Students and teachers optimistic about year

June 11, 2006|by KAREN HANNA

Editor's note: The Herald-Mail is tracking Washington County Public Schools' efforts to improve academic performance at Bester Elementary School. This is another in a yearlong periodic series.


In just a single year of extra help at Bester Elementary School, one struggling student demonstrated gains in his reading skills typical of the ground covered by two grade levels.

Now that school's out, his reading level is close to standards for his grade, but for one of Rich Armel's favorite students, all of that work catching up yielded an unexpected result.

According to the teacher, the boy has said he would like to change his last name - to Armel.

During visits to the school, most students appeared to respect teachers' directions to treat each other as family. According to school staff, they also made academic gains.


Though the Maryland State Department of Education has not yet released results of this spring's round of state testing, teachers and staff expressed guarded optimism as the school's first year of restructuring came to a close.

"My gut reaction to how we did is we did as well or better than we did last year," Assistant Principal Teri Williamson said.

On Monday, a banner near the entrance proclaimed Bester a 2005 National Title I Distinguished School. A sign greeted students with the long-awaited words, "last day of school." According to the State Department of Education, the National Association of State Title I Directors recognized the school for dramatically closing achievement gaps among groups such as minorities and students with disabilities between 2004 and 2005.

The Title I program provides federal resources to schools with large numbers of economically disadvantaged students.

As she left school for the summer, one third-grader ticked off the subjects she had learned about this school year.

"We learned about the human body, and we got to write about animals, and we wrote about smart solutions, and we learned about how to do multiplication," said 8-year-old Taryn Miller, who admitted she was looking forward to a break.

"I'm kinda sad because I'm going to miss my teacher, but I'm kinda happy because I don't have to do (any) more work," she said.

Catching up

Williamson was one of just 17 staff members who remained after school system officials went ahead with plans to shake up the staff and add time and money to professional development and student intervention efforts. Even Armel was new to the school.

According to the State Department of Education, less than 60 percent of fourth-graders read at grade level, and less than 70 percent of third-graders performed math at grade level last year. Almost half of the fifth-grade class could not read or perform the math work expected of their grade level. That group of students began this year in middle school.

Because of low family income, almost 79 percent of students qualified for reduced-price and free school lunches.

Interventions allowed many students, including the boy in Armel's sessions, to catch up, according to figures provided Friday by Williamson.

According to Williamson, 205 students participated in extra sessions during the school day this year to address lagging skills in math and reading. Of the 171 students who showed progress, 86 left school for the summer performing at the levels expected of students at their grade levels, Williamson said.

Most of the 34 students who failed to show progress are so severely disabled they qualify to take alternative state assessments tailored to their abilities. None of them fell further behind during the year, Williamson said.

"It's a collaboration of classroom teachers and intervention teachers talking about, 'Now, what do we do to move this child forward?'" Williamson said.

Those conversations often occurred during time set aside as part of the restructuring process, she said.

Classroom teachers said they saw their students catch up with classmates and even surpass grade-level expectations.

As the testing season bore down on her class, fifth-grade teacher Tiffany Tresler said she was pressing to make sure students understood end-of-the-year concepts in time for March's state tests.

"It is like a whirlwind of high-paced instruction, fast-paced instruction," Tresler said.

Though she said she was nervous about the testing, Tresler said she had confidence her students would meet the challenge.

"We've been doing so much, I really think they're going to do very well," Tresler said.

'We'll be fine'

With tests behind them, students and teachers worked to clean out rooms Monday. The smell of orange cleaner wafted from one classroom, while kindergartners shoved carts of books down a hallway in another part of the building.

Posters saying, "Thank (sic) for being the best teacher in the world," hung outside some teachers' doors.

Like Armel, Lisa Hatcher said she has grown close to her students.

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