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Winter St., Western Heights students' test scores jump

July 22, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

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WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Maybe it was the pep rallies or parental involvement or specialized attention paid to students.

Perhaps extra staff training time or motivational speakers or adult mentoring provided a boost.

Principals at Winter Street Elementary and Western Heights Middle schools said many factors led to their schools' sharp gains in this year's Maryland School Assessment (MSA) exams.

Most of all, Western Heights Principal Stephen P. Tarason said, students have grown convinced they can do well on the test and in other pursuits.

"They believe in themselves and they know they can learn," he said.

This year's MSA results were celebrated this week in Washington County, where every public elementary and middle school met minimum proficiency levels. School district officials said only three public school systems in Maryland accomplished that, although a state Department of Education spokesman couldn't confirm that Wednesday.

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Test-score gains at Western Heights and Winter Street were among those the system highlighted when announcing results Tuesday.

Those two schools are among four that have gone through a restructuring program in recent years because they were underperforming.

Eastern Elementary and Bester Elementary, which have completed the program, showed marked improvement within the last several years.

From 2005 to 2006, Bester's proficiency level went up 16.5 percentage points in reading and 14.9 points in math.

Eastern's level increased 33.8 points in reading and 24.3 points in math from 2003 to 2005.

This year, Western Heights and Winter Street had some of the district's biggest gains on the MSA, which is given annually to students in grades 3 through 8.

Western Heights' reading proficiency percentage went up 14.1 points in one year, from 64.0 percent to 78.1 percent. Math proficiency rose 9.6 points.

Winter Street -- a feeder school for Western Heights -- was up 9.9 points in reading and 6.1 points in math.

School officials in Washington County and elsewhere work feverishly to attain Adequate Yearly Progress, which is based on the percentage of students who score at or above the proficiency level. The minimum standard rises each year, as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Winter Street and Western Heights have completed their three-year restructuring but are continuing for at least one more year.

As part of the school system's restructuring process, school employees had to reapply for their jobs.

Tarason, who just finished his second year at Western Heights, said 95 percent of the teachers were new to the school and fairly new to the profession.

Principal Matt Semler said staff turnover at Winter Street, where he has been for three years, was about 70 percent.

Western Heights has developed a new atmosphere, Tarason said: Students know they can turn to any adult for help, and even get a ride to school.

With so many new employees, both schools have worked to win students' and parents' trust. Parents are invited to school often for events, to see their children's work or to talk with teachers.

Cindy Moir, whose son just completed sixth grade at Western Heights, said she was concerned about wholesale changes the year before her son started school there. But this past year, she found the staff hard-working and encouraging.

Working with children in small groups or individually, Winter Street employees highlight and analyze all manners of progress, Semler said.

Milestones might be small yet meaningful -- a child advances two reading levels in a month, another starts an on-time streak after a history of attendance problems.

Tarason said many parts of school life and academics are connected. "If attendance is up and behavior problems are down, (scores on) tests will go up," he said.

Both schools try to get students enthused. Before and during the two-week MSA testing period, students held a pep rally, held spirit week, watched messages on DVD and heard from the North and South Hagerstown high school principals.

Second-graders made posters for third-graders.

Parents wrote motivational notes that were tucked in goody bags for their children.

Moir said she wrote for her son, "You rock, dude. You make us proud."

She agreed that positive thinking has inspired students to do better.

"They definitely have teachers telling them every day: 'You can, you can, you can,'" she said.

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