In the major port city of Oakland, Calif., 52 percent of second-graders at an elementary school couldn't tread water in English-Language Arts.
The students at Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy demonstrated "far below basic" levels of knowledge in the subject on the 2009 California Standards Test. Only 10 percent of their peers in the Oakland Unified School District and 8 percent in the state had sunk to the same level.
This was just one example of how far behind elementary students at this school fell in English and math exams.
"There was a lack of focused teaching, and there was not a strong communication with the families about what the expectations were," Principal Charles Wilson said.
But over the past three years, Wilson and his team of teachers have been diving deep to save their students from academic failure. Strong leadership, teacher collaboration and blended learning helped pull this urban school up from the bottom.
One of the most important things Korematsu has done is establish a unified level of rigor among staff that takes into account the predominantly low-income, English language-learner population the school serves. The students' families should see the same levels of rigor as an upper-middle class family would expect for its students, Wilson said.
The looming Common Core Smarter Balanced assessments motivated Wilson even more to push for excellence. Beginning in 2014-15, these assessments expect students to perform tasks they haven't been tested on before.
"The level of rigor is insanely high compared to what we've previously thought children should be able to accomplish," Wilson said. "So it's all about that. It's not making excuses for our kids because they are poor or because they are language learners or because they have a lot of complications in their lives."
Along with the standards, teachers are implementing a "gradual release" instructional model. This model shortens direct teacher instruction time and gives students more time to apply different concepts together and individually until they understand them.
In addition to changing the instructional model, the school now allows students to learn material on their grade level, but practice it at their reading level. Some students read three or four levels below their actual grade level.
For example, fifth-graders could find out how to compare and contrast fictional characters with other fifth-grade students. But the fifth-graders who read below grade level practice that knowledge by reading and participating in English language development with another teacher at their reading level for an additional hour a day.
While rigorous standards proved important, so did lowering the teacher turnover rate and improving staff unity and collaboration.
Instead of shutting themselves off in their classrooms, teachers started working together under Wilson's leadership. They read professional education books together, talk about them, observe one another's classrooms and collaborate around common instructional goals.
Teachers generally feel like their work is in the classroom with students, not with other staff, said Rebecca Akin, a first-grade teacher who's worked at Korematsu for the past five years. With different philosophies and theoretical frameworks, collaborating is challenging.
"There was resistance, as there usually is when people have to work together," Akin said. "But we pushed through it, and I think it resulted in people being much more open and more willing to work together."
With the gradual release instruction model, teachers created individual lesson plans for the direct instruction component, observed one another and revised their lessons based on the observations.
"This is my twelfth year teaching, and I've never worked in an environment where people were as collaborative as we are here, where we actually talked about teaching rather than just procedures and filling out paperwork, which is generally what teachers talk about," Akin said. "I feel like we take the conversation to another level, and that's really impacted our instruction and students' learning."
Along with strong leadership and collaboration, blended learning has pushed students to improve.
For example, about 200 students spend time on the computer every day with Fast ForWord, a software program that includes activities based on scientific research on how the brain learns.
"We're using blended learning or elements of blended learning to provide computer-based instruction for students who need the most help, with the concept that the computer is not replacing the teacher, but providing the child with things a teacher can't normally do," Wilson said.
Fast ForWord Language has a potentially positive effect on English language development, but no discernible effect on reading achievement for elementary English language learners, according to the What Works Clearinghouse, a U.S. Education Department Institute of Education Sciences initiative that evaluates education research.
The software has helped train students' brains to understand sounds they're not used to hearing in their language.
English language learners have a hard time hearing the difference between the sound phonemes — distinct units of sound — "b" and "d." Because they don't hear those sounds in their native tongue, their brain doesn't have a place to put those sounds, Wilson said. Through exercises in the software that adapt to children's ability, their brains build neural pathways for the phonemes.
The software has been so successful at Korematsu that Oakland Unified School District plans to pilot it in 11 other schools this fall, said Ann Kruze, who retired as a district instructional technologist in June.
"Once we could prove it worked, then other principals and people in the district were willing to make the investment," Kruze said.
With a combination of strong leadership, teacher collaboration and blended learning, Korematsu students have risen above students in their state at some levels. The most dramatic changes occurred in second grade, where only 5 percent scored "far below basic" on the English-Language Arts test in 2011. That's a 47 percent drop from the 2009 results and three percentage points lower than the scores of California's overall student population.
While two years ago no second-grade students were "advanced," 19 percent of students reached that level in 2011. And 49 percent showed basic understanding of English/language Arts compared to 26 percent in 2009.
"It's kind of magical," Akin said. "I've never been in a school where there's been this much improvement. I think the collaborative nature of our work and the leadership really accounts for a lot. I wish we could bottle it."