Principals credit new initiatives for student improvements
Two Downcounty Consortium feeder elementary schools have raised the most recent standardized test scores of both white and minority students, which MCPS officials commended as progress in closing the achievement gap.
At Oakland Terrace, 75 percent of second graders scored above the national average on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills last year, up from 64 percent the previous year, Superintendent of Schools Jerry Weast said in his Dec. 14 budget presentation speech. Eighty percent of both black and white students achieved above the national average. Latino students improved from 46 percent four years ago to 68 percent scoring above the national average. "Oakland Terrace has nearly eliminated the achievement gap," Weast said.
Both white and black third graders at Viers Mill earned 100 percent proficiency on the Maryland State Assessment, Weast said. Proficiency among Viers Mill students with limited English skills increased from 10 to 90 percent in three years, Weast said.
No other elementary schools have matched these results.
The Oakland Terrace student body is 20 percent black, 11 percent Asian, 36 percent white and 31 percent Latino. Ten percent of students are in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program and 37 percent receive Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS), according to the MCPS web site.
Viers Mill is 23 percent black, eight percent Asian, 54 percent Latino and 14 percent white. Thirty percent of its students are in ESOL, and 69 percent are enrolled in FARMS, according to the MCPS web site. The school receives federal Title I funds for schools with high levels of poverty.
"A model that others should look to"
Cindy Kerr, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, agreed that the scores were promising, but she said they were only the beginning of efforts to close the achievement gap. "We hope to see them replicated all over the county," she said.
Other MCPS elementary schools should follow Oakland Terrace and Viers Mill's example, said Nicolle Grayson, a spokesperson for the Education Trust, a national education advocacy group that focuses on the achievement gap issue. "The schools should be a model that others should look to, to figure out how to close the achievement gap," she said.
The schools' principals cited new MCPS student improvement initiatives for the schools' success, such as lower class sizes and an updated curriculum. Viers Mill also expanded extracurricular programming, including encouraging participation in before- and after- school clubs and working to educate and involve parents through family learning nights, according to Principal Matt Devan.
The principals of both schools mentioned the extension of planning blocks for team meetings of grade-level teachers as instrumental to their success. In these meetings, the Oakland Terrace faculty identified low math scores as a target area for student improvement, said Oakland Terrace Principal Cheryl Pulliam.
Requiring students to set goals for themselves also helped them achieve, Pulliam said. Students were assessed regularly, and teachers closely monitored their results. Some activities were sacrificed to increase instructional time, such as the school play, she said.
Both Pulliam and Devan agreed that the achievement is limited to the specific class of students, and only time will indicate the continuation of these results. Oakland Terrace is currently monitoring how the same group of students, now third graders, performs on subsequent standardized assessments.
The most significant test of the students' early success could arrive with their elementary- and middle-school promotions. If the students can maintain their high levels of achievement as they enter middle school, then a more concrete conclusion can be drawn about their success in closing the achievement gap, according to Kerr. For now, though, "it may be too soon to say," she said.
Grayson warned that a racial discrepancy could still emerge as the students mature. "National data shows that the achievement gap doesn't start till later," she said. The gap begins to grow at the middle-school level and intensifies through high school as students are exposed to different expectations, teachers, classes and programs, she said.
Despite the benefits of starting early, efforts to end the achievement gap must pervade all grade levels, Grayson said. "It's great to start at elementary school, but we can't leave out kids that by the time they reach [high school] still weren't taught the basic skills they need to be successful in life," she said.
But Devan believes that with continued academic rigor, the students can build on their foundation and continue to achieve.
In his speech, Weast addressed the continuing problem of the achievement gap still facing MCPS. "We cannot let the barriers of race, ethnicity, language, poverty and disability stand in the way of student success," he said. "We know we have a disproportionate number of African-American students being suspended and coded for special education and that too few are being identified as gifted or participating in honors and AP courses. This cannot continue."
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