Tuesday, April 03, 2001

Gallatin school on comeback trail

Elementary got low state rating

By Lori Hayes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WARSAW - A new reading program, more teacher training, new student schedules and revamped lessons are among a list of changes in store to improve Gallatin County Upper Elementary.

        The school is working to raise its state test scores following a poor performance last year.

        “We have to do something in seven or eight months to impact learning,” Principal Deborah Brown said. “We want to send kids on to middle school at or above grade level.”

        The upper elementary school — fourth and fifth grades only — is one of 49 schools in the state that scored in the lowest performance category on the 2000 Commonwealth Accountability Testing System and was required to undergo a state audit.

        The school, which is in a rural Ohio River community, will be the last of eight stops this week for Kentucky Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit, who has been touring audited schools.

        In January, the commissioner visited high-poverty, high-performing schools, including Silver Grove High School in Campbell County.

        This leg of the tour, which began last month, focuses on schools that are struggling; he chose one from each of the state's eight regions.

        Mr. Wilhoit will visit Gallatin County at 1 p.m. Wednesday to meet with teachers, staff and students about the audit process and the school's improvement plans.

Steps for improvement
               Based on recommendations from its state audit, the school has already taken the first steps, including implementing a schoolwide focus on reading and writing.

        All fifth-grade teachers teach reading and math, and students rotate for other subjects such as science and social studies. That way, teachers prepare for three subjects, instead of seven.

        The change also allows teachers to have a group planning time to discuss student performance and collaborate on teaching strategies.

        “When you have more people, you generate more ideas,” fifth-grade teacher Brenda Alexander said.

        In total, six Northern Kentucky Schools were required to have audits last fall. The other five were in Covington Independent Schools.

        The audits evaluate schools on 88 indicators in nine areas, ranking them as “novice,” “apprentice,” “proficient” or “distinguished.” Gallatin County Upper Elementary was designated a novice or apprentice on nearly all of the indi cators.

        While the school's low performance is discouraging, Ms. Brown praised her teachers' dedication.

        “They take it very personal,” she said. “They feel accountable for what goes on in the school.”

        More than half of Gallatin County Schools' students live in poverty. Poor attendance and low parental in volvement are challenges, teachers said.

        The school also struggles with turnover, often losing teachers to larger districts that pay more and are in more urban communities.

        The 260-student school is only 2 years old. The district moved the fourth- and fifth- graders to another building five years ago because of rapid growth in the elementary school.

        All grades remained under one principal until 1999, when the upper grades became a separate school with its own administration.

        That separation, however, is hurting the district because there is no collaboration between the schools, the audit reported.

        Other key concerns pointed out in the audit:

        • The school needs to align its curriculum with state standards. The school has begun this process, but it needs to expand districtwide.

        • The school council needs training and assistance in developing school policies.

        • Teachers need more variety in their instruction methods and more training on assessing student work.

        Teachers said they were surprised that the state audit team did not mention a car accident that killed fourth-grade teacher Rachel McCalla and special education teacher Christina Marrero last April, just before students were to take the state tests. The school temporarily suspended the testing for the grieving students, which teachers say likely had an impact on the school's scores.

Improvement grants coming
               The state audit team did applaud Ms. Brown's leadership and praised the school for already initiating several efforts to improve.

        “We're here a lot,” Ms. Alexander said. “It's nothing for us to be here on Saturday or Sunday. It's not an 8-to-3 job.”

        The school qualified for a $14,000 state grant, which will be used for teacher training in writing instruction.

        The school is also one of 19 schools in the state to receive a federal grant to start a new reading program next year. The school will get $50,000 for each of the next three years to implement “Literacy First,” a nationally recognized program.

        The state also assigned Barbie Kinney, thought of as one of the state's highly skilled educators, to the school last fall to help staff improve.

        “We're making headway,” Ms. Kinney said. “It's a big job, and that's why we need support from everyone.”


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