Taylor Ray Elementary Beats the Odds, Achieving Near-Perfect Proficiency
The numbers tell the odds facing Taylor Ray, a largely Hispanic elementary school in Rosenberg, Texas, 35 miles southwest of Houston: three-fourths of its 701 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; more than one-quarter are English language learners; 13 percent have special needs; and nearly one in five transfer each year.
But the numbers also confirm that the school is thriving: according to preliminary 2008 adequate yearly progress (AYP) data, a remarkable 98 percent of students tested on the state exam scored at or above grade level in both reading and math.
In fact, for the past three years, student proficiency rates at the school have been at or above 90 percent in all subjects testedreading, writing, math and science. And, this year, having ranked in the top 10 percent of results on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills even with a significant disadvantaged population, Taylor Ray became only the second school in the Lamar Consolidated Independent School District to receive the No Child Left Behind-Blue Ribbon Schools award.
Principal Diane Parks during her visit to Washington for the Blue Ribbon ceremony.
Photos courtesy of Taylor Ray Elementary School.
Safety patrols Edmundo and Marie raise the Blue Ribbon flag on the school's lawn.
Special education teacher Donald Clark co-teaches a fifth-grade math class.
"I'm extremely blessed that I have an excellent staff," says Principal Diane Parks, who is in her eighth year of leadership at Taylor Ray. "One of our greatest strengths is that we build relationships with students and families. And, because my teachers have been here a long time, they also have that same kind of relational capacity with the other staff members."
She says it has been the longevity of her veteran staff, many of whom have taught students' older siblings and even their parents, that has provided constancy in a school with a student mobility rate of 18 percent.
Much of the turnover stems from families who reside temporarily with other family members, explains Parks. Although most of the moves are within the school district or to a neighboring district, she says some find it difficult to live independently elsewhere and consequently return, often re-enrolling their children at Taylor Ray.
"So when they come into our school it's like coming home," says Parks, who was named Texas' 2007 National Distinguished Principal. "They know that we're going to care for their child. They know that we're going to help them with whatever resources they need."
That support includes anything from buying school supplies and clothes to providing extra academic help before and after school. Two days a week, fifth-grade teachers stay until four o'clock, with no supplemental pay, for the Homework Club. Also, every day for half an hour before school starts, the school's instructional specialists work with at-risk students.
"I can't change that kids move around. I can't change that kids come from poverty. I can't change that they may have parents who are unable or unwilling to help them. But we do have control of what we do every day here at school," says Parks.
Taylor Ray also has a mentoring program for third- through fifth-graders to ensure students receive attention on more than their academic lives. The mentoring involves the entire staff, including the cafeteria workers, whom Parks counts as critical to students' success. Considering that 73 percent of the children receive federally subsidized meals, including breakfast, most times the cafeteria staff "are the first people that the kids see when they come to school," she says.
Parent Sherri Snedecor says the genuine care the staff has for the children is apparent. Initially, when she enrolled her son at Taylor Ray two years ago, she says she was apprehensive about having to transfer him from a private to a public school following their relocation to the area. "I couldn't stand it. But I thought, [one year in] kindergarten won't kill him, and at least he'll be on the waiting list and get in next year. And after kindergarten, I was like, 'This is the best school ever. I'm never moving him.' ... It has made a difference in himnot only his education but his social skills. He wakes up every morning and wants to go to school. He has good relationships with more than just the teacher who's actually in his class."
CloAnn Adamcik, a paraprofessional who formerly taught at a Christian school before coming to Taylor Ray, also was surprised by the familial atmosphere of the school, where teachers greet students every morning with a hug or handshake. She says their efforts to develop relationships with the students have been the cornerstone of their achievement. "If you do not demonstrate that [concern], you would not have a good rapport with the child. And a child that doesn't have a good rapport with you is not going to want to learn as much."
The engagement of the students is clearly evident in test score data that shows them achieving not only at benchmark but also at advanced levels. For instance, 64 percent of fifth-grade students in 2008 scored a "commended" rating on the state's math exam, the highest mark attainable.
While Taylor Ray's scores were not at alarming levels when Parks arrived in 2002, there existed only "pockets of excellence," she says, "pockets of teachers doing good things, but they were only looking at the children in their own class."
So she put systems into place that got everyone to "row together." One key approach was the implementation of teams comprising at least one teacher from each grade level meeting once a month to focus on a curriculum, such as reading, math, writing, science or technology. These discipline-based teams ensure the alignment of curricula and instructional strategies across grades so every educator understands what students have learned, what they are currently learning, and what they are expected to learn in the future. Intended not only to build collaboration among teachers but also to empower them as leaders, "vertical teams" are responsible for implementing, monitoring and adjusting, when needed, the school's academic programs.
In addition, every other week grade-level teams meet for an extended planning time, thanks to a flexible schedule that affords them an hourexpanding the district's customary 45-minute conference periodto collaborate, develop common assessments and discuss interventions for struggling students.
This power base is the reason Parks uses the bulk of her Title I budget (federal dollars for high-poverty schools) to expand human resources. With these funds, she has hired additional tutors, paraprofessionals and instructional specialists.
Taylor Ray's five reading and math specialists serve as teacher-experts that model lessons for other teachers, co-teach and work with individual students. They also meet with the vertical teams to develop teaching strategies and identify necessary resources for improving student achievement.
Special education teacher Donald Clark believes teaming with the instructional specialists is largely the reason they have been successful with their special needs population. Instead of waiting until students qualify for special education, usually in second or third grade, the specialists intervene as early as the first grade, helping to build students' phonetic, fluency and comprehension skills. The early intervention has resulted in fewer children being identified for special services, and he says the students are coming in with continually higher performance levels.
Moreover, Clark, who has taught special education at Taylor Ray since it opened in 1979, believes the children are now better prepared for the school's newly adopted inclusion program, in which students with disabilities are integrated into regular education classrooms. He says because Parks chose to use the school's discretionary funds to add instructional experts rather than solely buy extra computers, the school is adequately staffed to handle the inclusion model. "The regular ed teachers don't feel like they're carrying the whole load. ... If you're a first-grade teacher and you've got five kids that are not progressing, here comes the specialists on their white horses."
Children lagging behind are given intensive instruction either one-on-one during class or separately in small groups. There is a 90-minute class especially for struggling readers, which is team-taught by a reading facilitator, a classroom teacher and a special education teacher.
"Never in 30 years have I seen such a proficient school run like this," adds Clark, who won the Lifetime Achievement Award, a $25,000 honorarium for educators sponsored by the Texas-based retail food chain H-E-B.
He also credits the district for administering assessments at the lower grades (state benchmarks begin at the third grade), which are among a battery of tests the school uses to identify gaps in student learning.
Another district initiative, celebrated by both staff and parents for broadening the educational opportunities at Taylor Ray, is the dual language program. The Lamar Consolidated Independent School District piloted the program four years ago at elementary schools with significant English language learner (ELL) populations, when it found research that proved two-way immersion provided the best long-term benefits for the bilingual student.
Using the same strategy as the inclusion model for special education, the dual language program mixes students learning English or Spanish with those who are already native speakers. Class time is divided equally between learning Spanish and English and is led collaboratively by teachers of both languages. Because the goal is to have students bilingual and biliterate by the end of the fifth grade, parents must make a three-year commitment to enroll English-speaking students.
Over the two years her second-grade son has participated, Snedecor has seen growth in his fluency in Spanish, evidenced by his ability to communicate with Spanish speakers when they have been shopping in town. She is certain the language experience will give him an advantage that she wishes she had working in a predominantly Hispanic community. "I feel like it's something that he's getting that I couldn't have even paid for him to get," she says.
The Lamar school district is also the driving force behind the technology in this high-poverty school, which is equipped with interactive whiteboards, science lab equipment, and, most recently, three carts loaded each with eight laptop computers. "The children that are coming into our schools today are very much plugged in, and then we ask them to unplug themselves and sit in front of a green chalkboard," says Parks about the need for technology.
And, in view of today's generation being much more tech-savvy than its older counterparts, she applauds the district's commitment to integrating technology in the classroom beyond just providing hardware and software. This summer, selected teachers at each of the district's 34 schools received training on devices ranging from computers to iPods. Parks and her staff followed up the training with the implementation of a vertical team for technology to replicate the knowledge at their campus.
The challenge of keeping students on the cutting edge of a society that increasingly is becoming global is a significant challenge, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, says Parks. To enrich their education, the staff is using multiple approaches, along with technology, to connect children to the outside world, including the fine arts programs in the community and after-school clubs that explore the sciences and the media.
"My goal is to have everything seamless," says Parks about the various pathways for learning. Then referring to a book she recently read that examined how companies moved from ordinary to extraordinary with no silver bullet method, she continues, "I asked the staff, 'Who can name the one thing we did that brought us to this place?' And you can't. To me, it's the dedication, the discipline and, at the end of the day, the hard work that has paid off over time for us."
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