Garth Elementary has been undergoing a process the last three years to improve its test scores. The staff received validation this year when the state’s assessment showed Garth was 14th in the state for growth among elementary schools and made the Education Commissioner’s list of Top 20 schools in the state making at least a 10-point gain in proficiency.
“The staff is ecstatic right now and on cloud 9,” said Principal Damon Stefanic. “I have been overwhelmed by the level of support we’ve received by the community, parents and certainly central office. Everyone knew it was possible (the scores would be this good), but it was waiting to see.”
Garth was two-tenths of a point from receiving four stars, and its results are second best among the district’s elementary schools.
“It starts with the teachers and kids. I believe we have focused our culture and climate on building relationships before teaching rigor and I think that has been a key to our success,” Stefanic said. “Our students feel valued. They feel supported. And quite honestly they feel loved. That makes them more eager to learn and have that level of accountability to that adult in the classroom they have a special relationship with.”
The staff has changed its instructional approach as well, using data to know where students are doing well and where they are struggling. The staff really focused on math, using the data they have on hand to build on each student’s strengths and fill in the gaps.
“We took a holistic approach after a data review to determine where we needed the most attention. We built a a sustainable approach from kindergarten through fifth grade through a guided learning process where teachers know what every child is missing and excels and they pull those small groups together according to those skills and deficits to build and enrich. We have seen marvelous growth.”
Stefanic used fifth grade math scores as an example. They knew they wanted to cut the number of novice students and improve the number of proficient and distinguished. After last year’s data, the school had 30% novice and knew they had to drop that number and improve on the 12% distinguished and 18% proficient. This year? Only 3% scored novice in math, with similar results in reading.
“We’re seeing the correct part of the pie grow and the part of the pie you want to see decrease decrease,” he said.
While Stefanic talked about assessment results, he kept coming back to meeting the students on a personal and human level as the key to starting the improvement process. Garth has 71 percent of its students on free/reduced lunch, and the school qualifies for a Department of Agriculture program where students don’t pay a dollar for breakfast, lunch and after school snacks.
“We are blessed to have a fantastic group of kids, and it is true some of our kids have needs. But that is not an indicator of student learning,” he said. “Here we focus on meeting those human needs at the beginning. That is that relationship building. Every teacher here has a sincere care for not just academic growth of the child, but the social and emotional growth as well. Once we get those needs met, we can focus on what we are supposed to do which is to teach kids and give them every opportunity to be successful.”
So what does Garth do for an encore?
“People who know Garth know the teachers and the students and how great a school it is,” Stefanic said. “Now that the public has seen what Garth can do, we have to be constant and sustain that growth to make sure we are hitting all areas of achievement.”
Steve McClain can be reached at email@example.com.