Allston School Learns To Succeed MCAS Progress Hinged On A Word Of Advice

Nine-year-old Porsha Pierre-Mike walks briskly to the blackboard in her fourth-grade classroom at the Thomas Gardner Elementary School and erases, then fixes, a letter she knows should be capitalized. Her classmates and teacher cheer.

Even though Porsha is tired of the daily exercise, her teacher insists it will help students when they take the essay portion of MCAS exam in the spring. The next exercise: reading.

“The more reading you do, the better you will do on the MCAS,” is a mantra teacher Carol Shiba repeats to her students almost daily.

The advice is echoed throughout the Allston elementary school, where all 450 students wear identical maroon shirts. Here, it all begins with reading. Master that, say teachers, and you’re on your way to conquering other subjects.

The school’s intense focus on English led to some of the most improved MCAS scores among elementary schools statewide, according to a Globe analysis.

A typical day at the Gardner school begins with two hours devoted almost entirely to literacy. In a third-grade classroom, a group of four children read a book together on the rug while they wait for fellow students to finish their assignments. In a bilingual fourth-grade classroom, the teacher reads and translates into Spanish each line of a book.

Principal Catalina Montes believes Gardner’s high number of bilingual students – one out of four – has prompted teachers to focus on English skills. “We start by teaching them in their native language and keep at the pace of the students,” she said.

The school has identified 32 languages in its student body, indicative of an explosion in diversity that began four years ago, said Montes, who has been working at the Gardner for 12 years.

“MCAS doesn’t take into account that most people [at our school] go home and speak a different language,” she said.

The challenges don’t end there. As many as 80 percent of the school’s students live in poverty. Three years ago, the school teamed up with Boston College and area businesses to create a full-service school, including after-school programs and free medical and dental care.

The school also has hired psychologists from the Brighton-Allston Mental Health Clinic to help students with emotional problems. And BC offers night courses at Gardner for parents to learn English, earn a high school diploma, or learn ways to help their children with homework.

“We are trying to eliminate some of the barriers to learning and make them stronger students,” Montes said.

The focus on English began in 1999, after the 1998 scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessement System exam showed 45 percent of Gardner’s fourth-graders failed the subject.

The school’s fourth-grade bilingual teacher, Rita Rossi, recalled preparing students in two languages, including Spanish for newly-arrived immigrants.

“Some of the children would start crying in the middle of the test and there was nothing we could do,” Rossi said.

After the low scores, the school honed in on the test, using it for exercises like the one in Shiba’s class. Gardner also brought in more tutors to work with at-risk students, and teachers showed students better ways to organize their writing, calling it “graphic organizing.”

Some parents also stepped forward. “I talked with my daughter’s teacher about having something to prepare them for testing,” said Carolyn Earl, whose daughter is a sixth-grader. Earl suggested a practice test, so teachers sent some home.

It all paid off. The 1999 scores showed 91 percent of the fourth-graders scored above “failing” in English. Most of them scoring in the “needs improvement” category; only 9 percent failed. The number of students scoring in the top two levels – “proficient” and “advanced” – jumped to 14 percent, compared with 1.5 percent in 1998.

Hoping to build on that success – and realizing every fourth-grade class is different – the school decided that students taking the spring 2000 test needed a boost in attitude.

“This particular group was a little more negative about the test,” said Montes. “We tried to cheer them up.”

The school launched a countdown to the MCAS. Each student got a raffle ticket for every day they came to school and could win a prize at the end. The school held a party in which students danced to the song “YMCA,” using the letters MCAS instead. They held a pep rally the day before the test.

The school also told parents to make sure children got a nutritious meal and a good night’s sleep in the days before MCAS. “They encouraged that our children read every night and not watch TV because television is a distraction,” said Carmen Leon, the mother of 10-year-old Christina Leon.

Finally, on the day of the test, Montes gave each student a raisin before the exam. Someone had told her, “A little sugar in the morning gets the kids going.”

The school is hopeful the 2000 test results being released in October will show their effort was again worth it. SIDEBAR: Thomas Gardner Elementary School, Allston

Students: 450.

Student-teacher ratio: 16 to 1.

Students on free or reduced lunch: 80 percent.

Ethnic makeup: 56 percent Hispanic, 18 percent black, 13 percent white, 13 percent Asian.

1998 English MCAS scores: advanced, 0; proficient, 2 percent; needs improvement, 54 percent; failing, 45 percent.

1999 English MCAS scores: advanced, 2 percent; proficient, 12 percent; needs improvement, 77 percent; failing, 9 percent.

SOURCE: Gardner Elementary School, state Department of Education.

Eye On Education is a partnership of WGBH and The Boston Globe, with WILD 1090 AM.

Comments are closed.