West Boulevard Elementary honored by MU for diversity initiative

Sunday, January 31, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — The academic achievement gap that exists between white and minority students in many American schools is a familiar item in education news.

But at West Boulevard Elementary School, students, families, teachers and administration are working together to change that story.

West Boulevard Elementary was designated Columbia's model elementary school in 2004 under then-principal Vickie Robb. Students have made improvements in standardized Missouri Assessment Program test scores since.

Last week , the school received MU's 2010 Martin Luther King Jr. Award from the Chancellor's Diversity Initiative program. The award was presented at a ceremony in Memorial Union and is given to people or organizations that reflect King’s emphasis on community involvement.

West Boulevard Principal Peter Stiepleman accepted the award for the school, which was presented by Almeta Crayton, former First Ward councilwoman and last year’s award recipient.

Noor Azizan-Gardner, director of diversity programming and professional development at MU, said the school was selected for innovative curriculum changes and outreach work in closing the academic achievement gap between white and minority students.

How is West Boulevard Elementary succeeding?

One way is by keeping the student per teacher ratio low, which gives teachers more time with each student. In 2008, West Boulevard Elementary had 14 students to each classroom teacher, second lowest of elementary schools in the district according to Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education statistics.

The average ratio for elementary schools in the district that year was about 17 students per teacher.

When the model school program started, individual subject specialists were added to the faculty to supplement classroom teachers. Although most of those positions were later cut due to revenue shortfalls, they gave teachers more teaching prep time.

Fifth-grade teacher Nancy Fagan, who has taught for 22 years and the last six at West, has seen firsthand the changes that came from being a model school.

Fagan said many small things contribute to a positive learning environment. The extra staff the school had helped calm the classrooms and hallways, she said.

"So many of our successes can't be measured," Fagan said. She added that the first years as a model school were tough due to extra hours of outside professional development required, but that the end results were worth the time.

Rebekah Jouret has taught both kindergarten and first grade at West Boulevard over 11 years at the school. The change to model school "cultivated a whole transformation — people just want to be here," she said.

"There were a lot of things we knew we needed but couldn't get before we became a model school," Jouret said. Now with budget cuts, she said faculty and staff have to be imaginative and sometimes volunteer to take on extra roles to preserve the positive changes that came with being a model school.

Jouret said that last week she was the school crossing guard for a couple of days when the person who usually does that job couldn't make it in. "Everybody helps out," she said.

Speaking at the ceremony, Stiepleman said that when the model school program started, 55 percent of students needed remedial tutoring as required by Missouri law; in 2009, one percent did.

He also said that in 2004, 12.5 percent of students scored "proficient" in the communication arts section of the Missouri Assessment Program standardized tests, but five years later that percentage had risen to 42.8.

Parents of students make it clear that they want their children there.

Jason Howell is parent of a first- and third-grader at the school. He said they live in another elementary school's attendance area, but the learning atmosphere and teacher commitment at West Boulevard justifies taking them there.

Kezekiya Weln has three children at West Boulevard, one in pre-kindergarten and one each in the first and third grades. He said the school has been good for his children and that they were excited about the school's award but that at their age couldn't quite connect it with Martin Luther King Jr.

In presenting the award, Crayton said students at the school succeed because, “Those teachers love those kids."

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