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These 3 high-poverty schools in Norfolk and Virginia Beach are beating the odds. Here’s how they’re doing it.

By Cherise M. Newsome
The Virginian-Pilot

At high-poverty schools, students often start their days hungry, educators say. Many arrive in kindergarten lacking the language and counting skills that make a strong educational foundation. Without intervention, they can fall behind in class and lag their peers, contributing to an achievement gap that can widen as the children move through school.

But across South Hampton Roads, three schools have improved academic achievement in the face of those problems. Earlier this school year, the Virginia Department of Education gave Title I Distinguished School awards to Norfolk’s Willoughby and Sewells Point elementaries and Virginia Beach’s Rosemont Elementary. Willoughby won the Highly Distinguished honor. Title I is a federal designation for schools that serve high percentages of children from low-income families and receive additional federal money.

The state award is given to high-poverty schools whose students exceed goals on Standards of Learning exams. Here’s how they did it.

Willoughby Elementary School, Norfolk

Students come and go at Willoughby. Located near Norfolk Naval Station, the school serves mostly military kids. More than half of its 200 students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a poverty indicator.

But expectations remain high – and the teachers steadfast – and test scores show it. Standards of Learning pass rates top 90 percent in most core subjects, beating the state target by about 15 percentage points.

It’s no easy feat. Many of the military students who move to Norfolk from other states or parts of the world must catch up to Virginia’s curriculum, media specialist Colleen Murphy said.

“We not only have to see where they are, we have to see where they need to be and where we want them to go,” she said.

Everybody rolls up their sleeves to do that. Teachers and specialists huddle with Principal June Lightfoot to review grades and test data. Lightfoot visits classrooms and offers praise and feedback.

“We do that right away; they’re not in school more than two days before we already know,” said Tracie Kunkel, an educational interventionist who used to worked at the school. Last year, Willoughby served kindergarten through fifth-graders. Now the school includes prekindergarten through second grade, reorganized under a divisionwide improvement plan.

While the younger students don’t take SOLs until third grade, their teachers prepare them and participate in team meetings to help their overall success.

“We’re really, really focused on early literacy and early numeracy so they’ll be ready to read,” Lightfoot said.

Willoughby excels because teachers do more than the basics, staff members said.

“You go beyond the curriculum and give those higher-level questions to the students to kind of challenge them to think,” reading specialist Angela Denson said.

Tutoring and remediation happens early in the year. Parents are kept abreast of students’ performance. They’re encouraged to read and talk to children. Willoughby hosts workshops on math and reading, giving out resources and materials for parents to help students learn more at home.

To boost kids’ confidence, the school celebrates students and teachers often. Earlier this spring, Lightfoot and other leaders walked through the halls pointing out colorful bulletin boards and a student-designed courtyard that make the school shine. The Title I award banner hangs from the facade.

“I’m very proud of my students,” Lightfoot said. “It’s an honor to work here. It’s a community effort as well.”

Sewells Point Elementary, Norfolk

One day this spring, Principal Mary Wrushen beamed as she visited classrooms.

Teachers were huddled with small student groups talking about a book. Classroom aides worked with kids on another reading passage. Children paced themselves through computer lessons. A group of boys huddled in a book nook. They were using the strategies that have helped the school succeed.

Sewells Point is one of 55 schools in the state to be honored with a Distinguished School award. It has exceeded goals on SOL exams, with pass rates above 80 percent.

About 90 percent of the school’s 600 students are connected to the military, Wrushen said. More than 60 percent come from impoverished families. The school also serves a high number of students with special needs and those who speak languages others than English.

“We make sure that we take those children where they are and take them where they need to be,” Wrushen said.

With students from all over the world, the school embraces diversity.

“They come in and share their experiences, so it’s good for our children, too, those here from Norfolk,” Wrushen said.

One strategy is to let students take the lead in their learning, she said.

For example, in Susan Washburn’s fifth-grade class, two boys flipped through “data notebooks,” compiled to monitor grades and test scores. Michael Volkov and Malaki Robinson listed goals for the year, such as making honor roll.

Malaki said his teacher keeps them on pace.

“She teaches us, like, important facts, and she teaches us more than we need to know, and it’s fun,” Malaki said.

“She makes different sayings that are fun and are easy to remember,” Michael said. Her phrase for memorizing the meaning of “acute” angles – less than 90 degrees – is “a cute little angle.”

Colleagues throughout the school do the same thing. It’s part of the teamwork that makes Sewells Point successful, staff members said.

Several military and community groups support the efforts, including a full-time military counselor and a Lunch Buddies program with military and civilian mentors. Student tutors from Norfolk Academy provide extra help, as do older students within the school.

If a new teacher struggles, a veteran offers advice, Wrushen said. Reading and math specialists help teachers focus on core skills, such as the ability to understand and solve math word problems, educational interventionist Antoinette Ashley said.

Frank Seemar, a reading specialist, said the school bought more novels this year to help students focus on longer passages and build their vocabularies.

Staffers participate in “data team meetings” to see whether efforts are working and which students need more help. Teachers go beyond the curriculum to help students. For example, they host a family math night with a mock grocery store in which kids pretend to shop, compare prices and tabulate costs.

“Math in everyday life is a situation; it’s not a number sentence,” said Kristen Karyus, a math and reading interventionist at the school. “So just giving them exposure to multiple opportunities and examples helps build that.”

Whatever students’ needs, the staff takes innovative approaches to help them, Wrushen said.

“We do what we have to do, and it shows that we have been successful with it,” she said.

Rosemont Elementary School, Virginia Beach

Each school day, Katrina Roth huddles with other first-grade teachers to talk about students.

They review test scores and grades, pinpoint who’s struggling and chat with math and reading coaches to get tips on teaching each subject.

That 45 minutes of planning time helps teachers focus on what’s working – and what’s not – for the nearly 500 students there. About 70 percent of them come from low-income families, a growing trend in Virginia Beach.

Despite the odds, Rosemont has excelled, earning the state’s Distinguished School award for the third consecutive year. It’s the only Beach school to do so.

Collaboration is key, staffers said.

“It really flows down to the students, too. They’re happy to be here, they come to school, they want to learn,” Roth said.

At Rosemont, teachers meet weekly to plan lessons and discuss performance trends. Every other week, they meet for more than an hour to learn strategies from math and reading specialists.

“We have an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Principal Cari Hall said. “Our focus is on all kids, not just the kids in your classroom.”

Staff members consistently celebrate students for positive behavior and good attendance. In the beginning of the year, each teacher makes visits to students’ homes. The school hosts family reading nights.

The school also gets some outside help. A church operates a mentoring program. A technology initiative provides an iPad or laptop for each student and teacher. On those evenings, parents spend 20 minutes reading with their children, something staffers want them to continue at home.

“Some of our parents probably had some academic challenges; school wasn’t the best place for them,” Hall said. “We try really hard to create a welcoming environment for parents so that they feel comfortable.”

Unlike educators who say the state’s SOLs cause classrooms to be rigid, Hall said the tests play an important role in letting the community know how the school’s doing.

“It’s allowed us to hone our practice and to really pinpoint what it is we want students to be able to master,” Hall said. “We are measured by that test, and that’s our accountability.”

Assistant Principal Linda Morrissey pointed out that parents use accreditation status to size up a school.

“They want their children in a school where they are accredited and where they can be successful passing those SOL tests,” she said.

She and Hall said more families are moving into the division because of its performance.

“We’ve demonstrated ourselves to be successful,” Hall said.

Even with SOL requirements, there are still ways to innovate, she said. While elementary teachers usually teach all subjects – math, reading, science, history – Hall paired two classrooms so that one teacher focuses on math and the other focuses on reading.

“So far, it’s been a huge, huge success,” she said.

During a tour this spring, Hall walked into Emily Rathbone’s fifth-grade class. Sitting at a crescent-shaped table, Rathbone led about five students reading on computer tablets. She peppered them with questions and had them explain their answers: Can you tell me where you read that? Can you tell me why you agree or disagree? Children highlighted passages of text with a swipe of their fingers.

Across the room, Madysen Washington studied a passage on the Bill of Rights.

“I learn a lot of stuff,” she said. “I like my teacher. She teaches us well. If you don’t get it, she’ll take the time to teach us more.”

Although students may struggle, teachers must believe in the kids and set high expectations, kindergarten teacher Katie Valet said

Hall said the division recruits teachers and works hard to retain them so their students have the best. She called her staff “caring, compassionate individuals, absolutely committed.”

“There are easier places to work, and they choose to be here because they know they can make a difference,” she said.

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