It's mid-May, and I'm leaning against a stool in the corner of a classroom in Metro's Kirkpatrick Elementary when a third-graderwe'll call her Amytoddles up to me with a too-pleased-with-herself-by-half smile on her face. This, to me, is odd behavior. My experience with elementary schoolchildren has been that they usually give adult strangers a wide berth. It's been drilled into their heads since birth.
"Look at my new shirt!" she says to me, practically standing on my toes, and then she does the thing kids do, taking her front shirttail with both hands and yanking it down as far as it can go (below her knees in this case) so I can get a good look.
"It's brand-new!" she grins, obviously proud.
But it's not new, except maybe to her. In fact, it would be fair to say that this shirt's been around longer than the body wearing it. There is what looks to be a cartoon character on it, but it's pretty faded and features more peelings than a five-day-old sunburn. My best guess, judging from what seems to be a "HUNNY" pot in the unidentifiable figure's arms, is that it was Winnie the Pooh once upon a time.
"Pretty cool!" is all I can think of to say. Amy then wanders off to her desk with a book in tow and sits down at her desk to read, like everyone else in the room. Indeed, just like everyone else in the school, where reading is job one.
Earlier this week, Amy and 350 or so of her peers returned from summer break to start yet another school year. Most live in the James A. Cayce Homes, Nashville's largest public housing development, and the neighborhood immediately surrounding it just south of Main Street in East Nashville. Their home lives are usually less than optimal, and that presents more than a few challenges for the school's educators. There have been days when kids have come to school without any sleep because of gang shootings in the area the night before.
Hang around Kirkpatrick for a while and you can tell that Amy is no aberration. Kirkpatrick's denizens are quite used to adultsespecially media typeswandering around their building. Interest is high because Kirkpatrick is a special case. Last year, it was the only Metro school whose recent performance had been so bad that students were given the option of going to Smithson-Craighead Academy, a charter school in North Nashville, instead. (Nearby Warner Elementary would have also received this scarlet letter, but it had already been scheduled to close its doors for regular school operations.)
President George W. Bush has even dropped by. A year or so ago, the president, along with the usual bevy of local and national media reporters, visited Kirkpatrick to tout the school's efforts in the context of the administration's No Child Left Behind Act, a major purpose of which is to expand educational choices and opportunities for children on the low end of the economic scale. There has, in fact, been so much media interest in Kirkpatrick that all of the students have publicity waivers allowing them to speak freely with the media.
Kirkpatrick Principal Kim Fowler has herself become so media-savvy that she has emerged as an effective public relations director for the school. "You don't see kids running through the hallways do you?" she asks as we wander through a quiet first-floor corridor. It's a leading question with an edge: Fowler was put out by a Scene editorial that ran in April implying that the day-to-day environment at Kirkpatrick must have been pretty bad to warrant giving kids the option of choosing Smithson-Craighead instead.
Her point is well-taken. Kirkpatrick Elementary was indeed a mess at one time, with many ineffectual teachers, an apathetic administration and over 300 kids going nowhere fast. Fowler, fresh from a highly successful tenure at Chadwell Elementary, was tapped to come in and clean things up.
"When I first came to Kirkpatrick, I inherited the same staff," Fowler says. "I was able to hire a few teachers due to regular vacancies, and all of the teachers hired were either transfer teachers or new teachers hired by the personnel department." But at the beginning of the 2003-2004 school year, she was able to select the entire staff because the school became an Enhanced Option school. "Approximately half of the original staff was selected to remain at the school. All of the other positions were filled by transfers or new hires."
Fowler's main focus, though, and that of her staff, is on the students. She likes to tell a story about a boy who followed his friends to school one day because they told him that he was five and that he was supposed to go to school. So he did. When he showed up and was asked his name, the child provided the only name he knew he had: "Peanut." "Peanut" was, in fact, pretty much the extent of his verbal repertoire.
"To think about a child that comes to Kindergarten in August," Fowler says in a video produced by Metro schools, "who did not know his legal first name or his legal last name, but today he's reading. He's beginning to read. He knows all of his letters, all of his sounds, all of the colors. He's reading. He's not at the proficiency level yet, but with the progress he has made, we are thrilled to death."
How does this happen? It's all about focusing on reading, more reading and even more reading from day one. Other subjects seem to take a backseat to reading at Kirkpatrick, on the theory that learning those other subjects depends upon being ablefirst and foremostto read.
To that end, and on top of its regular teaching staff, Kirkpatrick is home to a team of specialists dedicated solely to the development of reading skills. Claudia Russell, a licensed teacher for 11 years, is one part of a districtwide initiative to put a reading specialist in every school.
Russell works with both teachers and students, but her main focus is on the students, offering intensive reading skill development on top of what the kids receive in the classroom, including a mandatory 90-minute uninterrupted "reading block" every school day. Russell calls this "double-dipping" of the children, which she believes is a necessity given their lives outside of school.
"We have to realize that we are working within a framework of poverty," Russell says. "We're playing catch-up."
Keeping track of the progress of an entire school's worth of kids can be unwieldy, so Russell employs a reading skills scale ranging from one to 40 to evaluate just where each child is in his or her reading development, and concentrates on the ones who are not where they need to be. Twenty-four, for instance, is the functional equivalent of fluency at the second-grade reading level, so a fourth-grader whose reading level is 16 would get a lot of extra work.
Russell is assisted by Melissa Branch, a "literacy leader" who coordinates the $200,000-a-year "Reading First" grant from the state, part of which goes into an intensive professional development program consisting of five days on top of those already required as well as 90 to 100 hours of individualized professional development. Another part of the grant is earmarked for enough teaching materials to fill a small room, a necessity given the widely divergent levels of reading skills among the Kirkpatrick student body.
"We have to teach kids where they are," Branch says.
"Where they are" requires some objective measure to determine. The official barometer of literacy skills at Kirkpatrick is the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Literacy Skills tests. Known as "DIBELS" (rhymes with "dribbles"), these tests are basically five-to-10 minute "interviews" with one child at a time with a certain piece of reading material. They are conducted three times a year for each child (on average) to see where he or she falls on the 1-40 scale.
DIBELS allows Russell to track progress. "I've seen kindergarteners go from just knowing "A," "B" and "C" to being full readers in just the span of a kindergarten year," she says.
Traditionalists will be happy to know that phonics is the key to teaching reading at Kirkpatrick. But "phonics" is about more than just sounding out words. There are actually five levels, each dependent on the last. First is "phonemic awareness," or letter sounds, such as the long "O" (oh) in "bone" or the short "O" (ah) in "dog". Next comes "phonological awareness," or the relationship between the sound and the letter itself (knowing, for instance, that the long "O" sound also happens to be the letter "O").
From individual letters, students move on to vocabulary development; that is, knowing what words actually mean by themselves. Then comes comprehension, which is knowing what words mean alongside other text. Finally, there's fluency, or "reading with knowledge," where it all just sort of comes together, the "Eureka!" moment of reading.
To get a better feel of what phonics is all about for a child who can't read, it might be better to step out of our English language comfort zone. Let's consider the following first-grade-level sentence rendered in German:
Der hund ist braun.
Let's focus on the second word: "Hund." Letter sounds first, so it's the "h" sound as in "hot," then the "oo" sound as in "food," then the "nd" sound as in "grand." H...OO...ND, orall one syllable now"Hund." Phonological awareness comes into play next, as we learn that the "oo" sound of the "u" in "Hund" is also the name of the letter "U" in German (as opposed to the English pronunciation of the letter "U" as "you").
OK, so we know how to say "Hund," but what does "Hund" mean? "Hund" is German for "dog," so there's the vocabulary step. Now comes comprehension. As for the other words, "Der" means "the," "ist" means "is" and "braun," as you might have guessed, means "brown." So, "Der Hund ist braun" is, in English, "The dog is brown;" that is, the dog's color is brown, as opposed to say, black, yellow, red or purple. When you can read those four German words together and grasp that concept without missing a beat, that's fluency, and so it is for the beginning English reader.
Another vital element for learning at Kirkpatrick is a schoolwide disciplinary system monitored in part by Patricia Jernigan, who describes hers as a "compliment program." It works as a sort of demerit system in reverse. Rather than roaming the hallways looking for infractions, Jernigan and others on the "Positive Behavioral Support Team" are on the lookout for positive behaviors. When they find one, the child gets a compliment and a sticker. Every six weeks, the school has a "compliment celebration." It's noncompetitive, meaning there are no pizza parties or roller skate field trips for the winners; the compliment itself is the reward.
"It's gotten to the point where the kids are complimenting each other by themselves," says Jernigan.
On the surface, it sounds a little too touchy-feely to be worthwhile, but the positive effects of the program are apparent in all of the school's classrooms. When third-grade teacher Sharon Williams tells her class to "take out your office," all of her students immediately stop what they're doing and get their desks set up for a test with pencils and paper at the ready. Claudia Russell's 90-minute reading periods are indeed just that, during which students sit at their desks or even on the floor reading quietly to themselves. There are libraries in this city that are louder than these classrooms during designated reading time.
All of this lends itself to an atmosphere of camaraderie among the students, who are enjoying themselves so much that many of them come back for more after the "official" school year ends. As noted earlier, Kirkpatrick is an Enhanced Option school, "enhanced" meaning "extra calendar time" and "option" meaning the extra time is optional for students. Fowler finds the "optional" part a little frustrating because funding for her enhanced option staff is dependent upon the number of students who sign up for the extra time. She lost eight teaching positions for this summer alone since about a third of the student body chose not to come for the extended period (which means, somewhat impressively, that two-thirds did sign up).
Nevertheless, the remaining staff at Kirkpatrick puts the four-week-long educational overtime period to good use. This year's "theme" was the Olympics, and everywhere you looked on the campus there was something having to do with the Summer Games. The centerpiece was a side hallway that was converted into a sort of "museum," replete with writings and artwork about the ancient Olympics and athletic heroes of the present day. The students also read about the Olympics with an emphasis on building their vocabulary. Kirkpatrick students probably know more (and very likely care more) about the 2004 Summer Olympics than anyone else in town.
The Olympic theme gave Kirkpatrick's arts and physical education staff a distinctive role for the Enhanced Option period. Art teacher Kenton Wesby was the museum's "curator." Physical education teachers Dawana Boone and Charles Wade organized an Olympic-esque event for the final day, complete with track and field events and an opening and closing ceremony. "I have the best special areas staff in town," Fowler likes to brag, and it shows.
As they prepared to practice for the long jump competition, the 36 kindergarteners lined up cross-legged ("criss-cross applesauce" is apparently the PC-era term for what people used to call "Indian-style") in four lines of nine on the gym floor give the casual observer a pretty accurate picture of the school's demographic makeup. There are two whites, two Hispanics, one Asian and 31 African American students. Virtually all Kirkpatrick students qualify for the free and reduced price meals program, which is the federal benchmark for measuring poverty. Within this framework, raising test scores has been a Herculean task. Kirkpatrick's reading scores are generally improving, but it remains on the state's "target list."
One major problem with what passes for policy discourse on education issues has been the use and misuse of terminology, especially that which describes schools in general. Public school advocates hold up "good schools" for acclaim, while public school reformers like to use "bad schools" as examples of failures. For purposes of real discussion, however, these terms are essentially meaningless, not because they hurt people's feelings, but because everyone has his own definition of what a "good" or "bad" school actually is. Some people make their evaluation in terms of academics, some in terms of what types of students attend a school, still others in terms of how much money flows into a school. Somemany parents fall into this categoryapply a "day care" paradigm to schools: Was my child's every need and desire acknowledged and attended to during the day? If so, then it's a good school, irrespective of whether the child is actually learning anything. This is the type of parent who, rather than disciplining a child when a teacher scolds him or her for misbehaving, instead complains to the principal about the teacher. We all know parents like these, and they are as much a cancer on public education as anything else.
Using Kirkpatrick as a model, perhaps the time has come to talk not in terms of good school or bad schools, but rather in terms of everyday effectiveness. Simply put, is a school doing what it is supposed to be doing, or not? An effective school provides students with the tools they need to become informed and productive citizens using three vital elements: substantial operational autonomy, significant parental involvement and a vibrant academic culture.
Fowler's record with Kirkpatrick personnel demonstrates the means by which a well-equipped principal can take full advantage of operational autonomywhen it gets granted. After asking Fowler to take charge of Kirkpatrick, Metro has largely stayed out of her way, especially with regard to hiring and rehiring decisions.
This autonomy has given Fowler a golden opportunity to put her particular stamp on the school and her faculty, each one of whom evinces a strong will and desire to get students where they need to be, and each one of whom is on board with the overall program. This, in turn, has encouraged more parents to become involved in the school and, even more importantly, in their own children's education, as Kirkpatrick parents are starting to see a school that is not just a building their kids enter on a daily basis but rather a place where something real is happening. That's one reason (among many) why some Kirkpatrick parents chose not to send their children to Smithson-Craighead. They too got on board with the program.
Combine an energetic and unfettered school administration with increasingly interested and engaged parents and you have the two main ingredients necessary for an internal school culture devoted to academics. Most people can tell within the first few minutes of a visit to any school whether there's any actual education going on. Do students pay attention in the classrooms? Are they self-motivated and working independently? Are hallways and other public areas orderly? Do teachers seem like they want to be there? Clues like these give anyone with a smidgen of common sense a pretty good idea as to whether a school is really functioning as a place where the focus is on learning and academic developmentor just a place where children happen to congregate on weekdays until the afternoon bell rings. Thanks to the efforts of Fowler, her staff, the students and many of their parents, Kirkpatrick Elementary is really teaching kids to learn.
It's clearly on track to shed its image as a "bad school," but because of the intractable demographics involved, Kirkpatrick Elementary may also never be considered a "good school" in the sense that, say, many people think of Julia Green Elementary or Percy Priest Elementary as "good schools."
That really doesn't matter, since Kirkpatrick has become something even better than a "good school," however that's defined. With a much more talented and creative staff, a great deal of operational freedom, some extra cash targeted to specific needs (recalcitrant conservative ideologues please take note), and, yes, an element of competition from the charter school a few miles away (recalcitrant teachers' union officials please take note), Kirkpatrick has become an extremely effective school for students, for parents and for the city at large.
And it can teach a lesson to the entire school system.
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