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Staff, students lift Siler City Elementary
Published Thursday, October 12, 2017
by John McCann, Special To The Tribune

SILER CITY — One of the telltale signs that Siler City Elementary students were turning the corner last school year was when some of them began cutting in on their playground time in order to knock out a few more math problems. All of a sudden, multiplication was fun. Educational board games were not boring games.

A culture of learning was born.

“From the very beginning of the school year, we were very clear with expectations,” teacher Yazmin Ruiz said.

There was no time for sugarcoating. During the 2015-16 school year, Siler City Elementary was on the list of schools designated by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) as low performing.  Low-performing schools are those that both receive a grade of D or F from DPI and where the majority of students did not exceed academic growth.

“We are no longer a school designated as low performing, and I’m even more excited to say our school exceeded expected growth last year,” Principal Larry Savage said.

Performance grades for elementary and middle schools are based on state-mandated test scores. Academic growth is measured by a statistical model that compares each student’s predicted test score — based on past performance — against his actual result.

Across the state during the 2016-17 school year, 505 schools were identified as low performing, and there were 11 school systems wherein the majority of campuses received Ds and Fs — low-performing districts. That’s a trend in the wrong direction, because the 2015-16 school year had both 489 schools and 10 districts tagged as low performing.

The number of recurring low-performing schools increased from 415 in 2015-16 to 468 in 2016-17. It has plenty to do with students living in financially challenging situations, North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said.

In Chatham County Schools, nearly 49 percent of the students are living in poverty. At Siler City Elementary, in particular, at least 85 percent of the students show up for school from low-income situations. Yet Savage and his staff, with guidance from CCS leaders, lifted Siler City Elementary from a D to a C.

“Siler City Elementary is a shining example of the power of teamwork,” said Amanda Hartness, a CCS assistant superintendent who leads the district’s Academic Services & Instructional Support Division. “District staff, school leadership, teachers, parents, community members and students all worked together to move the school forward. Seeing the synergy of all stakeholders rowing in the same direction is what makes our work so exciting. We are looking forward to seeing the continued growth at Siler City Elementary.”

Once upon a time, Ruiz was a student at Siler City Elementary. Now she’s teaching third-graders at the school, which last year had new language-arts curricula in both English and Spanish. That’s critical programming, because a large portion of students come from homes where English is a second language.

Marian Taylor is the school’s curriculum coach. Last year, she was a math interventionist there. It was the first time the school had such a position. Prior test scores indicated that a good number of students needed more learning time in order to get to where they could access all of the educational tools offered at the school. It’s an approach to equity that is championed across CCS.

Some students at Siler City Elementary would get in an extra 30 minutes of math three times a week. Others would attend those half-hour sessions five days a week. One of the goals was increasing math fluency, which is the ability to immediately recall answers to math problems. “That entails a whole lot of reading and a lot of comprehension,” Taylor said. “Not just basic math computation, you have to be able to understand and articulate what the problems are asking you to do.”

Lacking fluency in English was impacting how students were performing in math, Taylor said. As a math interventionist, she was tasked with showing students how to break down relatively tough word problems into digestible equations. That’s where the board games came in, reinforcing math standards that students would see during end-of-grade testing.

“All of that work — it paid off,” Ruiz said.


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