Worcester’s Level 4 Schools, Union Hill and Chandler Elementary: Moving forward!

By John Monfredo, Worcester School Committee

“Turning around persistently low-achieving schools requires a new way of doing the work that is transformative for the students and teachers in the school… the nature of the work demands a new vision for redesigning the schools and how districts support schools in that process. Bold action is required.”
– Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Back in March of 2010 the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced its list of 35 Level 4 schools. A school is deemed “Level 4” if its achievement is in the lowest 4 percent of schools statewide. Two schools in Worcester were on the list: Chandler Elementary and Union Hill School.

The new law, signed by Governor Deval Patrick last January, is designed to close the persistent achievement gap between the schools in poorer communities and those in richer communities. However, as mentioned in previous articles, the idea of closing the achievement gap is a difficult choice, for the administration had a variety of punitive options to choose and the least restrictive was the removal of the principal. Thus, that was what Dr. Boone, Superintendent of Schools in Worcester, chose. The decision was supported by the Worcester School Committee.

At that time Dr. Boone stated, “These schools have worked extremely hard to provide a high-quality of educational opportunities for all the students enrolled there. While significant progress has been made, we acknowledge that the rate of progress has not met the state and federal benchmarks … I need to be perfectly clear that there is no single contributing factor that led to the schools’ over-all performance.”

According to an article from the National Association of Principals, our lowest achieving schools across the nation are the most under-served schools with the highest number of disadvantaged students. “We cannot treat these schools in the same way that we would schools in more advantaged neighborhoods or we will continue to get the same results.”

Researchers report that perhaps the only true linear relationship in the social sciences is the relationship between poverty and student performance. While there is no relationship between poverty and ability, the relationship between poverty and achievement is almost foolproof. The research report went on to say that to deny that poverty is a factor to be overcome as opposed to an excuse is to deny the reality that all educators, human services workers, law enforcement officers, medical professionals and religious clergy know and have known for years.

Poverty is not an excuse, for we need to do more for our most at risk students for all students need access to an excellent education. However, let’s be clear it does exist and it is a factor in achievement.

Setting aside the emotional aspect of this issue and the principals beginning removed the schools have to focus in on the students. For that reason, input from the community, staff and parents working together is essential. The additional $1.5 million dollars given to Level 4 schools for three years will allow the schools to do more thinking outside the box with added resources. As Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester stated, “The state will offer federal grant money and help districts develop turnaround plans for the schools, but the ultimate responsibility lies with district.”
The plan has been on-going with a great deal of time and effort generated by administration, by the schools and the community.

Each school had to put their vision statement in writing and both schools centered their vision on developing a powerful educational program that supports students and their families. In order for the schools to achieve their goal it will depend upon developing a school community in which everyone shares a deep commitment to one another’s success.

Both schools expect their students will:

• Become lifelong learners
• Become critical thinkers and problem solvers
• Become self-directed individuals
• Become responsible citizens in a multicultural\global society
• Acquire and maintain a positive self-image
• Acquire proficiency skills in all areas of the curriculum

According to the school’s turnaround plan, positive results for students will come from changes in the knowledge, skill and behavior of administrators, teachers and parents. Policies and programs will provide the opportunity, support, and he expectation for adults to make prudent, wise and sustainable decisions on behalf of students. Turnaround plans must motivate staff to organize around key concepts. Some of them are:

• High expectations for all students MUST become the culture of the school
• Decision making is derived from performance data
• Reaching out towards parents, families and school community. Make a school a safe welcoming place where involvement builds a sense of community
• With staff members … create a sense of professionalism among them, create a culture of achievement and institute standards-based teaching

In the area of instruction, the schools will implement a system of assessments, including screening and diagnostic testing, implement a teacher support team to support effective teaching and learning, increase the length of the school day, monitor student results in a five-six week intervals and use the student results to improve the instruction and systems of support. Schools will implement a variety of curriculum strategies through professional development, and provide weekly communication of students’ results to parents. There will also be swimming and gym programs with the Boys and Girls Club and with Worcester Academy.

The needs identified in the assessment survey, recommended by the Local Stakeholders and best practices, will be used to address the social service and health needs of students, promote a safe and secure learning environment, improve and expand child welfare services and law enforcement services, and improve workforce development services. The following are some of the changes that are already taking place within the community.

• Partner with the Worcester Police Department and District Attorney to address issues pertinent to social networking and gang involvement
• Partner with United Way to institute wrap-around- services for students and families
• Partner with Stand for Children to increase advocacy for families and to increase communication between the school and the community

Tim Garvin, director of United Way, serves as a member of the Union Hill stakeholders group. He said he will keep the United Way of Central Massachusetts Board informed about the Union Hill progress and recommendations from the stakeholders group. He hopes to build more Union Hill supporters.

Here we are almost a year later and the big question is what has changed? The Chandler Elementary School area is one of the poorest sections of Worcester and does possess all the ancillary issues associated with poverty… unemployment, homelessness, crime, drug abuse and lack of health care. It’s an area where one would feel helpless, but the feeling there today is that we can turn it around.
June Eressy, principal, at the Chandler Elementary said the school has made a commitment to create a culture where student opinions are valued and respected and where achievement has become a reality. Principal Eressy affirmed that the school is striving not to reach proficiency, but to exceed it!
Despite the challenging demographic student profile of poverty and low achievement at Union Hill the school, the school is ready to do great things and believes that that the students will meet and exceed high standards, acknowledged Principal Marie Morse. Therefore, the following programs and policies at both schools have been put in place to support student achievement.

• Each student has an individualized student success plan – Student success plans were developed after examination of data from MAP –( measurement of academic progress), classroom assessments, and first and second quarter grades. Plans include interventions and enrichments based on student data. Students are continuously assessed and groups revised based on progress. These decisions at both schools are made during common planning time for teachers.
• The school has reviewed all accommodations for students with disabilities and for English Language Learners – All students records were reviewed by the classroom teachers and administration to ensure that these two groups of students received appropriate services in accordance with their IEP’s ( Individual Education Plans) and with ELL (English Language Learners) requirements.
• The Student goal setting for MAP Testing has taken place. The students decided their goals by working with their teacher. Professional development was provided to teachers so that they were able to learn to download and examine MAP scores. Classroom teachers then met individually with students to set targets for the winter test.
• After School Programs- Both schools have implemented a schedule that increases learning time by 90 minutes a day. The additional learning opportunities allow all students to experience a comprehensive academic core in all subjects. In addition, the schools also have access to enrichment activities that contribute to a well rounded education. Union Hill has a three hour Saturday Day Program that focuses on English Language Arts and Mathematics interventions are supported by with adaptive technology to accelerate learning. Mirroring Union Hill, Chandler Elementary has a Saturday classes as well.
• Students Development of Core Values – Core values were developed by students and staff in conjunction with the PBIS initiative. Principal Eressy stated, “Our values are the rules which we live by here at Chandler Elementary. Our Citizens of the Month award recognizes the student who best exhibits these core values.”

Core Values at Chandler:
• We will be respectful of others and of ourselves at all times
• We understand that we are members of a team and we will step in and help out other team members when necessary
• We will work to exceed goals and hold ourselves and others to high expectations.
• We will Be respectful, Work hard, Help other, and Strive for excellence
Core Values at Union Hill will drive our school to success echoed Principal Morse. The core values are:
• Safe environment
• Best education possible
• Families critical partners in school endeavors
• Believe in the power of teaching and learning
The key words at Union Hill …We Believe

• The schools have been introduced to PBIS (Positive behavior intervention system). It’s a new management system for the school needed a universal system of behavior in order to ensure that staff and students held the same expectations. Staff received training and teachers use the model that was developed.

• POWER UP Assembly at Chandler – The assembly introduced the students to the core values and at one of the meetings boxer Edwin Rodriguez (whose brother attends Chandler) spoke about core values. Students then moved around various stations to partake in activities introducing them to core values. In addition, POWER is part of the school’s instructional focus: Promoting Opportunities WITHIN EVERY READER.

• The schools are using additional time in order to accelerate learning in core academic subjects by making meaningful improvements to the quality of instruction in support of the school-wide achievement goals

• The schools have the services of a full time nurse and a school adjustment counselor. Both also help in the schools in wraparound services.

• Both schools have strong community partnerships that are working in partnership for the betterment of the students.

The remaining programs have to do with student involvement by engaging them in the school community, and having them feel a sense of pride and ownership in their school.
These parts are:

• Student Participation in Morning Announcements
• Daily Awards for Cafeteria Role Models and awards for student of the month and citizen of the month as well as for perfect attendance on a quarterly basis
• A mentoring program and a student banking program
• A Library card program and career fair
• An Anti – Bullying initiative

A key change in any turnaround school has to be with the parent for if both schools are to succeed it has to establish a strong and meaningful school-family partnership. With that in mind, the following initiatives have taken place to assist the parents

• Regularly scheduled neighborhood meetings to inform parents of the progress of The Level 4 Redesign plan
• Open door policy with principal and assistant principal
• Appointment of a full time school adjustment counselor and school nurse
• Partnerships with Health agencies
• Family night programs in math and literacy
• Creation of a parent newsletter
• Recruitment of parent volunteers and adult education classes

Parents who I had the opportunity to interview were very pleased with the changes at both schools and felt that the schools were “reaching” out to involve them in their child’s education. Rev. Dr. Sarai Rivera of Iglesia Cristiana de la Comunidad Christian Community Church and a community activist affirmed that Chandler Elementary has a family friendly atmosphere and there is more community engagement allowed with lots of great activities for the students and their families. When asked what the community is doing to support the efforts of the school, Rev. Rivera stated, “ … we have joined together to help reach out to the students and their families when needed…also the Pleasant Street Network Center and Worcester Interfaith along with our church are looking to be more active participants with the school’s PTO.”

Union Hill parent, Alice Ball, who has a child in the 4th grade is most excited about her school. She affirmed her love for the principal and staff because the new environment at the school is so positive. My son comes home happy and he focuses in on his homework without me getting on his back… “I love the caring atmosphere of the school… why they even walk students home and the communication via the telephone or with school notes has been outstanding. The environment at the school is family orientated and because of that I see more and more parents wanting to be involved.”

The students at Chandler Elementary are also very positive about their school as 5th grader James Friend acknowledged, “I like the activities going on in the school, my principal and the new teachers have been great. We have additional teachers coming into the classroom to help out the other teachers… I love the afterschool programs especially the enrichment classes in Spanish and Art.”
One program that both schools seem to appreciate is their Scientific Learning program. The Scientific Learning has two components, Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant.

The Fast Forward program provides each student with individualized support and real-time data regarding instruction and supports teacher effectiveness. The program generates content specific vocabulary lists tailored to individual needs of students to support the development of academic vocabulary. The students are seated in a Computer Lab and given the head phones and follow the directions of the program.

The Reading Assistant program has been sponsored through research grants from the National Institute of Health and Child Development and the U.S. Department of Education. This program provides Guided Oral Reading, the research –proven best practice for fostering reading progress beyond the basics.

The teachers in both schools have seen growth in the children’s reading scores and in the over-all confidence that the children have developed in their reading. Readers looking for more information on these programs can go to your computer and bring up www.scientificlearning.com/support.

The staff has gone through extensive professional development training before the school year and during the school year. Courses in High Expectations, PBIS, Readers and Writers Workshop, Aligning Math Standards and MCAS assessment, to a variety of teachings in strategic reading are just a sample of the workshops and courses that they have attended. Needless to say the staffs and the principals have worked very hard in attempting to move the schools forward and are working to have the students and the families believe in themselves. Both principals were given the autonomy to select their leadership team. Both principals selected a team of individuals whom they believe demonstrate leadership and interpersonal abilities possess deep content and pedagogical knowledge and skills, and are committed to high achievement for all students.

The principals have complete hiring authority and the assistant principals and teacher-leaders are hired annually at the discretion of the principal. Both students and teachers are encouraged to take risks. Both schools continue to work on changing the school culture of their perspective schools. Principal Eressy sees progress for the PTO is thriving, parents are anxious to volunteer, and there is a school-wide set of behavioral expectations which promotes a culture of mutual respect. In the words of Principal Eressy …” the work has just begun. In three years our students will be successful learners, parents will have the opportunity to take advantage of on-site learning opportunities and community agencies will be Chandler’s partners in promoting safe and healthy school.”

Drive by Union Hill and you will see the school’s sign, “Dream, Believe, Achieve.” This statement is representative of the renewal of hope that has been infused into the daily lives of all individuals who arrive at Union Hill each day. Principal Morse stated, “We believe that in three years Union Hill will be a vibrant community of readers, writers and thinkers… and that Union Hill will be the hub of the neighborhood.”

As one spends time in those buildings you can’t help but get excited about their future for everyone appears to be on the same page – high expectations for all.

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