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Gulf Highlands Elementary educators solving school's problems from within

NEW PORT RICHEY — The fifth-grade teaching team at Gulf Highlands Elementary School gathered in the principal's conference room carrying stacks of tests and spreadsheets.

Their task: To discuss students' first-quarter math performance, and how to improve upon it.

"Our students have not mastered the standards," principal Kara Smucker said, receiving nods of agreement.

"We have to think about how we will provide additional practice and instruction" on the past materials, she added, "but still continuing forth."

For more than an hour, they pored over test questions and student responses to determine where the children were falling short, and where instruction was lacking. They also worked on how to more quickly assess such needs in the classroom, so less remedial work is required at the end of any unit.

It was important enough to put substitutes in each classroom.

"You need everybody's brains to make a plan," math resource teacher Leslie Speakman said, as she led the session. "You can't do it in isolation."

Such training has become a key facet of Gulf Highland's effort to shed its F grade from the state.

In assigning Smucker to the school, superintendent Heather Fiorentino made clear that the school must improve its instruction, particularly in math, to combat woeful FCAT results. (Just one-third of students scored at grade level or above.)

She said Smucker, with a background in teacher training, would bring Gulf Highlands leadership in refocusing teachers, many of whom had less than five years of experience. The school also had a high teacher turnover rate — as much as 20 percent a year — prior to Smucker's arrival.

Smucker and her new assistant principal, Keri Allen, immediately set about designing several sessions aimed at better preparing the faculty on how to solve problems, assess data, lead meaningful lessons and even organize classrooms for maximum educational impact.

The teachers meet regularly in teams, where trainers teach by explaining and also by doing. It's known as the "gradual release" model, which other schools also have adopted, and the goal is to get teachers independently employing strategies in much the same way that they want students to use their lessons.

A handful of teachers transferred out amid the push. But for the most part, they've accepted the intense training.

"It's been way helpful," said fifth-grade teacher Amy Day, who has worked closely with Smucker.

Together, they explored ways to plan backwards, from desired goal to methods to achieve that goal. Smucker watched Day teach and offered feedback, also taking over the class to experience firsthand "what is going on" with the children.

Day said the effort has made her a better teacher. Smucker said it made her a better principal.

Leaving the fifth-grade team to talk math, Smucker headed to observe how first-grade teachers Melissa Harris and Jaci Justus were progressing in using learning goals for instruction.

Learning goals, also called essential questions, are intended to make sure students understand why they're doing what they're doing in class.

On this day, the teachers focused on using a number line to subtract.

Smucker took copious notes as she watched the teachers use a variety of methods to ensure that all students were involved.

She liked that Harris picked students to participate randomly from a cup with labeled ice pop sticks, for instance, and that Justus had children working on their own original subtraction questions, going around with stickers to mark the pages of those who required extra help.

Smucker also quizzed children on their lessons. One thing she was on the lookout for — something she also discussed with the fifth-grade team — was if the teachers were inadvertently doing the thinking for their students.

That would be reading the entire problem, for instance, and then suggesting how to solve it, rather than letting the students work it out.

"We really need to re-examine how we're doing that," Smucker said.

After the reviews, she pulled out her laptop and sent emails to each teacher about the positive and negative things she saw, along with recommendations. Formal evaluations should not be a surprise with this type of regular give and take, she said.

On another day, assistant principal Allen led the first-grade team through a lesson on problem solving. She went over four key steps — identifying the problem, analyzing it, crafting a plan to resolve it and monitoring progress.

The group talked about the process using a nonteaching scenario. Then they turned to their students' reading scores.

A large chart on the wall showed where each first-grader scored in relation to grade-level expectations on the state FAIR exam. Each child was represented by an alligator-shaped paper, color coded by teacher and labeled with demographic and test score information.

In looking at the chart, the group could even see which teacher had the most students above and below the expected score. From here, the teachers began discussing what their next steps should be in addressing the lowest performing children while also not losing those who are doing well.

"This puts it in perspective," said Megan Gossett, who noted that such intensive reviews happened much less frequently last year at Gulf Highlands.

"I wonder who has the yellow," she added, observing only three yellow alligators were below grade level. "I'm kind of jealous."

Smucker stressed that the Gulf Highlands staff has taken on the challenge of turning their school around despite the added work and new ways of doing business.

"They are being so reflective in their practice," she said. "This is a place where people, in light of all that we ask of them, are remaining so positive. I know we are going to make a difference."

It just will take some time.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at

Gulf Highlands Elementary educators solving school's problems from within 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 12:20pm]
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