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Closing the achievement gap in a high-poverty school

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High poverty. High performing. These are two phrases that describe Hattie Watts Elementary today — but it wasn’t always that way.

When I became assistant principal in 2006, there were large gaps between the performance of our white students and our black students and economically-disadvantaged students. One reason was a persistent lack of belief in our students. When someone would say our students should be performing at higher levels, some community members, faculty members and even parents would say: “We’re not an affluent community, like so-and-so. Our kids face real challenges at home and at school. They can’t be expected to achieve at the same level as those kids.”

To dispel this negative stereotyping, our leadership team and faculty told our school community it didn’t matter if our students came from an impoverished or affluent community. If you show children you believe in them, they can and will achieve. When I became principal the following year, I set out to instill that belief schoolwide. As a result, we’ve made significant progress and continue to earn accolades today.

1. Establish a mission. Rallying the school community around a common mission and a belief that all students can succeed sets the foundation for success. We talk about our mission every day: All Teachers Teach! All Students Learn! All Parents Support! Academically We Succeed!

2. Put the right people in the right place. When teachers love what they teach, it’s contagious. We departmentalized grades 3-4 and created “partnerships of three,” wherein one teacher teaches three math classes, one teaches three English language arts classes, and one teaches three science and social studies classes. This is more motivating for our teachers, who love what they teach, and that enthusiasm spreads to students.

3. Monitor student progress. We regularly administer district assessments in core content areas. We also use a web-based assessment platform called Achievement Series to develop and administer tests school-wide. In addition, our teachers use classroom assessments and tools for ongoing progress monitoring. If a student struggles, we provide targeted interventions. We then use the assessment tools to monitor how they respond, and adjust the instruction and interventions accordingly.

4. Make time for collaboration. We have job-embedded time each week for teachers to meet as a grade level or by department. Teachers discuss student performance, share ideas, and plan their instruction. This helps us better address students’ needs, while allowing teachers to share best practices and get support.

5. Improve and differentiate instruction. We strive to deliver balanced curriculum offerings that develop the whole child, and our staff works to continually improve our instructional program. To differentiate instruction, we use an array of technology tools and resources in our grade-level instruction and Response to Intervention (RtI) program. Thanks to an unwavering focus on meeting each student’s needs, we’re able to catch students before they fall through the cracks. As a result, we’ve reduced the number of special education referrals.

6. Build cognitive skills. Improving student performance is about more than building reading or math skills. It’s about developing foundational cognitive skills — memory, attention, processing and sequencing — that are central to all learning. All students in grades 2-3 work on an online reading intervention called Fast ForWord to strengthen key pathways in the brain that help them learn. This helps them pay closer attention to their teachers, absorb information faster, and remember what they’re taught. It’s also used by struggling fourth graders and high-performing first graders, and as part of an after-school tutoring program.

7. Build reading fluency. We use the DIBELS assessment to identify students in grades 2-4 who struggle with reading fluency. For these students, we use an online tool called Reading Assistant, which uses speech recognition to correct and support students as they read aloud. We’ve enjoyed seeing that as students increase their fluency and comprehension, they pursue more independent reading.

8. Maximize every minute. We used to lose instructional time every morning as students unpacked and settled into class. Now, we ring the bells five minutes early so when school starts, students are ready to learn. In our RtI program, we built time into our schedule for tier 2 and tier 3 interventions. We also created after-school tutoring programs to provide assistance to struggling learners.

As a result of these efforts and many others, we’ve made significant progress in closing the achievement gap and improving student performance. In 2011, we were selected as a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon School. In 2011 and 2012, the Louisiana Department of Education designated Hattie Watts Elementary as a High-Performing, High-Poverty School.

We’re excited about our progress and look forward to continuing to do all we can to attain educational equity for all students.

Niki P. Fryou is principal of Hattie Watts Elementary in Patterson, La. She is the 2013 Louisiana Elementary School Principal of the Year. Her email address is