BAYONET POINT — To help her fourth-graders improve their writing, Kristin Tassone turned to something she knew they'd relate to: milk and cookies.
You drink milk to clear your palate. That's the grabber or the topic to get things started. Next, you eat the cookies. Each of those is a backing idea to the topic. The more chocolate chips, the better. They're the details. Finally, you drink milk again to wash it all down. That's the conclusion.
"Once we broke it down like that, they were able to brainstorm," said Tassone, a 12-year veteran teacher at Pasco County's Schrader Elementary School, who naturally brought the real thing to move the lesson along.
Innovation and collaboration like this have become key components to Schrader's continued success on the annual FCAT exam, which begins again Tuesday.
Since 2002-03, the A-rated school has seen a marked, steady increase in students meeting high standards in math and reading — among the best of Tampa Bay area elementary schools with more than 70 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price meals. Heck, the school's up there with many of those that have a more affluent crowd of kids — you know, the ones that are expected to do well.
Indeed, the higher the poverty level at a school, experts say, the more likely the end result will be failure. Teachers don't think that way at Schrader.
As Tassone's brainstorming about brainstorming demonstrates, the school will try, try again to find success.
"It's not any program we're using," said principal Mary Ellen Stelnicki, who's run Schrader for 14 years with a relatively stable teaching staff beside her — about half the teachers have been there at least six years. "It's what works for the students you have in your room at that time."
Schrader received a C when the state started issuing school grades in 1999, and for the three years that followed. The teachers were working as hard as they could, Stelnicki said, yet they recognized they needed to do some things different to make progress.
"There's a saying, 'If you do what you always do you'll get what you always got,' " she said. "We took that to heart."
That has meant a lot of teacher training and follow-up, with an effort to focus on methods that research shows are likely to work. Teachers spend a lot more time using short quizzes, for instance, to see what the children are understanding and what needs more review.
Then they make sure to follow up with that review.
They also have broken out of their classrooms to share ideas and work as teams, both within and across grade levels — something relatively new for teachers who in the past have stayed in their classrooms and worked in isolation.
"We want to be a learning community," said Erika Tonello, assistant principal at Schrader.
That focus translates into initiatives such as team time, where teachers without assigned classes visit classrooms for daily 30-minute sessions to allow the primary teacher to work with children struggling with one of the weekly lesson concepts. The second teacher offers enrichment activities on the same subject to the others.
Schrader pays extra attention to high-performing students, too. At least weekly, all the advanced fourth- and fifth-graders spend time with specialists in science, math, reading and writing.
This effort pushes top students to higher levels, science resource teacher Stephanie Bennett said, while also reinforcing the idea that all teachers have a stake in all Schrader students.
To help students remember what they've learned, the school has children keep notebooks — one for each of five subjects — for written reflections on the day's lessons. It has worked for most kids, reading specialist Diana Pollard said, but overwhelmed many kindergartners.
Just forge on? Maybe elsewhere, but not at Schrader.
"We made a modification to do a shared writing instead," Pollard said, allowing the 5- and 6-year-olds to get the same benefits of reflection, along with regular group learning, but without the daunting task of the multiple notebooks.
Teachers can make such adjustments at Schrader without fear of a backlash. And don't think they don't notice.
"Our administration supports our ideas and endeavors," fourth-grade teacher Mindy Predmore wrote in an e-mail to Stelnicki. "Having administrators who encourage us to think outside the box in order for us to come up with our own solutions assists us in growing as teachers."
What you don't see at Schrader is perhaps equally important.
You don't find teachers drilling students on test-taking skills, giving multiple sample FCAT exams or streamlining the entire curriculum to highlight test materials.
"There is no kill and drill," Tonello said. "We don't stop to say, 'The FCAT is coming.' "
If teachers do their jobs right, she said, the students will be ready.
Everyone there hopes so.
"We have to keep adjusting," Tassone said. "The kids are different every year."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.
Collaboration, fresh ideas help Schrader Elementary with FCAT scores