High-poverty Irving elementary school is rich in success, earns exemplary rating
11:15 AM CDT on Wednesday, September 15, 2010
By KATHERINE LEAL UNMUTH / The Dallas Morning News
High-poverty schools face an uphill battle in achieving an "exemplary" state rating by meeting the 90 percent passing standard required without the generous aid of loopholes.
Specialized teachers such as math specialist Suzanne Kline, working with third-graders Carlos Alfaro (left) and Aaron Villatoro, play a significant role in the success of students at Irving's John Haley Elementary School.
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But at Irving's John Haley Elementary, children exceeded that TAKS score bar for 2010.
"There's a whole lot of determining factors that make a school successful," said Haley principal Robyn Bowling. "Hiring the right people – and those people have to have compassion as well as passion for making students successful."
In 2009, 89 percent of children at the school were classified as economically disadvantaged and 63 percent as limited English proficient. Both of those factors place children at risk for lower academic achievement. Most students are Latino.
The school is also unusual because Bowling is a veteran and has led the school for 15 years. Her office is filled with stuffed animals, children's books and inspirational mottos. "We believe! Pigs Can Fly!" and "Sí, se puede," (Yes, we can).
Reaching such an achievement isn't because of one single factor. Bowling said she's selective in her hiring. Many teachers will stay as late as 5:30 p.m. to work with children.
There are other traits she points out as she walks quickly through the hallways – a fifth-grade teacher dedicated only to teaching science, an active parent education program offered for the past five years in Spanish and English, and small group help.
The twice-monthly parenting lessons address topics such as preparing children for the transition to middle school and teaching the adults math lessons so they can teach their children.
The school also has received grant funding from the state for several years to provide after-school homework help and activities Monday through Thursday until 5:30 p.m. Unfortunately, the money for that program could soon run out.
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The principal's also an enthusiastic leader. Last year, she pledged to skydive if the school reached exemplary status. It did, so she jumped.
Formula for success
Bob Sanborn, president of Children at Risk, a Texas-based research and advocacy group, said many factors go into successful poor schools. He calls such campuses "outliers" because of their rarity.
"We tend to see they have good leadership," he said. "It's either very experienced leadership that knows the community or engages parents or very young and energetic with lots of ideas. It's not normal leadership – it's extraordinary for many reasons."
Other factors he listed are strong parent involvement, small class sizes, good hiring practices and high attendance rates. The group ranks schools on additional factors such as commended rates.
The group ranked Haley in "Tier 1," indicating that it is in the top 25 percent of schools in the state. Researchers ranked the school 591 statewide out of 3,127 elementary schools examined.
Sanborn argues that a label of exemplary doesn't mean as much if the school doesn't meet the passing bar.
The state has ways for schools that fall short to obtain an exemplary label. That includes a controversial formula known as the Texas projection measure, or TPM, that gives schools credit if failing students are predicted to pass in the future.
In addition, schools can be given credit if students meet "required improvement" goals over the previous year. They can also be granted other exceptions even if students don't meet the passing standard for the test.
"The TPM scores are really sort of meaningless," Sanborn said. "For us to use them as part of the ranking system makes the system have no credibility."
Walking down a hallway at Haley, the principal stops in one room where a math specialist helps five struggling students.
In another room, another specialist works with two students who are dyslexic. A fifth-grade science teacher works with students on graphing data they've collected.
Inside a first-grade classroom, veteran bilingual teacher Virgie Chavez works on an ESL lesson with the children learning English. They're building their vocabulary by focusing on seasons.
"What comes after summer?" she asks.
"Winter?" one boy volunteers.
"Fall," another child responds.
Next, they break into groups to work on reading.
"Today you're going to practice reading to yourself," Chavez tells them. "Do you remember the rules?"
A cluster of four children sit on the floor, reading aloud to themselves softly in Spanish. Another group plays a computer game. Chavez works directly with another small group. The children will practice the same exercise with English-language books later.
At the sound of a bell tone, they rotate to a new station. It's the beginning of the school year, but they already know the routine. Student work already lines the hallway outside.
First-grader Kezia Guzman has written a story and "El ambiente fue en la escuela," or the environment was in the school.
A veteran teacher, Chavez has worked at the school for 12 years. She said the principal has led the school instructionally, even tutoring children herself.
"She knows what's supposed to be going on in the classroom," Chavez said.
All administrators and other staff such as the librarian also work with small groups of children before, during and after school hours.
Sanborn added that it's always important to take a closer look at high-performing schools to determine why they've reached their level of success.
He said it's particularly important to look at schools that are successful not just because they have magnet programs or are stronger charter schools. Those schools sometimes pick and choose the best students.
"There's always something unusual about these schools," Sanborn said.
HALEY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Haley Elementary's 2010 TAKS accountability passing rates
Reading: 91 percent
Writing: 98 percent
Math: 97 percent
Science: 99 percent
About Haley (2008-09)
Enrollment: 764 students
Economically disadvantaged: 89 percent
Limited English Proficient: 63 percent
Hispanic: 86 percent
Black: 5 percent
White: 8 percent
Asian: 1 percent