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In High-Stakes Year, Kids Embrace Own Learning

Every adult at Parkville knew the school had a lot riding on this years high-stakes tests. Not only were teachers and staff focused on improvement, but students also internalized where they needed to go and what they needed to do to get there. Included: A schools efforts to make AYP; outline of a new literacy plan.

About This Series

Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio is spending time this school year at Parkville Community School in Hartford, Connecticut, to report on the challenges an urban school faces and the strategies it employs in its quest to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) under the No Child Left Behind Act.

State tests are done, the school year has about a month to go, and unfortunately, Parkville Community School staff members will not know until July or August whether the school has succeeded in its third and last bid to get off the federal schools-in-need-of-improvement list.

In a year where the pressure was palatable and everyone focused on the goal raising scores, principal Elizabeth Michaelis was especially gratified to see students start to take more responsibility for their learning.

Last year, I said I saw more improvement with my staff than ever before; theyd worked harder than Id ever seen," Michaelis told Education World. This year, the children blew me away."

The students now understand learning goals, are more confident sitting and talking with adults, and are more motivated, Michaelis noted. They are questioning aspects of their learning, which the staff wants them to do. The kids just know what they need to know. They are very aware of where they are what they need to learn; they will get confused sometimes, and then they will ask what they need to do. If kids are not getting what they need, they ask for it."

Parkville Community School. (Education World photo)
Posters in the hallways charted students progress on practice tests and exercises, and Michaelis had said that many took pride in setting goals and seeing their gains.

Weve created this culture so kids can be successful and want to be; they can see their scores and see where they need to improve," she continued. They are not afraid of a task, a challenge, or reading anymore. You can see their enjoyment."

Michaelis even asked certain students teachers viewed as capable of making measurable progress before the state exams in March to explain their learning goals to her were and what they were doing to reach those goals.

Parents are picking up some of their childrens enthusiasm and motivation. Parents also are starting to question respectfully," said Michaelis. They are concerned about their children. One parent has a child who is half a grade below grade level. That parent wants something done.

Those are the transformations that you start to see in a very supportive environment."


And other positive news: An evaluator came to assess the staffs efforts to get off the watch list. In 2006 the school failed to make Safe Harbor or adequate yearly progress (AYP) as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. (NCLB) . To make Safe Harbor, a school must reduce the percentage of non-proficient students by 10 percent from the previous year. If Parkville falls short of Safe Harbor or AYP again, it could face sanctions.

The assessment generally was positive; the evaluator, who spoke with teachers and students, noted the quality of teaching in the draft report.

I dont think the day or year is long enough," Michaelis said. We have to make the most of the time we have."

Even this late in the year, classroom work remained focused. After the latest round of assessment tests, students were grouped by ability and teachers were making more efforts to differentiate instruction.

Click here to read about a dance program involving Parkville and two other schools.
Theyve been making a lot of improvements since weve been teaching by levels," said fifth-grade teacher Ms. Palm, who one morning had students reading passages and answering questions on computers and others working on fractions and mixed numbers.

In Ms. Birchs second-grade class, a small number of students were clustered near the front of the room. They were reading passages, then filling in the blanks in sentences Birch created about the passage and displayed on an overhead projector.

One boy who had spent time in the back of the room at a table by himself was back with the group.

The students had taken similar tests on the computer, Birch explained. I have the kids who need an extra nudge. Im trying to find creative ways to do it."

Someone started to say the class was on another page. Whose captain of this boat?" Birch asked.

One passage was about a father teaching his son Pablo to make bagels. Birchs sentence was: Pablos dad is ______ him. The choices were teaching, playing, watching, singing. Almost every hand waved in the air.

Teaching, someone answered.

"As a school, weve learned to be very proactive. Thats all Elizabeth."
What clues show you hes teaching him?" Birch asked.

His dad is telling him what to do," a student said.

Another passage had to do with working in the kitchen. For the sentence, You can make _____ things in the kitchen, Birch offered these choices: Curious, delicious, wonderful, nasty.

A student chose delicious.

What make the answer delicious and not wonderful?" Birch asked.

Sprinkles!" A boy exclaimed.

Birch noted that it had taken her some time this year to adjust to younger students. She had been teaching fourth grade.

Its fun to teach kids how to read," she said, but it took me a while to realize that you had to teach them to read before you could teach reading skills."

Other teachers made adjustments as well. Sixth-grade teacher Ms. Boxwood said she decided this year to spend more time learning about her students.

My biggest success this yea was my relationship with the kids," she told Education World. I took the time to get to know them better. Last year, I was more driven by data. This year I came back to it. They are more willing to give you the results you want if they know you care and are truly invested in them."


Michaelis is not waiting for news of the schools status to shape her plans for next year. She has decided to drop the Success for All reading program after more than five years and selected a new literacy program for next year for grades K-5, Literacy by Design. Teachers began learning to use the program the second week in May.

Last year, I said I saw more improvement with my staff than ever before; theyd worked harder than Id ever seen. This year, the children blew me away."
The grade-specific professional development includes coaching, teaching, and someone modeling a lesson, Michaelis said.

They are committed to a professional development plan, which I wanted," she added.

The new program includes a lot of non-fiction materials that cover social studies and science topics.

Another change Michaelis is considering is expanding the daily literacy block from 90 to 120 minutes. We have to look at time and how the day is structured. Every lesson should be designed to the standards," she said. We may want to build in something throughout the year that is CMT-specific [the state tests] so teachers identify it [the CMT skill] in the lesson."

The literacy program vendor is building in some CMT correlations, and the Parkville staff is looking at some CMT correlations for the math program.

We want interventions early -- by pre-K or kindergarten," she said.

Literacy facilitator Ms. Maple was excited about the new program. It goes to the next step," she said. Theres new stuff for teachers, so that will be challenging for them, and now we will be better at content literacy."

Ms. Poplar, the schools Reading First internal facilitator, said it is a big plus that the staff is getting such an early start mastering the program. In the past, she said, decisions about new programs often were not made until late in the summer, and so they could not be implemented until September or October.

As a school, weve learned to be very proactive," Poplar said. Thats all Elizabeth."