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When Linda Mikels came to Victorville, Calif.'s Sixth Street Prep School as its new principal, she faced a tough academic challenge.
For three straight years, students at the school had been learning less and scoring lower on state tests. The majority of them qualified for a free or reduced lunch and identified themselves as ethnic minorities, mostly Latino. Half of them did not claim English as their mother tongue.
The time for change had come.
During the first meeting she led, Mikels and her staff decided they would take 100 percent responsibility for children learning; they wouldn't blame parents, students or poverty for a lack of success. She found a research study conducted by The Leadership and Learning Center on schools where more than 90 percent of students were eligible for free and reduced lunches, more than 90 percent were from ethnic minorities and more than 90 percent met or achieved high academic standards.
After reviewing the research, Mikels' team set the "big, hairy, audacious goal" of becoming a 90-90-90 school within 10 years. Eight years worth of state assessment data later, the school in Victor Elementary School District has nearly met its goal. And other schools in the Golden State are looking to Sixth Street Prep for help in replicating their success.
A little over 6 miles away, fellow district school Liberty Elementary had scored low on the Academic Performance Index (API) each year and was placed on program improvement watch two years ago. The school had high English language learner student populations and a large number of black students who were struggling. Altogether, about 80 percent of its 856 students were from minority backgrounds.
When Principal Ailene Cammon saw what Sixth Street Prep had accomplished despite its demographics, she asked Mikels to partner with her staff. Their practices appeared to be working for all students, no matter who they were, and that was also Cammon's goal.
“We just tried to really make sure that whatever we’re doing, it’s really addressed the standards and is giving equal access and opportunity to all children," she said.
Liberty Elementary adopted Sixth Street Prep's mission to bring all students at or above grade level in reading, writing and math. They decided to accomplish that mission by teaching standards-based curriculum enriched with technology.
The school also adopted the policy of taking responsibility for student learning.
"We will not make any excuses," Cammon said, "and we will not blame anyone.”
Sixth Street Prep had stopped making a lot of excuses, but discovered two hidden excuses as the school continued to improve: unfinished homework and lack of knowledge retention.
Some of the students who completed their assignments had parents who were teachers, while other students who did not finish their homework had parents who didn't speak English, and that wasn't fair, Mikels said. Also, teachers either taught a concept in September or didn't get to it before the state tests, so the kids either didn't remember or didn't know some of the concepts.
Five years into the school's turnaround plan, she eliminated those excuses and inequities by abolishing homework and adopting a review-preview learning strategy.
That was the year that Sixth Street Prep closed its achievement gap.
Instead of giving homework, teachers coach students for an extra 45 minutes each day, making the school day last from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. And instead of teaching a concept once, teachers spend about an hour each day reviewing math and language arts skills that they had already learned, as well as building students' background knowledge of more advanced skills.
But they don't lose interest in reviewing the concepts.
“I have not heard the words ‘I’m bored’ in probably 5 years,” Mikels said.
The first- through sixth-grade students answer 10 math questions and five language arts questions per day, while the kindergartners answer five questions for each subject. The teacher writes a question on the whiteboard or projects it on the board, then the students work out the problem with markers on their personal whiteboards.
After they work out the problem, they look at the four multiple choice options that the teacher has created and tentatively mark which one matches their answer. Next, they try to disprove the possible answers, Mikels said.
For example, if they're looking for how to make the word "calf" plural, they figure out which rule applies. When the teacher asks them why an answer is not right, they will say, "This one is incorrect because you don't apply rule one to the word 'calf.'"
Throughout the process, they're required to analyze the subject and use high-level thinking skills. The kids use student response devices from Turning Technologies to select their answer, and the teacher pulls up a graph of the class results using the accompanying software.
Because of these strategies, students are learning more, and as a result, they're scoring higher on tests.
“Our 10-a-day and our 5-a-day strategy is not test prep," Mikels said, "it’s giving kids 180 days to master the standards.”
This review and preview practice has allowed Liberty Elementary students to keep concepts fresh in their mind and master them, Cammon said.
“The one great thing that we have seen through all of this is that our kids get immediate feedback on their learning through what is happening in the classroom," she said. "They don’t have to wonder where they are and how they’re doing.”
The schools no longer target any populations such as blacks, English language learners, struggling students or mediocre-performing kids with special programs. Mikels told Cammon and her staff at the beginning of their partnership two years ago, “You just make sure that your instruction is excellent, because if it’s excellent for one, it’s excellent for all.”
The changes have shown results at Liberty Elementary. The school has increased its API score by 59 points, jumping from 713 to 772. And on the district interim assessments, which are leading indicators of how schools will perform on state tests, Liberty Elementary moved from 18th to sixth place.
Their success is due in part to the school's efforts to prepare teachers to teach and empower all children to learn. That included networking with educators from Sixth Street Prep and taking professional development classes, as well as extending the school day by 30 minutes and not assigning homework.
“It’s no longer about giving homework," Cammon said. "It’s really about the guided practice that happens in that classroom.”
Instead of teaching to the struggling students or those who fall in the middle, both schools operate under the principle that students will learn the concepts they need to at some point during the year, except for maybe a few who have handicapping conditions.
Mikels compared their approach to a baby learning to walk. Some infants start walking at 9 months, some at 12 months and others don't walk until 15 months, but each one learns how to walk.
"If they’re given enough time to master the standards, then all students can do it,” Mikels said.
Teachers don't stand in front of the class and talk at students to get them to master the standards. They rarely use worksheets or textbooks either. Instead, they engage the students with personal whiteboards, markers and clickers, as well as coach them.
They walk around the room as students are practicing together, give them pointers, remind them of strategies that have been taught for solving certain math problems, and work with them on skills just as a basketball coach would help players shoot correctly.
If the teachers want to remind the whole class of a technique, they write on electronic pads that they carry with them, and their words are projected at the front of the room.
Throughout classes, teachers teach in small chunks, then students turn and teach each other what they just learned. The teachers spend a lot of time designing lesson plans with hand motions, rhymes, chants or other techniques they can use to help students who learn differently.
The classrooms get somewhat noisy, but each child is 100 percent engaged, and that's shocked more than 300 educators from other schools who have visited Sixth Street Prep to see its success model, Mikels said.
“When people come in, they’re just amazed that even at kindergarten," she said, "we have kindergarten students using whiteboards and markers for learning.”
Eight years ago, Sixth Street Prep scored 599 on the API. Now it has a score of 938, and an average of 88 percent of its students are proficient in math, science and language arts.
The school is close to meeting its goal, and in the meantime, is helping Liberty Elementary and other schools in the beginning of their journey toward bring kids up to speed in basic subjects. A few more percentage points, and Sixth Street Prep will become a 90-90-90 school.
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