As a counselor at Fairgrounds Elementary School in Nashua, Michael Plourde has had a front row seat to different waves of education reform.
“I’ve seen a lot of programs come and go, and if you look at our test scores, it’s astounding, nothing changed,” said Plourde. “We’ve spent millions of dollars without changing anything.”
But last week, during a presentation to the Board of Education on Fairgrounds’ new turnaround plan, Plourde seemed much more optimistic about improving education.
“Now, with the help of new leadership, smart leadership that allows the whole staff to participate, I think we will see change,” he said.
Fairgrounds Elementary School administrators and teachers have spent the last year researching and planning how to transform their school from one of the lowest performing in the state, to a success story where at least 80 percent of all students are proficient in English language skills and math.
The new school improvement plan was developed as part of New Hampshire’s waiver from the mandates in the No Child Left Behind act. Fairgrounds and 11 other Title 1 schools were designated as priority schools based on NECAP test scores in reading and math. According to the most recent round of test scores, 39 percent of Fairgrounds students are proficient in math, while 55 percent are proficient in reading.
Under NCLB, schools were expected to reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014. But thanks to the waiver, the goal has been reset, and schools must now decrease the gap between full and partial proficiency by 50 percent within six years. Priority schools such as Fairgrounds were awarded additional Title 1 funding to meet that goal.
“Each of the priority schools was given the chance to design their own turnaround plan,” said Cherrie Fulton, the district’s Title 1 director. Fairgrounds was awarded 10 percent off the top of Nashua’s entire Title 1 grant, or roughly $320,000, to create and implement the plan. The school still receives its regular share of Title 1 funding that is divided among six of the district’s schools that meet the eligibility requirement based on the family incomes of the student population.
Fairgrounds Elementary School Principal Michael Harrington said the plan does not call for any major investments of equipment and supplies, but instead relies more on a shifting of resources and a change in school culture.
“It was important to us that the plan be sustainable,” said Harrington, adding that Fairgrounds’ plan is not dependent on future funding.
A team of teachers and administrators who worked on developing the turnaround plan started with acknowledging that students do not have fundamental reading and math skills.
Curriculum is being adopted that allows teachers to help students who are below grade level and struggling while at the same time giving their classmates who are at grade level, or beyond, the chance to excel.
For example, teachers are using the Daily 5, a language program that focuses on five core areas: reading to oneself, reading to someone else, listening to reading, writing and word work that helps students better understand different aspects of words. The Daily 5 is meant to be used for 90 minutes each day and students participate in the five different activities.
Harrington said one of the problems low-performing schools share is a high number of young, inexperienced teachers. Fairgrounds’ turnaround plan calls for five days of professional development for teachers over the summer. Teachers will also have the support of two instructional leaders who will spend the entire day in classrooms coaching and helping teachers with the new curriculum, and four para-educators who will work with teachers in grades 3 to 5.
And teachers in those grades will no longer be teaching every subject. Instead, based on their own strengths and interests, teachers will be responsible for instruction in either math and science or English language skills and social studies.
Because Fairgrounds relied on its own staff to develop its improvement plan, it has won board support among teachers and has generated some excitement among Fairgrounds’ families and friends.
“It actually goes beyond excitement,” said Fulton. “This is a grassroots plan designed to make a difference and really turn around this school.”