Bester improvement exceeds expectations

June 25, 2006|by KAREN HANNA

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

HAGERSTOWN - Two weeks after school closed for the summer, 9-year-old Sabrina was too shy to share her thoughts on what she had learned, but her mother hardly could hold back.

"On reading, she was below grade level, and now she's at grade level," Dorothy Atha said as her soon-to-be fifth-grade daughter bashfully turned away.

"Yes, we are thrilled about our test scores," Atha said.

At Bester Elementary School, where new teachers joined a handful of veterans in an improvement campaign this year, Sabrina's success hardly was isolated.


According to results released Tuesday by the Maryland State Department of Education, more than 81 percent of fourth-graders demonstrated reading proficiency on the 2006 Maryland School Assessment, compared to about 73 percent last year, when Sabrina and her classmates were third-graders.

The results from both the third- and fourth-grade classes reflect double-digit increases in the percentage of students who achieved proficiency on the tests from last year to this year.

Although the fifth-grade class did not record such strong gains, it, too, registered improvement, according to the assessment results.

"I think we surpassed expectations, the students did great," said Denise Greene, one of two full-time intervention teachers at the school. "They worked so hard, it makes you teary-eyed."

According to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, all schools must achieve 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

For Atha, credit for the success goes to people such as Rich Armel, an intervention teacher who began working with Sabrina when her teacher and Principal Kathy Stiles realized she was struggling with reading.

"Within the first two weeks that she was working with him, she was reading more often, and she could tell me what the stuff was about that she'd read," Atha said.

She also commended Stiles and teacher Kris McGee.

Progress ... and tears

Bester, which has been among the poorest and lowest-performing of the schools in the county school system, has completed its first year of a three-year restructuring effort. All teachers applied for their jobs last year, and they each earned $5,000 extra in exchange for taking part in professional development and working longer days.

According to a Herald-Mail analysis of data of the state results, about 78 percent of Bester's third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students performed to state standards on math and reading tests this spring.

In 2004, the first year the state required fourth-graders to take the tests, only about half of the school's students in grades three through five demonstrated proficiency on the tests.

Unlike Bester, the state and the school system have gained only a few percentage points in proficiency levels since 2004.

In 2006, 82.7 percent of Washington County students in grades three through five demonstrated proficiency on reading tests, and 83.4 percent demonstrated proficiency on math tests.

The state's proficiency levels on both tests were slightly lower - about 78 percent.

On individual tests at each grade level, Bester gained between 7.2 percentage points and 22.6 percentage points, according to the state results.

"We were happy, we were proud," Stiles said. "I'm proud of my teachers and my kids. There were a lot of hugs yesterday. And tears."

According to Stiles, the entire community pulled together for the children's success.

On Wednesday, she flipped through scraps of orange paper on which she had written contact information for people and groups who already have offered to help next year.

"I definitely need that help because at a school like this, it does take everybody because if you don't have the pieces in place, it's not going to happen," said Stiles, who was principal for two years at Eastern Elementary School, where the county piloted its restructuring approach.

'You are here to learn'

While more than 80 percent of third- and fourth-graders demonstrated proficiency on the tests, fewer than 70 percent of fifth-graders performed to standards, according to the state results.

Fifth-graders were behind when they started school in the fall, and many were not used to the expectations placed on the school when it began restructuring, Stiles said.

"I just have high expectations, not just with academics, but with discipline," Stiles said. "You are here to learn, and we are here to teach you."

Robert Brown, coordinator of testing and accountability, said the school system does not figure students' overall performance of all students in grades three through five because it is more focused on the achievement of students from one grade to the next and within demographic categories.

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