Data analysis, reform model turn around Atlanta school.
At the start of school that same year, Clarietta Davis was appointed principal. Facing an audience of anxious parents at open house night, she vowed, "We're going to be more deliberate with the way we deliver instruction, and we're going to deliver instruction with more rigor."
Today, Venetian Hills--where all but a handful of students qualify for the free lunch program--has been given a new label: 2007 No Child Left Behind--Blue Ribbon School, the highest recognition for academic excellence from the U.S. Department of Education. Student performance has improved sharply during Davis' tenure, with approximately 96 percent of its students in grades 3-5 now performing at grade level in reading and math, according to the latest data.
Venetian Hills "proves that with hard work, every student can achieve great things," said Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who gave much credit to the school's leadership during a recent visit.
Davis--honored two years ago as one of Georgia's High Performance Principals, and recently as one of six recipients of the Department's Terrell H. Bell Award for Exemplary Leadership--said it all began with analyzing test score data. Being promoted to principal, following positions as assistant principal and teacher at Venetian Hills, "caused me to look at my data much, much closer. And not just looking at the data--but tying names into those numbers," she explained.
Data are drawn from a battery of national, state and teacher-developed tests that help educators pinpoint how well students have mastered academic standards so instruction can be tailored accordingly. Data meetings are a standard practice among the staff, involving even the teachers of non-core subjects such as art and physical education. Colorful bar graphs charting each classroom's progress are permanent wall fixtures throughout the school. They often spark questions among the students.
"Whenever you put something on display, you're going to have to explain it," said Davis. "When they see their teacher's name on the board, they want to know, 'Why is that bar here? And why is this teacher's bar there?'... The whole community needs to know what the data is saying and what we're doing about the data."
While data analysis has provided Venetian Hills the map of the road to success, a comprehensive school reform program called Project GRAD has been the vehicle that has made progress possible.
Superintendent Beverly Hall introduced the reform model to Atlanta Public Schools in 2000, confident it could produce the kind of change that helped turn around the schools in Houston where it had been piloted. She had seen for herself during a visit to Texas the success Project GRAD--which stands for Graduation Really Achieves Dreams--had yielded, such as boosting the college-bound rate by 400 percent. Teacher and parent response was highly favorable, "and most importantly," added Hall, "the students just couldn't say enough about the changes that had taken place in both the environment and the quality of teaching as a result of this program."
Project GRAD offers a network of interventions addressing both school and family life from grades K to 12. The 16-year-old program, which was born out of a college scholarship intended to curb the dropout rate at one of Houston's lowest-performing high schools, is built on a "feeder system" that consists of a high school and all the elementary and middle schools that send students into it. The model focuses on five core programs: literacy; math; classroom management; social services and parent involvement; and high school, which promises eligible graduates a $4,000 college scholarship.
Venetian Hills was among the first cluster of schools to adopt Project GRAD in Atlanta. Implementation began with a new curriculum that allowed for a great deal of professional development and research-based practices to be put into place. It provides 90 minutes of uninterrupted instruction for reading in the morning and another hour and a half for math in the afternoon. Students are grouped according to their ability--which is assessed every eight weeks--giving teachers the opportunity to work intensively with children on one skill level in order to effectively prepare them for the next.
What's more, to supplement literacy efforts, before the start of school teachers provide additional instruction to students falling behind, while Hands On Atlanta, Pomona Park Community and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. provide tutoring for children during and after school. Also, through a Reading First grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Venetian Hills acquired its own reading coach to further support K-3 learners. Explains Principal Davis about the various initiatives, "By 2014, we're expected to have all of our children reading on grade level. We're not going to wait until 2013 to get started."
As a result, not only has reading performance increased--last year, 100 percent of third-graders proved at least proficient, with three-fourths exceeding standards--but so has the motivation to read. "I had one student that did not want to return the book because he loved it so much," said the school's media specialist, Sheila Johnson. "I told him there're other books you'll fall in love with too."
Along with book giveaways and other incentives funded through Project GRAD, Johnson said the program has engaged students by "enabling children to take ownership of their learning." As part of its classroom management feature, in each group students elect one another for roles as team captain, recorder, materials manager, reporter and timekeeper.
Another aspect of this reform model that has been a critical catalyst for change reaches beyond school doors. As coordinator of social services and parent involvement at Venetian Hills, Carrie Woodyard has been involved in matters from getting medical attention for a child who was constantly sleeping in class to intervening with a utility company to prevent a family's lights from being turned off. In making home visits, monitoring student attendance and building community partnerships, her goal is simply to minimize those distractions that challenge children from coming to school or rob them from learning when they are there. Woodyard, who worked for departments of family and children services for 20 years, said the need for this full-time position is essential in disadvantaged schools like hers: "I think it opens everyone's eyes as to what we're dealing with instead of stereotyping children and saying, 'Oh, this little child cannot learn,' not knowing the real dynamics."
She is also part of the school's Family Solutions Team, which includes the principal and the reading and math specialists, who meet weekly to address such issues and thereafter with parents to discuss their children's academic and attendance progress. In addition, once a month the team hosts a morning meeting called "Second Cup of Coffee" to update parents on student achievement data and how far they've advanced with school reform progress. And, every Thursday, a packet of students' work samples, teachers' notes, school communication letters and other announcements is sent home for parents' comments and signatures.
Needless to say, parent participation continues to grow, especially encouraged by the increasing success that began with Principal Davis' appointment in 2002. "If you can hook them that first year, you have them on board with you," she said.
Venetian Hills Elementary School
* Grade Span: K-5
* Locale: Urban
* Total Students: 383
* Race/Ethnicity Enrollment: 98% African-American, 2% white
* Free and Reduced-Price Lunch Eligible: 96%
* English Language Learners: 2%
* Special Education Students: 7%
* Percentage Proficient *:
* Interesting Fact: Over the past six years, Venetian Hills has moved from being on the state's list for needing improvement to earning the national honor of Blue Ribbon School.
* Accirding to 2007 results on state exam.