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Teachers Lead Improvement at
State Street School

Teachers at one Rhode Island elementary school are spearheading school-wide improvement, and the results have been positive. Principal Victor Ventura guides the improvements, but the teachers energy and commitment are making it happen. Included: Eight ingredients to success.

Teachers at State Street School, a K-5 school in Westerly, Rhode Island, created their own school improvement plan and lead their own professional development -- and they are achieving positive results. Student achievement is up and the staff is motivated to continue to improve student learning and test scores.

In the Numbers

In NECAP testing for 2006-07, 83 percent of State Street Elementarys third-graders scored at or exceeded the proficiency level in reading. In 2008-09, 86 percent of the same cohort of students, now fifth-graders, scored at or exceeded proficiency levels.

In math, the same cohort of students scored 65 percent at or exceeding proficiency level in 2006-07 and 79 percent in 2008-09.

In writing, fifth-grade students scores jumped from 48 percent at or exceeding proficiency level in 2006-07 to 65 percent in 2008-09.

Proof of their success lies in data from the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), an annual standardized test (see sidebar), which shows student growth in all areas. But student and teacher gains at the school surpass those measured in statistics, according to the teachers, who feel empowered as leaders who make many of their own decisions while principal Victor Ventura acts as a self-described grand facilitator in a supportive, collegial environment.

Instructional changes and student achievement drive our work here, Ventura told Education World. For the past year-and-a-half there have been three focus team leaders at the school -- one each for math, reading, and writing. Every teacher in the school is on a focus team, continually collaborating with colleagues to improve their approaches to instruction, Ventura explained.

Teachers work closely with consultant Ruth Haynsworth, a retired teacher who spent her last five years as a School Accountability for Learning and Teaching (SALT) fellow. Haynsworth led a team that observed teaching and learning in the school for a week and then wrote a consensus report that analyzed how well teaching practices at the school, and district practices as a whole, supported learning.


Steve Morrone, a resource teacher at State Street, is the focus leader for the math team. To begin their work, team members analyzed the NECAP data for and the SALT report about State Street School to draw conclusions about math learning. They decided students needed improvement in problem solving and basic math skills.

We wanted to create a consistent problem-solving process that students would use as they moved from grades K through 5, Morrone said. That way theyll also use the same vocabulary throughout the grades.

To support teacher learning of the problem-solving process, Morrone wrote a document based on the four-step problem solving process put forth in George Polyas book, How to Solve It.

  • To begin the problem-solving process, students ask themselves what the word is asking them to do. Then, without looking at the problem, they rephrase it in their own words.
  • In devising a plan, students ask themselves What is the best strategy to solve the problem and why?
  • To carry out the plan, students decide how to work through the problem.
  • Finally, in looking back, students check the result, ask whether the solution makes sense, and make real-life connections to the problem.

George Polyas
Four-Step Process

Understanding the problem. Recognizing what is asked for.

Devising a plan. Responding to what is asked for.

Carrying out the plan. Developing the result of the response.

Looking back. Checking. What does the result tell me?

Source: University of Hawaii

The results have been very positive. Students are much more efficient in problem-solving, Morrone told Education World. It makes me feel good that students are enjoying math. Their math phobia is gone.


Deb Beames, the reading focus team leader, has been the schools reading specialist since 1987. After identifying students needs in reading through NECAP and SALT results, the reading focus team decided to use model lessons to engage staff members in learning how to teach reading most effectively.

The learning began with a fourth-grade teacher doing a model lesson with a pre-discussion, observation of the lesson, and a post-lesson discussion. The model lessons have now been done in from grades K through 5 so the entire staff has participated in them.

Kim ODonnell, a fifth-grade teacher, is the writing focus team leader. The writing team has created a list of books that correlates with the writing program at the school. A literary work can be used in a lesson to illustrate a particular approach to writing, and students then have the literary work to use as a resource in their writing activities.

Bottom line is that our teachers trust in each other opened the doors between us, ODonnell said, and once our doors were open, our minds were open, and thats the key to successful teaching and learning at any school, at any level.

Instructional changes and student achievement drive our work here.
--- Victor Ventura, principal, State Street School

In describing her experience as a SALT fellow and now as a consultant at the school, Ruth Haynsworth told Education World, All is focused on the students and how to help them improve.

She described the focus teaching teams as small, professional learning communities.

Haynsworth listed eight ingredients that are needed to make the focus teaching team approach work. Those include

  • sufficient time;
  • focused purpose (in this case, a focus on reading, math, and writing);
  • use of data, such as that from NECAP;
  • structured meetings (at each meeting, the focus team analyzed data, looked at student work, and shared instructional procedures);
  • development of a learning culture;
  • accountability;
  • support (from the central office and the principal) for all teachers; and
  • resources, such as funding for substitute teachers to free classroom teachers for planning during the day.

    Recent cuts in the school budget have meant a lack of funding for substitute teachers. The staff at the school is hoping funds for education in the federal stimulus law will help. For now, theyre working in focus teams before and after school to keep the learning momentum going.