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October 2008 Achiever
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 October 2008 Achiever • Vol. 7, No. 6
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Stuart Elementary Handles Children, Community With Care

Demographics
  • Grade Span: Pre-K-5
  • Locale: Urban
  • Total Students: 357
  • Race/Ethnicity Enrollment: 99% African American, 1% white
  • Free or Reduced-Price Lunch Eligible: 92%
  • English Language Learners: 1%
  • Special Education Students: 17%
  • Percentage Proficient (based on results on the 2008 state exam): 95% reading, 93% math, 94% science


"Today, class, we're going to cover SOL 3.1, scientific investigations," says Frenishee Smith, a third-grade teacher at J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School in Richmond, Va., referring to Virginia's Standards of Learning. "What do you have on your body that helps you make observations?"

"Your brain," answers one student.

"Exactly, because your brain tells everything what to do. That's our computer. What else?"

After each student called upon names the five different senses, Smith pulls out from her desk drawer an empty food can covered with a black sock and little colored pom-poms. "Before we go on, I want to introduce you to my field can," she says, which is met with a few giggles. "Today we're only going to use our sense of touch to figure out what's inside my can."

As the students wiggle their hands past the sock's opening into the container, broad grins spread across their faces in confident awareness of the hidden object.

"Alright, give me a word to describe how this object feels." Hands shoot into the air with excitement.

    See caption below
Teacher Frenishee Smith covers a science lesson with third-grader Ceraia.
Photos courtesy of Stuart Elementary School.

See caption below
Principal Jennifer Moore reads with a group of pre-kindergarteners.

See caption below
Ashia and Dermonedra dress for the school's fall festival.

"Round ... fuzzy ... hard ... light" are most of the responses.

"Who thinks they know what's in my can?"

The children are halfway out of their seats with eager arms waving. Someone gives the correct answer: a tennis ball.

This kind of engaging instruction helps to explain why, at one of the poorest schools in the state's capital, more than 90 percent of the students in grades 3-5 have passed state standards in reading, math and science (95 percent, 93 percent and 94 percent, respectively). High-performing despite facing high needs, Stuart has been a Title I Distinguished School for three years running and is the first school in Richmond Public Schools awarded the Blue Ribbon honor by the U.S. Department of Education.

For Stuart's educators, serving a majority ethnic population, with a mobility rate of 28 percent and an overwhelming poverty rate of 92 percent (for students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch), is a challenge but one that simply requires a little more effort to overcome.

"I'm devoted to giving them the extra," says Smith—referring to what she calls her "bag of tricks," including her field can, to bolster student learning—"so they're not missing something that other schools without this kind of demographics are getting. I try to bring in those experiences that they may not receive at home. ... They may not spend time with their parents in the grocery store. Or their parents may not know how to make the grocery store a teachable moment."

That is why Stuart's principal believes in a holistic approach to educating its children. Jennifer Moore, who stands at the front door every morning to greet each student, says, "A lot of our babies come to us with outside influences that we have to address before we can address the academics." For instance, Moore and her staff will ensure a child arriving late who has not had breakfast eats before beginning class, or they will arrange bus vouchers for a student living in a homeless shelter to get to and from school. And, in extreme cases, a social worker may be called to intervene.

Concern for the children's welfare extends to the community as well, as Stuart serves as a place where former students in the neighborhood are welcome to use the school's computer lab after hours to do homework and parents in need of faxing documents receive assistance from office personnel in the absence of such media in their homes.

According to Jan Stilwell, the district's Title I instructional specialist, like many of today's successful schools, Stuart regularly implements student assessments, data analysis and differentiated instruction. Even more than that, she says, it distinguishes itself by "the care that goes into the school—how they touch the kids and bring in the parents and the community. Because without the support of the parents and the community, it's hard to get it all done. Their success has really stemmed from that open door policy."

An example of this inclusiveness is the School Planning and Management Team, which assembles administrators, teachers, parents and community representatives to decide the direction of Stuart. The school's partnership with the community includes local churches that send volunteer tutors, and big businesses, such as Chick-fil-A and Wal-Mart, that have helped to fund incentives awarding students on the honor roll and those with perfect attendance or who have read extensively.

As part of its outreach to parents, particularly in view of them being young, Stuart offers monthly classes on a range of topics from effectively disciplining a child to earning a GED. "We have to be kind of a support system for them ... to let them know that they can [support their children] at home and they can support us," says Smith, who was voted by her colleagues as Stuart's Teacher of the Year. Each quarter, she invites parents into her classroom for a firsthand look at what their children are learning.

Maintaining these community connections, especially with students' families, is why Moore says she is "big on communication, because if you don't know what's going on, you can't help."

Almost daily, teachers send students home with homework assignment books, which parents must sign, and, weekly, provide a newsletter that includes a list of school events and academic objectives being taught. Vodra Harris, who enrolled her four children in Stuart earlier this year, particularly appreciates receiving the progress reports each week, "not just every nine weeks," she says, in comparison to her children's previous school.

In addition to strong parent and community involvement, another key component that accounts for Stuart's high performance is the curriculum guidance given by the district. Richmond Public Schools' "Charting the Course" document provides a comprehensive accountability plan that drives instruction for the year: it outlines assessment results and remedial strategies for all subgroups of students in order to monitor progress toward achieving specified objectives. Another resource, the "Curriculum Compass," vividly graphs for teachers how to pace instruction so that the state standards are taught within the curriculum. It requires incorporation of small groups, hands-on activities, peer tutoring and guided practice into daily lessons.

Stuart also employs a variety of literacy-building initiatives, including the homegrown activity Reading Night, an evening celebrating literacy with students and parents reading together, intended to encourage reading as a family tradition. Wanda Heath, the school's media specialist, hosts the event and is looking to kick off this year with a one-thousand book challenge for faculty and students, as well as a book buddy program that will pair older children with younger ones, specifically those struggling to read.

Hoping to instill in the students a passion for reading, Heath has decorated the media center with much care. Shelves are lined with memorabilia, figurines and toys in the fashion of a children's museum, which include American Girl dolls, a jukebox cassette player that was once her son's, and a flute she bought on a class trip to an Indian reservation. One eye-catching space is a charming corner furnished with two rocking chairs, end tables and lamps, and beanbags. "Kids like to be cozy," she explains. "It makes them feel at home."

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Last Modified: 10/02/2008