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Clifty Creek, Hope elementaries take steps to boost scores

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The only two public schools in Bartholomew County to see failing grades on a controversial state scoring system are taking steps they believe will improve those grades next school year.

Clifty Creek Elementary, which is part of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., and Hope Elementary, which is part of the Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp., received Fs under the state’s A-F accountability system released Oct. 31.

For Clifty Creek, it was the second F in a row. For Hope, it was a decline from the D it received this past school year.

Officials have taken steps to improve performance at both schools, even as newly elected State Superintendent Glenda Ritz prepares to take office in January.

Ritz, an elementary school library media specialist in Indianapolis, has pledged to roll back many of current State Superintendent Tony Bennett’s initiatives, including A-F, which Ritz said unfairly evaluates schools based on too few criteria.

Clifty Creek has the highest percentage of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches of any BCSC elementary school. In the 2011-12 school year, almost 76 percent of the students, or 457 out of 603, were eligible to receive help with lunch purchases, a standard measure of students from low-income families.

Clifty Creek also had the second-highest percentage of Hispanic students among BCSC elementary schools, with 22 percent, or 134 out of 603 students in the 2011-12 school year. The only school with a higher percentage was Taylorsville, with 34 percent.

This past year, the school had the second-highest percent of English Language Learning students (18 percent) in the school district and the highest percentage of special education students (20 percent).

Clifty Creek this year implemented project-based learning, a hands-on concept practiced elsewhere in the Bartholomew Consolidated school system that helps children learn by reinforcing their experiences through real-life examples.

One of those examples came in preparation for a sock hop. However, making the activity a reality depended on first-graders’ ability to raise money. That meant selling decorated pencils to others in the school and learning to count money.

So it could effectively teach the project-based concepts, Clifty Creek brought in a new principal and new assistant principal and replaced 17 out of 26 of its teachers, said Teresa Heiny, director of elementary education for the school district.

“You can see our new approach is working by looking at the students’ faces,” said Cynthia Frost, principal of Clifty Creek. “They’re smiling and are involved more than they were before.”

She said not all teachers wanted to be a part of the new culture of project-based learning. Some teachers retired while others were shuffled to other schools in the school district.

Frost said the school system also has been phasing in computer tablets and other technology to give students the tools they need to take their learning to the next level.

“We’re training these kids to be 21st-century learners,” she said. “It’s not the same world as it used to be. Our skill sets have changed.”

Other changes resulting from the school’s poor performance on the state grading system was a new emphasis on improving math and English scores, which are the areas that the A-F Accountability system values the most.

Students read every day. They interact with one another. They divide into groups based on individual ability so teachers or helpers can work at the advanced pace of the more advanced students and remediate the students who lag behind.

Angela Kirkham, a fifth-grade teacher at Clifty Creek, said she has been using “KidBiz 3000,” a computer program that quizzes students on their reading ability and creates versions of reading material consistent with that ability for each child. Though versions are different, the story is the same. That enables students of all levels to discuss the stories together.

“It makes them feel good,” Kirkham said.

Mindy Hall, president of the Clifty Creek parent-teacher organization and the mother of a first-grader, said she can see academic improvement in her daughter this year and gets a better feeling than before when she walks into the school.

Hall said she was surprised with the school’s latest failing grade, given that she was beginning to see improvement this past year. She said she is confident those improvements will begin to crystallize in stronger scores next school year because of what she describes as a new feeling of optimism.

“Cynthia (Frost) told us upfront that she wanted to make this a great school,” Hall said. “I think that’s happening.”

Lori Eng, who has taught for 31 years at Clifty Creek, said the “Guided Reading” curriculum her first-graders are using is making a noticeable difference in their reading ability.

Her students divide up into five stations for 30 minutes each day. For example, students in one station work with the teacher, while students in another station work on their writing.

In one corner of Eng’s classroom on a recent Tuesday, Olivia England and Lilly Combs took turns reading a book about animals to each other. When one girl struggled to pronounce a word, the other would help her through to the next sentence.

Eng said she likes to pair students so the more advanced ones work with those who struggle. She said that helps give students the attention they need on a more individual basis.

Hope Elementary School is implementing some similar approaches to bringing its grades up in English and math.

Lisa Smith, principal at Hope, said she is encouraged by her students’ confidence.

“This year is completely different,” she said. “We’re refining our teaching strategies, and we’re just doing better and better.”

Students there break off into groups based on their skill levels. Teachers are refining their teaching strategies. They are finding ways to help students grow, regardless of whether certain students are advanced or lag behind their peers.

Smith said school administrators have developed another educational approach, one in which they pinpoint four specific students to track and assess to help tweak class curriculum.

Two of those students are in the lower-scoring echelon of their class. The other two are in the middle-scoring echelon.

If any or all of those students fail to make progress, teachers and school administrators know something is wrong and might need to try a different educational strategy.

“We all sit and brainstorm,” Smith said. “If there’s still no improvement, we get advice from the speech pathologist.”

Smith said by focusing on those four, they can make certain assumptions about many of the other students and find solutions that suits everyone’s needs.

At Hope Elementary School, 50 percent of the students receive free or reduced price lunches, and about 3 percent are Hispanic. Only 1 percent of the Hope students are English Language Learners, but 20 percent are in special education.

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