We’re standing in the doorway of a packed fourth grade classroom. Most eyes are on the teacher, except for the few toothily grinning kids who have noticed Principal Deborah Rivera peeking in and who are trying to get her attention.
The teacher asks, “Who created the first volunteer fire department in the Colonies?”
Three-quarters of the class’s hands shoot up; they’re straining like Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter, thinking if they lift their hand the highest or make the most emphatic gesture, they will be the one to be called upon.
I know this one. I lean over close to Rivera and whisper: “It’s Ben Franklin, I think.”
A child answers. It is indeed Ben Franklin. Deborah Rivera gives me a look of surprise and appreciation. She high-fives me. And as we continue to walk through the halls she impresses upon no fewer than four other teachers that “Melissa knew the answer to a Social Studies question that I didn’t.”
I am brimming with pride.
I am here to interview Rivera about what went into Emmet Field Elementary School’s remarkable gains– the largest test score gains in all of Jefferson County Public Schools– and I already know at least part of the answer. You put a teacher, a leader like Rivera just about anywhere– successful school, struggling school, rich school or poor school– and at the very least, the individual students that she touches are going to benefit.
I don’t need to ask her about process or test scores or pedagogical theory to know that Rivera , herself, has something good going on.
I know by the way she makes this reporter feel for knowing that Franklin was a volunteer fireman.
I know even better because she is the Pied Piper of this elementary school. Lines of students changing classroom pass by and children drift out of the queue to wrap their arms around her waist and smile. She’ll hug back, greet the child by name and barely miss a beat in the conversation she’s having with me.
Virginia Satir, the so-called “Mother of Family Therapy,” said, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.”
Rivera is doing her part.
At the beginning of October, Rivera sent a letter home to parents delineating the successes the school had seen on its most recent standardized test scores:
- Largest overall gains of any JCPS school
- Increased from the thirteenth percentile to the seventy-eighth percentile
- Sixth highest gains of any elementary school in the state.
- Highest gains in Language Mechanics in all of JCPS
- Highest gains in Science in all of JCPS
- And the list goes on…
Rivera has 430 charges in her school. All of whom she knows by name. By virtue of the school’s location in the Clifton neighborhood between two seminaries, Field serves children from all over the world. The school was built in 1915 with a significant addition made in the 1970’s.
This summer, Field will see another addition: a media center to replace the school’s library (Rivera says that the media center is “The Artist formerly known as The Library”).
The cramped school needs more classroom space, but everyone makes do. Teachers hold breakout groups on stairway landings, in unused doorwells and in tiny locker nooks.
And these breakout groups are a critical part of the “special sauce” that went into Field’s massive test score gains. Field is one of 13 JCPS pilot schools for a Professional Learning Community model of teaching.
PLC’s do away with the traditional silo-ed and department-based teacher meetings. Instead, Rivera says, their faculty meetings are “time for teachers to meet and learn from each other.” In the PLC pilot program, the school year is chopped into 6-week cycles.
At the beginning of each cycle, teacher groups get together and ask two questions:
- What do we want kids to know or be able to do?
- How are we to know if students can do it?
The teachers then write their own common assessments– from big projects down to smaller quizzes and daily work– and then they engage in “backward planning.” That means the teacher starts with the desired end result– what they want the students to know or be able to do– and then plan their curriculum backward from that point on.
The– seemingly very reasonable– theory is that you can’t possibly give a child directions to follow unless you know where you’re trying to steer the child.
The final two questions are critical to the momentum of the program:
- What are we going to do for the kids who didn’t meet the standards?
- What about the kids who did?
After every assessment, the teacher evaluates each individual student’s results and breaks the class into small and specialized “WIN” groups. WIN stands for “What I need.”
For 40-minutes a day, the WIN groups– usually math- or reading-centered– for each grade level meet. “And during that time, we flood the grade level with adults,” says Rivera. The groups are not equal in size, but they are tailored to the needs of the group.
So if second graders are working on math word problems, after an assessment, the teacher may group students into the following WIN groups:
- kids who struggle because they can’t do the math in the problem
- kids who struggle because they have a hard time turning the language into a math problem
- kids who struggle because they need to visualize math problems in order to solve them
- kids who have grasped the concept but need to do more problems to gain mastery
- kids who have mastered the concept and need to be stretched or pushed to keep their interest
Each WIN group is led by an adult– all of whom are paid, except the occasional parent volunteer: grade level teachers, assistant teachers, student teachers, retired teachers, content specialists, special education teachers, goal clarity coaches– there are a whole bunch of adults in the building who pitch in and lead groups or swoop in to offer an extra hand when need be.
WIN groups are critical to the school’s success, says Rivera, because they are fluid. Every assessment is evaluated and kids are shuffled around as need be. “Kids who see themselves as struggling will always see themselves as struggling. But sometimes these struggling kids excel at something, and we honor that.”
In other words, this is not the Generation X and Y “tracking” model where a student finds herself in remedial English and gets stuck in the lowest levels of English throughout her school career because she’s been tracked.
This is individual, frequently-evaluated placement. Today you’re in an advanced group because you mastered the task in front of you. Tomorrow, you might be in a group that needs extra help because you’re struggling with your new goal.
Rivera thanks Dr. Donna Hagens, Superintendent of JCPS, for the resources to be able to provide this intense level of individual attention. Rivera says it’s part of Dr. Hagen’s commitment to “making the schools the center of the universe.”
“We’ve received so much support,” says Rivera. All elementary schools now have an assistant principal; Field has a part time school psychologist; there’s a partnership with Indiana University Southeast and there are seven student teachers at the school.
Teacher Tiffany Hill says that the WIN groups’ focus on math has “reduced the kids’ anxiety over math.” She also says that the WIN groups work because the kids get to see “all of us”– different members of the faculty all year long. And while someone’s teaching style may not work for one student, another teacher’s style may be a good fit.
Field Elementary starts teaching Mandarin Chinese in kindergarten. Because it’s a symbols-based language, says Rivera, acquiring Chinese uses different parts of your brain than studying languages like French or Spanish, or than learning to read in English.
Assessments– at least major ones– are typically products of “project based learning.” That means you’ll see far less of the “learn and burn” tests and quizzes and more demonstrative acts of learning.
The bulletin boards in the hallways are not full of instructive posters from text book companies, but instead of student projects.
Yes, some class time is spent in your typical desks-in-a-row, teacher-as-leader structure, but Rivera says structured time like that is a fraction of how the school day is spent.
Poke your head into a typical classroom, and you’ll see the teacher meeting with a small group or an individual child, groups of children working together on a project or assisting each other with their own work, children running through tutorials on the classroom computer and children working quietly by themselves.
“We have tons and tons of after school programming,” says Rivera. Much of that programming is thanks to the parents and families of students. She says that a grandparent started the choir and parents started fencing and cross-country (the Field girl’s team just one first place in JCPS). There are clubs for chess and computer app building and leadership and service. These clubs are at no cost or nominal cost for the students.
And lest you think that Field is one of those schools that is successful because it has a well-off, engaged parent community, know that 56 percent of Field students are on reduced or free lunch per the JCPS standards.
The school does have an awesome Parent Teachers Association, says Rivera. The PTA holds fundraisers, like the recent Field Trek Day, and raises around $12-14,000 a year earmarked for technology. The PTA is why most classes have a Smartboard, the school is Wifi enabled and why every room has a document camera (the new-fangled overhead projector, for you old schoolers).
There are two self contained special needs classrooms, one for students with autism and one for students with multiple disabilities. These students are mainstreamed as much as possible, and Rivera says that having a student with learning differences in a WIN group or classroom is “nothing to the kids. They think nothing of it.”
Rivera learned the ropes of Professional Learning Communities when she was a principal intern at Lowe Elementary. Field had to apply to be part of the JCPS PLC pilot program, but before she filled out the application, she put the program to a vote among her staff.
Rivera believes that the PLC and WIN group model can work “anywhere with any kid” and that it truly depends on the teachers.
She says that all 13 schools in the pilot program had gains, “overall it’s successful,” she says.
But, she says, “I really, really didn’t know it was going to work this well.”