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Saturday, February 9, 2008

High-poverty -- AND high-achieving

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Saturday, Feb 9, 2008


What's going on at Pinewood Elementary?

Superintendent Peter Gorman and the school board want to know. Frustrated by slow progress and setbacks at most high-poverty schools, Gorman asked his staff to crunch some numbers and find bright spots.

Pinewood popped out. More than 80 percent of children in this south Charlotte school live in poverty, yet they're passing state tests at rates that leave other schools in the dust.

Principal Nancy Guzman calls her strategies simple, if sometimes controversial.

She groups kids by ability, with strong teachers and tiny classes for the weakest and a faster pace for high fliers.

Students do daily timed drills reading passages out loud, a boon to children who don't speak English fluently.

And in a district known for mandates from central offices, she has seized academic freedom for her faculty.

"Anything that I want to try, she supports me," third-grade teacher Natasha Pegram says. "It helps to have an administrator that isn't like, `Follow the book! Follow the book!' "

Gorman says he can live with that. He's been asking his staff about Guzman's approach, and says he believes she's "making great decisions for her school."

"The formula that they are using works for the school and community," he said.

High fliers soar

Last summer, Kurt Thompson was skeptical of ability grouping.

The fifth-year teacher was transferring to Pinewood from Steele Creek Elementary, a lower-poverty school that includes high and low performers in each class.

He landed with 24 of Pinewood's top third-graders, and no assistant to help. He was wary.

Last week every hand in class waved eagerly as Thompson led a discussion on the branches of government.

Students proposed new "laws" for their class: Replace math with recess. Require students to keep the classroom clean. They debated penalties for infractions: Silent lunch? A day in jail?

Earlier they'd wrapped up a reading lesson on "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." One girl assumed the role of a spoiled brat in Roald Dahl's book, trying to explain herself to classmates. Then everyone wrote letters to the fictional characters.

Thompson has a new take on ability grouping: "It's awesome."

His biggest stretch: Challenging the two gifted students in his class.

Gifted enrollment tends to track affluence. Pinewood has 12 gifted students, compared with 164 at Hawk Ridge, a low-poverty school farther south.

"I would put my children up against Hawk Ridge or anywhere else," Thompson insists.

Numbers suggest that's not an empty boast. Last year 92 percent of Pinewood's gifted kids scored "above grade level" on state exams, similar to Hawk Ridge's results and better than the CMS average for gifted students.

Intensive help

Down the hall, Pegram was introducing new reading techniques for her struggling third-graders.

She, an assistant and a student teacher work with 14 children.

The students wrote letters with their fingers in plates of sand. They worked on a sight word -- "and" -- by writing it in cursive and print, tracing it with their fingers, and tapping their outstretched arm as they spelled aloud: "A-n-d. And."

The new exercises are part of the Orton-Gillingham program, generally used for children with learning disabilities. Guzman wants to use it for all of Pinewood's youngest students, as well as older ones who lag in reading. She believes using sound, touch and motion will reach kids who don't pick up reading just by looking at letters.

So, shortly after CMS offered the training, Pegram gave it a trial run. She was dismayed when she did baseline testing. Two students couldn't identify sounds made by letters of the alphabet, something kindergartners are expected to master.

One of them had arrived at Pinewood from Puerto Rico the week before, speaking little English and lacking clothes warm enough for a Charlotte winter.

That kind of challenge scares some teachers away from high-poverty schools. But Pegram, who has been at Pinewood nine years, loves it. She insists on working with the lowest-scoring kids.

Her work, she says, is about building confidence, setting high standards and celebrating success: "I don't believe in `never.' I don't believe in `can't.' "

Many of Pegram's students have disabilities or are learning English. Some are being raised by grandparents, or by parents who work such long hours that their kids get little supervision, she says.

She works to help them pass exams, but that's not enough: "I'm teaching them how to look in someone's eyes when they're talking to you. I'm teaching them there's street conversations and there's formal conversations."

Award-winning maverick

Guzman, 57, came to Pinewood nine years ago, after retiring from S.C. public schools. She won national honors in both states.

She likes a lot of what she sees in CMS, and considers Gorman less heavy-handed than predecessors. But she's not afraid to test limits.

Guzman doesn't expect her staff to use the "Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support" system recommended by district officials. Her teachers do fine, she says, with high expectations and common-sense discipline.

When the fourth-graders started making messes and intimidating younger children in the restrooms, their teachers restricted bathroom privileges and warned that offenders might end up donning rubber gloves to help with cleanup.

Was that OK? Writing teacher Rhonda Broom asked Guzman afterward.

Sure, Guzman grinned. She gave a couple of kids bathroom duty last year.

Guzman is currently at odds with CMS's special-education folks over the latest push for "inclusion," putting students with disabilities into regular classes.

It often works well, she says. Pinewood has more than two dozen kids in such settings, and last year they passed state exams at twice the rate of disabled kids districtwide.

But Guzman says officials have lost sight of what's best for individual children in their zeal to push a program.

One recent morning, Guzman stepped into a kindergarten class, where a boy wailed for a baby doll. "Baby! Baby!" he sobbed.

Guzman sighed. The child speaks only a few words. He has tested as having the mind of a 2-year-old, she says, and disrupts class unless an assistant tends to him full time. She has repeatedly asked to have him placed in a special-ed classroom, she says, only to get denials and demands for additional testing.

Guzman believes all educators should seek out new ideas. At a conference at Harvard University, she picked up on "fluency drills," or having students repeatedly practice reading passages aloud.

Students time each other. All week they do the same passage, charting their progress and building confidence.

In Kelly Case's fifth-grade class, students read a passage on hydroelectricity. Some stumbled on words such as "generators" and "irrepressible," but overall read well. Justin Malcolm finished 135 words, up from 114 at the start of the week.

"When I read it I mess up a lot of words," he said, "but when I read it again I get more better at it."

Teachers report students' progress quarterly. At the start of the year, Case's kids, the weakest in reading, were logging 45 to 146 words per minute. The fastest reader has moved to a higher-level class. The slowest is up to 128 words a minute.

Meanwhile, the top fifth-graders are testing one another on seventh-grade reading.

What's next?

Pinewood can't coast. State reading tests are expected to get tougher to pass this year.

And success stories at high-poverty schools often end with the departure of strong principals or key staff.

Pegram, the third-grade teacher, has earned her certificate in administration. She wants to lead her own high-poverty school.

Like other teachers at Pinewood, she scoffs at talk of forcing experienced teachers into such schools. Pegram wants only "teachers who want to be here, that love these children."

On a recent Thursday Guzman e-mailed Gorman about some of her own aspirations: She'd like to pull together a team to turn around a low-performing school.

Or become principal of an all-girls middle school, if CMS would try such a venture.

He e-mailed her back on Friday, and called her first thing Monday morning.

"He was very interested," Guzman said.

What works?

Here are some of the things Pinewood Principal Nancy Guzman and her faculty say create high test scores at a high-poverty school.


The weakest students are in very small classes with a strong teacher and an assistant. Advanced students are in larger classes that move faster.


Pinewood students participate in Accelerated Reader, a widely used program that encourages students to read books they enjoy, and do regular "fluency drills," in which students repeatedly check each other to see how fast and accurately they can read short passages out loud.


Guzman decides which CMS programs work well for her students, and gives teachers freedom to make their own choices as long as they get results. For instance, the fourth-grade team decided to specialize by subject, with their students changing classes for reading, math, writing and science/social studies.

Beat the odds

Here are some other CMS schools that score much better than poverty levels would predict:

Garinger's New Technology High: This experimental small school was created last school year with about 100 freshmen, about two-thirds from low-income homes. The eastside school logged some of the district's highest scores. Still to be seen: Will success continue as the school grows to include grades 9-12?

Collinswood Language Academy: This magnet elementary school in south Charlotte offers dual-immersion teaching in English and Spanish. All types of students, including those who are just learning English, significantly outscore similar students statewide and across CMS. Just over half the kids are poor, and 58 percent are Hispanic.

First Ward Elementary: This center-city school combines neighborhood students and a magnet program that uses techniques developed for gifted kids. Most students are low-income and African American; they outperform similar groups statewide and in CMS.

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