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"Together We Can" Motto
Spurs Columbia
Elementary's Success

Columbia Elementary's school motto is "Together We Can!" Together principal Lori Musser and staff members have adopted initiatives such as after-school clubs and intensive reading instruction to help students achieve. Included: Learn about Columbia's "Great Expectations" for students!

"Our mission is clear at Columbia Elementary School," says principal Lori Musser. "The success and high achievement of our students is the prize."


Columbia Elementary
Joplin, Missouri

Columbia Elementary School is a 79-year-old, two-story brick building in the middle of an older neighborhood. The school is home to 275 K-5 students and 40 staff members. The majority of the students are from disadvantaged, lower socioeconomic backgrounds; 57 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals. Several current students are children or grandchildren of former students. The school serves surrounding neighborhoods as a gathering place.

Low test scores in state-assessed areas led Columbia's principal, Lori Musser, and the faculty to revise the way instruction is delivered to its students and adopt more effective, research-based strategies. "The mission of Columbia Elementary is to give each student the opportunity to advance at a maximum individual rate intellectually, physically, socially, and emotionally in order to be appropriately prepared to meet a multitude of challenges in our changing society," Musser explained.

The result of Columbia's special initiatives is promising. "Our students have demonstrated significant improvement, but we are not yet satisfied and will continue on our journey, striving to learn and grow as we go," added Musser.

The school's mission and motto are the genesis of several new initiatives that Columbia's teachers and staff have willingly embraced to do whatever it takes to help their students. "A team attitude reigns at Columbia Elementary where the school motto is Together We Can!" Musser told Education World.


Some of Columbia Elementary's initiatives focus specifically on helping students learn to read. Reading Recovery is a 20-week intensive intervention that is used with the lowest five first-grade readers. The students spend time each day with the Reading Recovery teacher and receive focused, one-on-one instruction in the area of reading. They are taught strategies that help them become better readers.

"The students love going to reading recovery class," reported Musser. "The majority of the students improve so much in their reading ability that they are usually at the class average or above in reading. When a student graduates from Reading Recovery, sometimes in less than 20 weeks, a new student is moved in to receive instruction."

Students also do a variety of reading and writing activities on a daily basis in Columbia's Early Literacy program. They frequently use graphic organizers to compare and contrast stories, and they have read-alouds, read poetry, and discuss plays. Comprehension is often a weakness for the students, so it is a focus of the program. Writing activities occur daily, as well as phonemic awareness activities that feature sight words and word families.

To track the progress of students in reading, Columbia uses a "Literacy Wall" in the faculty lounge. Every student in grades one and two has a card on the wall, and it contains the student's current reading level. The cards are placed on the wall under the children's current reading level.

"This allows us, at a glance, to look and see what students are on target, above target, or needing additional interventions," said Musser. "The cards are moved every quarter so the students' progress can be observed. It is very interesting to see what students are making progress. We are also starting to do this with students' writing levels as well."

"The Reading Recovery and Early Literacy programs are supported through Title I Federal funds," Musser explained. "We have seen great gains in our students' reading levels over the last several years."


The after-school reading club builds reading skills in fun ways.

For upper elementary students, who don't receive a great deal of regular intervention strategies during the school day, Columbia Elementary offers after-school math and reading clubs. Students in grades three through five are grouped by the subject matter they struggle with the most. The groups are organized and facilitated by 3 or 4 teachers who develop lesson plans and activities for club meetings.

"The after-school classes are generally more laid back and fun-oriented, while still focusing on the major grade-level expectations," Musser added. "Students are taught using more hands-on activities and small group activities. Problem solving and learning strategies are also a major focus."

The clubs exist to help students who are below grade level. Selection of participants is based on classroom achievement and assessment results. Parents are very supportive of the after school clubs and appreciate teachers' efforts to provide the students with additional help.

"The students do enjoy the clubs, even though they meet after regular school hours," Musser observed. "Sure, there is some grumbling from time to time, but they realize they are getting valuable assistance to become more successful students. They can really see that their skills improve."

"Great Expectations"

Columbia Elementary has adopted a school-climate program called Great Expectations. The program focuses on positive discipline, and it asks students to behave simply because it is the right thing to do. Quotes and stories are used in the classroom to reinforce this idea, and a set of eight expectations is recited as part of the daily "rise and shine" activity in every classroom. The initiative's principles include

We will value one another as unique and special individuals.

We will not laugh at or make fun of a person's mistakes nor use sarcasm or putdowns.

We will use good manners, saying "please," "thank you," and "excuse me" and allow others to go first.

We will cheer each other to success.

We will help one another whenever possible.

We will recognize every effort and applaud it.

We will encourage each other to do our best.

We will practice virtuous living, using the Life Principles [part of the Great Expectations program].

Photo: Students participate in the "Rise and Shine Pledge." (Courtesy of Columbia Elementary School)

Columbia has also added an after-school Homework Center for all grade levels. Students may remain after classes to complete homework assignments and obtain guidance from a teacher. Musser says this has cut down on the amount of late work teachers have been given and has significantly decreased the number of students who receive zeroes for homework assignments that are late or missing.


"It doesn't take a lot of time from instruction to focus on community service," Musser explained. "It is so important to teach our students to be compassionate, contributing members of society that the time is well worth it."

Community service is another initiative getting attention at Columbia Elementary. Each year, students and classroom teachers choose a community organization with which they would like to work. When the kindergartners elected to collect donations of dog and cat food for the local Humane Society, teachers tied it to the 100th day of school and set a goal of 100 bags or cans, and they far exceeded the goal. First graders brought in pennies to contribute to the Ronald McDonald House "Buy a Brick" charity drive. By the end of the year, each classroom had enough money to buy an engraved brick and the proceeds were given to the charity.

The students' charity extends beyond established drives to individuals who are truly in need. Fifth graders from Columbia Elementary sponsored two elderly gentlemen for Christmas and purchased gifts, clothing, and good items for them. Two classrooms donated enough money to buy two goats for families in Haiti.

"School-wide projects included a Christmas food and clothing drive in which our students donated more than 875 items to the local Salvation Army," stated Musser. "Most of the activities are decided upon and can be completed during free time during the school day -- at recess, during computer lab time, or even at-home time."

After Hurricane Katrina, Columbia students donated more than $1,300.00 to the local American Red Cross, and every year the fourth and fifth graders participate in a math-a-thon to benefit St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.

"Those are just a few examples of our students' big hearts!" said Musser. "We are so proud of them."

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 02/06/2006
Last updated 05/25/2009