepare these kids for the world," she tells Education World. "It's not that the teachers aren't delivering their lessons well. It's just that kids need skills to communicate well. It's a changing world and we need to change in the classroom and use a different approach."
Dr. Richardson replaced Kathy Ouellette, a popular principal who was named superintendent of the Manchester Public Schools. By early March, after four weeks in Bennet's principal's office, Dr. Richardson already was making her mark in the classroom. Now every student in every class must write every day, whether the class is language arts, mathematics, or band. Teachers are required to keep a portfolio of work for all students.
"Writing is becoming a way of life at Bennet," Dr. Richardson says. "It's a way to reflect and show knowledge. Writing and reading go hand in hand. And if you do better in reading, you do better in math."
All students also are required to spend 75 minutes every week reading silently. Each student also must read three books per quarter on their own time, which have been approved by the teacher, and write reports indicating that they completed the books.
"We are going after reading, writing, and math as a whole," according to Dr. Richardson. "The frequency of exposure changes the skill."
New Bennet Middle School principal Dr. Ann Richardson says she is capitalizing on Bennet's strengths and retooling strategies at the school, like a manager adjusting players on a baseball team.
Better reading skills also can improve math performance, but Dr. Richardson is tackling math directly as well. Two subgroups at Bennet did not make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in eighth grade math: African-American students and students in the lower socio-economic group. To change that, Dr. Richardson formed subgroups at the school to focus on different aspects of math and is scheduling family math opportunities to find out why students are struggling in certain areas.
Connecticut students are measured by the Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMT), which Dr. Richardson describes as one of the toughest in the U.S., and she has no problem targeting lessons to certain test content.
"The CMT is a criteria reference test -- the skills tested are ones embedded in the curriculum and ones students will need by the end of eighth grade," she adds.
Dr. Richardson's umbrella goal is to work on data-driven decision-making, and to use assessments in various ways to drive instruction. That includes working with teachers to develop strategies for success on the CMT's.
She has discussed her goals with parent and faculty groups, and is building school spirit by hosting principal luncheons for high academic achievers, and recognizing students and staff members who are "doing things right."
Former Bennet principal, now district superintendent, Kathy Ouellette says goodbye to her Bennet family.
Coupled with Dr. Richardson's desire to see Bennet students succeed is her desire to guide the school community through either a building renovation or the construction of a new school. While not high on the list of most administrators' favorite things to do list, Dr. Richardson said she is looking forward to the challenge. "This will be my fourth [construction] project -- I enjoy it."
The chance to work under Ms. Ouellette also enticed her. "What an opportunity to work with someone who cares for middle level education as much as Kathy Ouellette does."
She was introduced to Bennet a few years ago when she did a focus assessment on the school's language arts program for the New England League of Middle Schools. "I liked the caring approach I saw here," says Dr. Richardson. "I wasn't surprised by too many things when I got here. I saw the challenges and the support and the positive and caring nature here."
IF IT'S NOT BROKE
The dedication of the staff continues to move her. "I'm impressed by the continuous, positive high energy of the staff. I love the high energy here and how they meet the challenges."
"I also like the awareness of a strong instructional approach, their knowledge of how to work with kids, how to highlight and celebrate diversity, and provide a well-rounded program. They are making activities real and authentic for kids to learn."
With that in mind, Dr. Richardson says she wants to sustain that energy and continue what Bennet staff members do best, such as celebrating diversity and doing whatever it takes to help children succeed.
"I look at all the positive things Bennet does for kids, and I'm just retooling strategies, like a manager adjusting players on a baseball team."
*Photos courtesy of Bennet Middle School
(Editor's Note: All students' names have been changed)
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2005 Education World