It’s lunchtime at Field Elementary School. The fifth-graders stand in a line, hands at their sides or behind their backs — just as school rules say they should be. They pick up a carton of milk and a Styrofoam plate. Some ask for pizza; others want ravioli. They walk into the gymnasium, pile on some salad, sit down at one of the tables and eat.
They don’t fight; they don’t tussle over food. They don’t even raise their voices much above a whisper.
“When I first came here, it was a disaster. I hated to come into this lunchroom,” said Willie Mae Hall, who supervises the lunch hour. “I can see the change. I don’t care what that MAP score says.”
Welcome to the first school in Columbia to make a statewide list of “schools needing improvement” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. After two years of failing to have each demographic group score high enough on the annual Missouri Assessment Program tests, the school has been placed under sanction.
But Field has more than its fair share of hurdles. Seventy-nine percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. One in five students is learning English for the first time. Perhaps even more telling, last year only half the students who began the year at Field finished there — a statistic referred to as “mobility.”
Historically, the school has had the highest mobility rate in the district, said Jack Jensen, assistant superintendent for elementary education. Current numbers aren’t yet available, but in the 2004-05 school year 69 percent of the students at Field either moved in to or out of the building. In the same year, the district average was 24 percent.
Taking on so many issues might discourage some educators. For a few, it might even be an excuse. At Field, it’s a rallying cry.
“There’s not a thing we can do about that,” said Principal Carol Garman. “We can’t do anything about the mobility; we can’t do anything about the poverty. We acknowledge that it’s there, but that’s it.”
In addition to her lunch duties, Hall has the task of trying to undo some of the disparities that can make it more difficult for kids to learn. If a student attends school wearing the same clothes a few days in a row, or wearing old shoes, Hall invites them into her office — a trailer with drawers full of clothes, shoes, coats and other basic necessities.
“I tell them, ‘If you see something, you can wear it,’” said Hall, a home-school communicator who bridges families and the school.
This year alone, the school of 285 students has supplied 103 with new clothes and more than 80 with new shoes.
Every Friday, Hall fills backpacks with necessities like peanut butter crackers, fruit snacks, cookies and soap. Forty kids get the “buddy packs” before every weekend.
The school offers free breakfast every morning, and the district will pick up students from homeless families as long as their whereabouts are known.
“It’s not just about teaching anymore,” said assistant principal Troy Hogg. “There’s a lot more to education.”
Students don’t learn as well when they are occupied with problems at home, which is why the school offers many of the things it does, Hogg said. Still, achievement is always on their minds.
To talk to Garman and Hogg about academic progress means talking about medians, modes and best-fit lines. The pair has instituted what they call a “research-based curriculum,” which means they use statistical methods to make sure students learn.
It comes into play when students read a passage aloud for one minute every other Friday, a test called the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills. If a student skips a word, pronounces one incorrectly or hesitates for more than three seconds, it’s scored as an error.
Each student’s performance, then, is recorded on a line graph. At the beginning of the graph is a dot showing where the student started. At the end is a dot representing where the student should wind up.
“They see the target. They see where they are. They see where they want to go,” Hogg said. “We say, ‘Here’s how to get there.’ And they say, ‘OK, I can do this.’”
The results of the informal tests are used to make sure each student gets exactly the type of instruction she needs. For 45 minutes every day, those who read at grade level receive “enrichment.” Those who are a little behind get some extra review. Finally, those who lag behind significantly are given “intensive intervention.”
The ideal is a kind of triangle of achievement, Garman said, with 80 percent of students at grade level. Fifteen percent would be only a little behind, and only 5 percent would be in need of intervention.
The reality is that only 30 percent of Field students read at grade level. The largest group of students, 44 percent, receive intensive intervention.
But it’s an improvement. Before Garman started at the school in 2004, “Our triangle was inverted,” Hogg said.
Improvement is evident everywhere. The school has a 100 percent attendance rate for parent-teacher conferences. Blue, white and purple bracelets on each teacher’s wrist represent “mannerly moments,” and are given to kids anytime an adult sees them doing something polite. Enough bracelets, and a class can earn a pizza party, or an extra recess, or another reward. As a result, the halls are filled with pleases, thank yous and excuse mes.
And when the school tried to start a summer school program of its own, one where Field teachers would teach Field students at Field, the district said it was fine — as long as at least 100 students signed up.
Garman, for pride’s sake, wanted 125.
Nobody saw 175 enrolling, but that’s what happened.
The same messages Garman and Hogg talk about in the main office are echoed in the classrooms and the lunchroom, even on the playground.
“You don’t change everything overnight,” said second-grade teacher Judy Arnett. “But you see improvement, and you know you’re going in the right direction.”
Hall said she has seen the school change.
“It’s gone from trying to keep kids from doing wrong to seeing how much they can do right,” she said.
But perhaps the biggest praise comes from Jensen and the rest of the district, which recognized Garman as its administrator of the year this year.
“What we are seeing at Field is a very dedicated staff that is working on literacy in some new and creative ways,” Jensen said. “We are very pleased with what we are seeing.”