Students, teachers and the community are hyped at an eastern Arkansas school that focuses on literacy all day, every day, throughout the year
It’s a beautiful July morning at Marvell-Elaine Elementary School, where students gather in a large circle in the cafeteria and sing, dance, gesture and answer calls from Freedom School site coordinator Aaron Glass.
“Freedom School is what?” Glass’ voice booms.
“Red hot!” students answer, their voices echoing off the cafeteria walls.
“Are you ready? Are you ready?”
“Yeah, I’m ready! Yeah, I’m ready!” they cheer.
“Are you hyped? Are you hyped?”
“Yeah, I’m hyped! Yeah, I’m hyped!”
They are hyped, and so are teachers and administrators after Marvell-Elaine Elementary School received an “A” on the state’s report card last year and became an achieving school. Prior to that, it had spent six years on the state’s school improvement list and then became a focus school when the state changed its accountability system.
Marvell-Elaine is not a wealthy district. Of its 200 students, 98 percent come from low-income families. The ethnic breakdown is 80.7 percent African-American, 12.9 percent Caucasian, and 6 percent Hispanic or other.
With determination, creativity, and an amazingly dedicated teaching staff and administration, the school is succeeding. A quick glance at test scores on the Arkansas Department of Education’s website shows fifth grade literacy results rose from 59.5 percent proficient/advanced in 2009-10 to 80 percent proficient/advanced in 2013-14. Third grade math scores moved from 64.9 percent to 93.8 percent proficient/advanced over that time period. Fifth graders’ math scores soared from 51.6 percent to 97.2 percent proficient/advanced.
How is Marvell-Elaine Elementary doing it? It’s a culmination of several factors, including its summer school efforts. This summer between 70-80 students attended – almost half the school’s enrollment.
“The biggest thing is that there’s no slide in their reading levels,” said teacher Karen Sefers. “If their (literacy) level was at a 20 at the end of the year, it may have fallen back to 16 (by the time school starts in August). But the ones who have been in the summer school program, they will have maintained or gained where they were. ... They seem more motivated.”
“And eager,” added Brenda Wood-yard, a teacher for 34 years.
After being served breakfast every morning, students stand in a circle to dance, clap, sing and chant encouraging words to build motivation and confidence. The songs are specifically chosen to encourage as well as to energize them.
“(Superintendent Joyce Cottoms) gets right in the circle, and she claps with them and gets down on her knees with them, and does all of it, so the kids can see that she’s in there with them. It’s very encouraging,” said math teacher Delores Thrower.
Students take turns leading from inside the circle, which Thrower said helps shy ones gain confidence before the school year begins.
“Students will say, ‘Mrs. Thrower, we learned this in Freedom School. And this is how we did it,’” she said.
The summer program occurs in two phases. The morning program, funded by a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, is more like traditional summer school. Teachers conduct sessions where students focus on math, language, and extra projects involving Spanish, music, physics and botany les-sons. Teachers enjoy being able to spend more one-on-one time with students than with regular school. Teacher Stephanie Hoskins gave high-fives to students Jordan Jacobs and Eric Perry as they circled prepositions and objects on the whiteboard. A math teacher worked with one student studying mean and average math problems while another student studied angles on a computer. There’s more time for more interactive learning, friendly competitions, games and hands-on projects. Elena Hinderer, who teaches music and Spanish and directs the band, introduced students to Spanish using games like Spanish bingo.
“They have to figure out what word I’ve said,” she said. “And sometimes they find it, and sometimes they can’t figure it out. Like ‘ojo (pronounced ‘o-ho,’ meaning ‘eye’) has a ‘j.’ But there’s usually someone who will figure it out and tell everyone else. They’ve been having a lot of fun with that. “When we have this small of a group, we can do this.”
Hinderer wants the students to learn about life in addition to academics.
“These students live in the country, but they couldn’t name the types of birds or of insects because, in our modern society, you stay indoors all of the time,” Hinderer said. So she teaches students how to plant seeds and baby plants.
After lunch comes the more relaxed Freedom School, a national program funded by the Children’s Defense Fund that is focused entirely on literacy. Students participate in question-and-answer sessions, write a poem about what they’ve read, perform a skit or write a song, but there are no paper exams. Classes are taught not by teachers but by college interns, almost all of whom graduated from the Marvell-Elaine district themselves.
“It’s not necessarily (only) teaching children to read, but it’s fostering a want to read,” said Glass, who coordinates the day-to-day activities as well as field trips, food deliveries, morning motivation time, and whatever else needs to be done.
An Elaine alumnus and University of Central Arkansas graduate, Glass started as an intern with the program in 2007 when it was still housed at the Boys & Girls Community Development Center.
“Basically, what we do is take what they’ve built upon in school, and we just build upon it,” Glass said.
Not all of the college interns were education majors. One was studying engineering, while another was studying criminal justice, though she was toying with the idea of changing to an education degree.
“The way we are with them is a little bit different than your typical student-teacher relationship. With us, we don’t want (students) to feel like they feel in (regular) school, but we try to be an extension of the classroom teacher as well,” said Glass. “So, it’s a fine line we walk. We want to have fun, but do it within the parameters.”
Linda Coates, third grade teacher, has taught summer school three years.
“The college students, to me, are great role models,” Coates said. “Especially for the males, they’re great role models.”
Student Kalliyah Willis said students like the college in-terns, but they like the teachers, too.
“We work real, real hard and do our best in the classrooms. Sometimes, we do brain breaks,” she said.
What’s a “brain break”? Kalliyah described it as “kind of like Zumba.” When studies get too intense, teachers take a “brain break” for students to move and dance.
Student Nitillya Johnson likes summer school better than regular school, “Because it’s fun!” Allyson Nelson, on the other hand, likes both. Both girls enjoy breaking into small groups to do science projects. The two of them described in great depth a recent experiment involving a tornado.
While those girls were talking, several boys wiped off the cafeteria tables after lunch. Barely taller than the tables themselves, they stretched to reach the middle of the tabletops. “Work together!” one cheered. Amid the laughing and goofy jokes, the soapy tables were as clean as any adult could do.
Eight-year old Joshua Caffey’s favorite part of Freedom School is recess, of course, but he said that the most important thing he’s learned this summer is his multiplication tables.
“They explained it to us; then it got fun when I learned more,” he explained.
“I love math!” Ledarius Wilson interrupted, with a voice that’s contagiously enthusiastic. “It’s really good, because we have all the greater than, lesser (than), equal, addition, subtraction, and multiply and division, and there is one more ... um ... there’s like that ‘o’ on the top and that line and that ‘o’ on the bottom ...”
“He’s talking about the percent sign,” said Joshua.
One student said she likes the summer program because it’s fun, but added, “I don’t have nowhere else to go.”
“Around here that is really true,” said Hinderer, the Spanish teacher. Marvell is a small farming community located 45 minutes from the nearest movie theater, and most parents work outside of the home. Parents can choose to send students to the morning program only or to both phases. Students are fed break-fast and lunch plus an extra snack if they stay through the afternoon.
“So, my parents really don’t have to worry about their children, making sure they have something to eat, something to do, making sure they stay cool,” principal Sylvia Moore said.
During the regular school year, the doors open early at Marvell-Elaine Elementary. Students who have signed up for the Accelerated Reader program, funded by a 21st Century grant, begin walking through the door at 7:30 a.m. As a result of the program, the school has several students who’ve read 100 books, including one kindergartner.
“Our students love to read,” said Moore.
That’s her goal, or maybe “obsession” would be a better description. Moore wants the entire school day – science, music, everything – to be literacy based. “If they can’t read, they can’t do the math, they can’t do the science, they can’t do the social studies. If they can’t orally express, they can’t write,” Moore said. “The teachers believe in that, so we do a lot of writing.”
Students write daily in a personal journal. During Black History month, their writings lined the hallways. They’ve grown to expect their principal’s unusual hallway greeting, “Got a book? Wha’cha’ readin’?”
Teachers throughout the school teach literacy at the same time each day. The schedule shows when to do whole group activities, small group reading activities, phonemic awareness, and writing components. In addition, beginning at eight o’clock in the morning, the school has a three-hour, uninterrupted block of time when no one is allowed to enter classrooms, including parents or visitors.
“That has worked for us,” Moore said. “This will be going into our sixth year. That was one of the first things that I implemented when I came here, and teachers love it because they know that nobody’s going to interrupt them for anything during that time.”
A literacy-focused schedule is just one of the many changes Moore implemented when she began serving as principal in the 2010-11 school year.
“It took my teachers a little while to get that, that literacy encompasses every discipline that we teach,” Moore said. “I had to build trust with them. We’re all learning. When they found that I will support (them) and (my approach is), ‘I’ll support you, and if we run into a problem, we’ll work it out together,’ we had that trust.”
Hinderer is on board. She has a passion for increasing students’ vocabulary. She remembers, years ago, teaching a group of fourth-graders who were reading but not comprehending.
“The more they read, the more I realized: You can’t read when you’re reading totally in a foreign language,” she said. “They could sound it out, and maybe be successful (at that). But they didn’t know what the words meant. So what good was it?”
During summer school, she read students “The Boxcar Children” by Gertrude Chandler Warner. The book has clues to teach students thinking skills and vocabulary words they wouldn’t normally hear.
“The culture in this school has changed tremendously,” said literacy coach Liz Easley. “Five years ago, you could have asked a student, ‘What are you reading?’ And they would give you this deer-in-the-headlight look, like, ‘Reading?’ (Now) I see kids getting off the school bus with a book, reading.”
As the school’s full-time literacy coach, Easley analyzes each student’s test scores and works with teachers to find the most effective ways to focus on those who need extra help. Teachers meet with Easley weekly in professional learning communities to consider students’ most recent assessments. Easley also analyzes each of the test questions. If a question was missed by many students, teachers will be asked to cover that area more thoroughly. She asks them, what do you see? What are the strong points? What are the weak points? What do we need to change?
“I’ve been in those meetings,” Moore said. “The teachers will talk about, ‘I taught that skill, but my kids didn’t get it. I think this time, I’ll use this process.’ My teachers have become self-evaluating and they’ve become doctors of prescription.”
When students are found deficient in a certain area, literacy interventionists take them out of the classroom and work with them one on one. P.E., art and music teachers along with the school’s librarian do interventions during their free period. Interventionists use response to intervention techniques, or RTI, in small groups with students who have similar obstacles to overcome.
“The next time they’re assessed on it, most of the time they’re 80 percent or 90 percent on that skill,” Moore said.
The same process is taken with special education students as well.
“We’ve actually had a lot of our special ed kids test out of special ed over the last five years,” Moore said. “They became proficient and advanced on their Benchmark test. And when that happens, we reassess, and nine times out of 10 they come out of special ed. They don’t need those services anymore. We’ve had several kids do that. I’m very proud of that.”
The school utilizes its Great Rivers Cooperative in Helena for math specialists, literacy specialists, and professional development – the most recent of which was a training session on working with students with dyslexia.
“We’re thinking now that some of the kids that we have had discipline problems out of, and some children that aren’t moving, that at one point in time were placed in special ed, they don’t even need to be there. ... So, we’re going to look at those students. We realize now that this is deeper than what we thought. This (dyslexia) may be part of their problem,” Moore said.
The school offers an after-school program for 80-100 students four days a week. Funded by a 21st Century Com-munity Learning Centers grant, the Freedom School network, and the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, that program focuses on science and math, but all activities also revolve around literacy. The numerous hands-on learning projects are followed by written or oral reports.
Like summer school, the program helps parents as well. Buses run additional routes to take students home afterwards. The school provides a snack for students, and at one point a local church voluntarily brought a full dinner for everyone each day.
“They know that if they don’t get off work until 5, our program doesn’t end until 5:15, so they’ve got that time for somebody to pick them up,” Moore said. “Or they know that the bus is going to run and take them home. So by the time they get home (from work), the kids are home, and they know they’ve been somewhere safe. They haven’t had to try to find a babysitter. So, it’s a win-win situation for parents and for the students and for us.”
Saturday field trips
One Saturday a month, students take a school field trip. Moore has asked museums, theaters and children’s theaters to keep her abreast on what’s available. Usually there are writing activities or sequencing activities associated with the field trips. Before going to the Pink Palace in Memphis to see the movie “Flight of the Butterflies,” students researched butterflies and moths and their stages of development.
“When we go to the museum, they know what we’re going for,” said Moore. “We talked about it beforehand, and they could give me the names of what the stages were.”
During one field trip, the children went to a restaurant for a lunch buffet. Teachers quickly noticed that the children didn’t know how to conduct themselves. Before the next field trip, students were taught to make food choices, how to go around a buffet table, the fact that once you put something on your plate, you can’t put it back, and other courtesies.
“We’ve done it long enough now that they know what to do,” Moore said.
The next step was to teach students how to behave at a more formal, sit-down restaurant. Each student was allotted a certain amount to spend. The school printed the restaurant’s menu, which was distributed to each of the teachers, who then went over the cost of each item with the students. Math teachers taught students how to figure sales tax on a dining tab, and students were responsible for figuring out exactly what they could afford to eat, including tax. Once at the restaurant, each child ordered what they had decided upon beforehand.
“We try to make sure that whatever we do applies to life or has academic background to it,” Moore said.
At Marvell-Elaine Elementary, class time is treated as a precious commodity. Moore spearheaded a deal with local health care providers so that if a student has an appointment, the local clinic tries to get them in right away so they can return to school. One dentist was willing to clear a spot on her schedule each week to see students only. Parents have all signed waivers allowing the dentist to pick up students at the school and then return them, usually within the hour, and it never conflicts with literacy or math.
Moore has a vision of a wellness center on campus and is working with the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to try to access funding. Because the local clinic can’t care for every need, many sick children must travel out of town to Helena or to Memphis, which means they’re out of school half a day.
“If I have a wellness center here on campus, it will be as simple as saying, ‘If you could go right next door, there’s a nurse there, or there’s a dentist, and they can fix it, and the student can get back in school,” Moore said.
Parents on board
Each month, the school holds a Parents Night informing parents what’s going on at school. Students from different grades perform and sing to entice their parents to come. Moore talks to parents about the importance of good attendance, arriving on time, and about the school’s various programs. In addition, the school also hosts a Literacy Night for parents one semester and a Math & Science Night the next. Moore’s ultimate goal is to encourage parents to take advantage of the opportunities for their children on campus.
“We want to give the parents an idea of, when we say ‘literacy circle,’ what that’s all about,” she said.
Ultimately, Marvell-Elaine Elementary’s efforts are not about creating programs, obtaining grants or even raising test scores. They’re about doing whatever is necessary to help students achieve. One fourth grader who read only 40 words per minute on her DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) exam was given special attention to help her improve her phonics.
“I kept telling her that if she got to at least a 100 (reading words per minute), which to me was going to be a huge jump, I would have pink polka dots in my hair,” literacy coach Liz Easley said. “She came in two to three weeks before school was out and said, ‘Ms. Easley, (my teacher) tested me, and I got up to 100 words.’ I said, ‘OK!’ And so the next day, I had pink polka dots in my hair. She did it! She was so proud of herself.”
Teachers noticed that the student began to raise her hand during class to answer questions and seemed to have more confidence.
“Those are the kinds of things we do with our kids. We basically pinpoint what the problems are. We plan almost like an individual plan for each one of the students,” Easley said. “The teachers meet with the interventionist, I meet with the interventionist, and we talk about, ‘OK, are these interventions working in your classroom?’ Yes? OK, then let’s move on to the next thing. If it’s not working, let’s find out why.”
By Melissa Brawner
Report Card Contributing Writer
Visit the Report Card Magazine page, September 2015 issue, for more articles.