‘Model school’ seems to work for students

Wednesday, February 27, 2008 | 7:44 p.m. CST; updated 5:13 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
From left, Clayton Campbell, Abbey Upton and Christian Rivers discuss a book during independent reading time in Upton's kindergarten class at West Boulevard Elementary School. Upton asks the students questions about the books to keep them engaged in the reading.

COLUMBIA — The Columbia Public School District made West Boulevard Elementary School a “model school” almost four years ago. The Columbia School Board provided extra resources and special programs to enrich the school, with the hope of making a positive difference in the lives of the students.

West Boulevard was chosen in 2004 because it was one of five schools in the district labeled as struggling by the state because of low standardized test scores. The previous year, it was the only school in the district in which every grade was below adequate levels in math and language arts skills.

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Things have changed since then.

“The redo,” as Principal Vickie Robb calls it, included choosing new strategies, practices and programs. The goal of the model school was to achieve a high level of learning for all students that can be replicated at other schools.

Data over the past 3½ years show a rise in student scores and improved behavior.

The year before the model school began, the number of West Boulevard students reading at benchmark, the appropriate level for their grade, was 50 percent. Last year, the third year of the program, 67 percent of students were reading at an appropriate level.

Project tenets adopted by the school included raising student achievement, creating a school culture that focused on learning and working as a faculty to create a learning community.

Collaboration required

The board called for administrators and teachers at West Boulevard school, near West Boulevard’s intersection with Worley Street in central Columbia, to create programs that would help achieve the model school goals.

The collaboration of teachers was key to beginning such a program. “To develop our students, we must develop our teachers,” Robb told the school board at its Feb. 18 meeting. Teachers went through professional development, where they worked with experts to improve teaching practices.

“My favorite thing about teaching at West Boulevard Elementary is the collaboration we have among our staff to help support our teaching,” kindergarten teacher Abbey Upton said. “This helps me do my best teaching and increase my students’ learning.”

Teachers also participate in faculty studies to better their skills. “All Reads,” as the school calls the studies, allow teachers to discuss important issues in the lives of their pupils.

For example, the school staff read “The Pact,” a book about three boys who had positive influences in their lives that helped push and guide them.

“We want to be that somebody,” Peter Stiepleman, assistant principal, said. “We want to give as many opportunities for kids to see that positive peer environment.”

Other teacher studies dealt with diversity.

“You can’t fully learn or connect with your students if you don’t have that piece,” school board member Michelle Gadbois said about the school’s diversity studies at the board meeting.

Darin Preis, school board vice president, helped lead the teachers in a poverty simulation in which they had to learn to accomplish everyday tasks on a lower income.

“We’ve had to step out of our middle-class backgrounds and become more culturally literate,” Stiepleman said.

Full-time specialists in art, music and physical education were hired by the school. These specialists, apart from their main positions, work in classrooms for two hours per day to give children special help.

“For example, my below level students get one-on-one interventions with our P.E. teacher with lessons and activities we create together, and she even takes some small groups to work on skills,” Upton said.

The school also hired three literary coaches to work in classrooms. Their instruction is based on reading comprehension of individual students and allows for active reading and conversation by students.

“We look at nontraditional ways to educate kids,” Stiepleman said.

A “Problem Solving Team” was added, where teachers suggest students they think need individual educational or behavioral help. The team then works together to come up with strategic interventions for these students.

“We actually find interventions that work for our kids,” Robb said.

“Stand By Me”, a mentoring program at the school, allows adult, volunteer mentors to meet individually with students.The pairs follow a curriculum that involves setting goals with the child and spending weekly one-on-one time together.

Stiepleman said the mentoring program is especially important to students when they make the transition to middle school.

“To have that person there is comforting to students,” Stiepleman said. “You have an advocate at that school.”

Connecting home and school

Stiepleman said another key element to the school’s success is the connection between school and home.

“I love my families and the children,” kindergarten teacher Cherri Westbrook said. “We are like an extended family, we have strong connections with our families. We have developed a strong partnership and learning community with one goal in mind, educating all of our children to the best of our ability.”

Jason Howell, a West Boulevard parent who has a son in preschool and a daughter in first grade, said communication between school and home helps children retain what they learn.

“It is not the teachers’ job to teach the kids, it just starts there,” Howell said. “Without communication between the two, the kids are missing a key ingredient.”

“HomeHour” is a program that allows teachers to make two home visits per year to students’ homes.

“That shows such deep genuine care. We’ve got to work together on this. Your child matters to us,” Robb said at the board meeting.

“Our kids really, really enjoy the home visits. We all really enjoy them,” said Howell. “It helps connect the kids to the teacher.”

The teachers enjoy the home visits as well.

“We all put extra effort into developing strong school/family partnerships,” Westbrook said. “All of the teachers at West do home visits and again this is part of our plan to create strong lasting partnerships between home and school. They are very powerful for the families and the teachers.”

One problem the school faces is the mobility of its student body. Because many West Boulevard students live in situations of poverty or even homelessness, they often do not have a stable residence, Stiepleman said. Over the past 3½ years, 75 percent of West Boulevard students have not been continuously enrolled in the school.

“When we keep our kids, good things happen — they go from good to great,” Stiepleman said.

Although student retention is often out of the school’s control, efforts have been made through special busing or parent transportation to keep students at West Boulevard, Stiepleman said.

Howell recently moved and is now closer to Derby Ridge Elementary School, but chose to keep his children in West Boulevard. Howell said that although it probably costs him $50 a week to drive his children back and forth to West Boulevard, “it’s well worth it.”

“The programs, teachers and administration have that extra special touch,” he said.

Results show that students who stayed at West Boulevard over the lifespan of the model school had slightly higher test scores than those who came in and out. For instance, of West Boulevard’s 24 fifth-graders, 10 have been continuously enrolled at West Boulevard over the past 3½ years. Of those 10, eight are reading at their grade level. Of the 14 students who have not been continuously enrolled at West Boulevard, half are reading at grade level.

The success at West Boulevard is something Robb hopes the district can replicate through similar programs and initiatives in other elementary schools.

“Even in this tight and challenging fiscal year,” Robb told the board Feb. 18, “we encourage you to think about how to replicate these components in other elementary schools.”

Stiepleman said the school is proud of the success of its students and programs, which they will continue into the future.

“I love the students and families we serve and am excited about how much we have already done, and where our new learning will lead us in the next phase of our work,” Upton said.

“We see this (school) as a viable option,” Stiepleman said. “We are no longer an experiment.”

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