HOLIDAY — Kindergartner Kristian Rosario sat quietly, crayons in hand, drawing a picture of a small baby crawling on a colorful floor.
After completing his illustration, Kristian began writing a story to go with it.
"Look!" he wrote. "I am little."
All around him, his Sunray Elementary School classmates worked on the same project. They will start with a drawing to get the ideas flowing, teacher Danielle Whitlock explained, and then consult a "word web" board filled with possible vocabulary choices before launching into their tales.
"It's really fun," Kristian said, taking a small break from his composition. "I love writing because I love to write good. I write my letters really nice. I like to write about Spider-Man, because Spider-Man is really awesome."
Generating such enthusiasm has been key to Sunray's approach to writing instruction, which principal LeeAnne Yerkey amped up when she took over two years ago. The lessons begin with the youngest students, and infuse all areas of the curriculum, so that all children can find success.
The effort has paid off big time for the school, judging by its annual fourth-grade FCAT writing results.
In 2010, just 45 percent of test takers earned a level 4 or better, with an average score of 3.4. In 2011, 86 percent achieved that level 4 or higher, with the average score rising to 4.2.
Sunray showed the most improvement in FCAT writing results of any elementary school in Pasco County.
"One of the biggest things that was not happening was the professional development in writing," Yerkey said. "How do you teach writing is the biggest thing."
Using the Tampa Bay Area Writing Project as a key resource, Yerkey got all of her school's teachers to learn several winning ways to get kids writing well. They shared a common language and background on the topic, but were allowed to pursue their own methods to reach the students and help them improve.
"Once you gave us that foundation and got us excited, we took it to the classroom," fourth-grade teacher Michele Skelly said.
That, in turn, got children excited and wanting to do well. They would read some examples of strong writing, often with specific techniques in mind, and then let the writing begin.
Fourth-grade teacher Stephanie Radcliffe likes to use Roald Dahl stories, and she marvels that the students will jump up while reading "and shout, 'Onomatopoeia! He used onomatopoeia!' "
They follow by using — sometimes overusing — the technique themselves.
"They really understand, 'I am a writer now,' " Skelly said.
The school also celebrates writing in many ways, such as monthly Writers' Tea and red carpet walks for top writers. They even publish their works — a first-grade class has its collection of stories available to check out in a local public library.
Making the students feel good about their skills comes alongside much practice. That includes monthly Sunray Writes tests and small group reinforcements in which several instructors — including the principal, assistant principal, media specialist and literacy coach — work to push ahead students grouped by ability.
Teachers try to give lots of individualized feedback, too.
Fourth-graders Nicolle Landaverde and Sierra Elliott, each of whom earned a 5 on the FCAT writing test, said they love the opportunity to read and write daily in class.
"We read a lot of books and we see what the authors do and see what we can do to make our writing better," said Nicolle, who cited J.K. Rowling as a favorite.
Sierra, whose favorite is Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, said she preferred writing fiction over nonfiction.
"You can make up a place," she said. "That's way better. You can do what you want to do."
All the practice writing doesn't faze them a bit. They get the reason why.
"In everyday life, you have to write something," Nicolle said.
Yerkey said Sunray's success proves that fidelity to a good curriculum and valid teaching methods works, regardless of student demographics. Sunray falls into a category where it qualifies for federal Title I money because of its high levels of low-income families.
"I'm asked all the time, 'What's your secret?' " she said. "One of the biggest things we do is celebrate. As we develop these writers, we develop their self-pride."
And that, she said, is a great place to start.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.