by Lonnie Harp
Third graders in Karissa Pickens’ classroom at Glenn O. Swing Elementary are reading an article about the flu — how to avoid it, or, should a scratchy throat or bleary eyes strike, how to respond to the symptoms. Graphs and tables accompany the piece, and they are the point of the morning’s review.
A board near the door states the reading standard being covered: “I can use information from text features, illustrations, and the words to understand a text.” Reminders from previous days are squeezed into the statement. Lines from the term “text features” lead to examples: “photo,” “table of contents,” “caption.”
The teacher calls on students to name a symptom. From a chart in the article, one mentioned sneezing; another offered headaches. Chills, one added.
The discussion moves briskly, with Pickens providing feedback, reminders and encouragement. When students don’t immediately respond on one question, Pickens challenges them. “I see people looking at me,” she said. “Go back to your text.” In seconds, answers arrive.
THIRD GRADER LUELLA COPELAND TALKS TO A CLASSMATE AT GLENN O. SWING ELEMENTARY IN COVINGTON.
Luella Copeland, an 8-year-old who has attended this school since kindergarten, said that lessons, reviews, assignments, and practice give students plenty of opportunities to show what they know. Plus, she added, every teacher expects students to explain their thinking and responses.
“You can have the right answer, but you have to be able to add to it,” she said during a break. “Details — things from the text that support it. I love that our teachers really tell us what they want us to do and show us a lot about how to do it.”
Student performance at Glenn O. Swing Elementary stands out. Children from demographic groups mired in deep achievement gaps in many Kentucky schools are high achievers here.
On 2017 state tests, the percentage of Swing pupils scoring in proficient or distinguished categories in every demographic minority group the state tracks — race, poverty, disability, English language learners, and more — outpaced the state’s average for all students in 26 of 28 measures across five subjects. On state tests in 2017, 31 percent of African American students scored proficient or distinguished in reading; 28 percent in math. At Swing, those rates were 61 percent for reading and 63 percent for math. Among English learners, the percentage of Kentucky students scoring proficient or better in reading and math were 21 percent and 24 percent, respectively. At Swing, the rates were 60 percent for reading and 93 percent for math.
‘I need to be able, in my head, to think about performance based on student work, which is a constant monitoring process,’ said Principal Scott Alter. ‘I can tell more about teams and teachers from student work than from walk-throughs in the classroom everyday.’
Scott Alter, the principal, credited the academic performance and achievement gap progress to daily fine tuning of classroom assignments and teaching, all based on needs evident in students’ work.
“We are looking at kids’ work every day,” said Alter, whose office table is a collection of children’s handwriting jotted across homework, quizzes, and compositions. “We are meeting as teams about next steps based on what may have been produced 15 minutes ago. We spend a lot of time looking at ways to adjust and improve as teachers and administrators. There’s a lot of real-time learning going on.”
To complement the academic focus, the school created a separate student support team allowing Alter and the assistant principal maximum time to collaborate with teachers, analyze what students are producing, and ensure that learning setbacks get immediate attention.
“We try to find the deepest level of what students need to know and get every student there,” said Elizabeth Bravo, the third grade math teacher. “Every part of every day is treated as an intensive intervention. We connect to real life so that what we are talking about means something. We ask questions that stretch what students know.”
Constant teacher collaboration taps combined wisdom and reinforces a culture of trust and results which, in turn, translates to students. Jennifer Young, the third grade language arts and writing teacher, said that it takes ongoing work to hit the target.
“You may get things given back and hear ‘try again,’ but you know there will be support and that we can trust each other,” Young said. “Our students know that we want to make sure they succeed.”
The combination of high expectations and ready support can make students feel challenge in the present and a record of mastery in retrospect. Third grader Luella said of her years as a student: “Back in first grade and kindergarten, everything was easy. Third grade is hard. I get frustrated if it’s hard, but I try not to mess up and stay focused.”
Cumulative academic performance by students at Swing Elementary from low-income and minority backgrounds would rank in the top 20 percent of all Kentucky elementary schools; performance by students with disabilities would fall in the top 30 percent of all elementaries.
Superintendent Alvin Garrison said that Glenn O. Swing exemplifies continuous improvement. “It’s never, ‘You can’t do it,’ it’s ‘you can’t do it yet.’ They get kids to think, write and read at high levels. When you walk in that school you can feel it,” he said. “You can’t sit there and daydream. You can’t opt out.”
The academic gains offer important momentum for a district that faced deep budget and achievement issues two decades ago. “The kind of positive environment and culture you see at Glenn O. Swing is permeating the district,” said Julie Geisen Scheper, a school board member for the past six years.
Efforts to keep students on track don’t stop with teachers. Asking questions and engaging in thoughtful conversation are part of the curriculum. During a science lesson about motion and combined forces, Luella noticed a fellow third grader looking puzzled as she scanned the textbook.
Luella eased across her desk and quietly brought up the topic of balanced forces. After sharing a thought, she asked, “Do you agree?” Sensing uncertainty, Luella kept probing for an entry point, as her teachers might. She asked, “What do unbalanced forces do?” The girl responded, a conversation began, and soon, Luella’s classmate was finding the answer.