The Scarlet Rating: How One ‘Improvement Required’ School Seeks a...

Personal Learning Networks

The Scarlet Rating: How One ‘Improvement Required’ School Seeks a Turnaround

By Jenny Abamu     Aug 22, 2017

The Scarlet Rating: How One ‘Improvement Required’ School Seeks a Turnaround

Brook Avenue Elementary School in Waco, Texas has been in the papers before, but not for shiny new laptops or flexible classrooms. The school has served as the model for poor performance in the area—listed in both Waco Tribune-Herald and on KCEN-TV for falling below state standards for the last six years. However, school leaders Sarah Pedrotti and Jessica Torres are on a mission to flip the failure narrative and rebrand their school by motivating their teachers through personalized professional development.

“In the past, being a school that is in Improvement Required (or IR) meant you had a ton of people who are telling your story,” says Torres, the assistant principal at Brook Avenue in an interview with EdSurge. “You have the local media, you got the state, you have everyone telling your story from their perspective, but no one was hearing about the hard work teachers were doing. No one was hearing about the students and their achievements.”

Pedrotti took over as principal of Brook Avenue Elementary School in January of 2016, and Torres joined her that April. Since that time, its leaders have been working with the community to improve test scores and rebrand the school in hopes of removing the “improvement required” label that has followed them like a scarlet letter. With 99.2 percent of the student body on free or reduced lunch and a significant population of parents who don’t speak English, the journey has not been easy.

Each year students in Texas are required to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exam, also known as the STAAR exam. Through the exams, districts are evaluated on four index areas: student achievement, student progress, closing performance gaps and postsecondary readiness. Schools that do not meet the state standards on the exam are listed as “improvement required” campuses. This has been this case for Brook Avenue Elementary School six years in a row.

To turn their school around, Pedrotti and Torres are combating the "improvement required" label, which they say demoralizes teachers. Starting with social media such as Facebook and Twitter, the two make it a priority to celebrate the accomplishments of students and teachers in their school on a daily basis. They hope to generate a sense of pride and community around the school that Torres notes is necessary to rebuild teachers’ confidence.

“Teaching in itself is very hard work, but when you are teaching on a campus that has ‘improvement required,’ the pressures are just immense,” says Torres. “We know the pressures that our teachers are under, and we wanted them to understand that we value the work that they do.”

The postings include images from summer camps and pictures of students viewing the solar eclipse, says Pedrotti.

Torres notes that using these applications provides the public with a more-accurate picture of their school, and she has seen positive feedback on Facebook from parents who rate them online. This, she says, has encouraged more teachers to get online and share out what is happening in their classrooms.

“Our teachers are excited. Initially, we only started with three teachers who had their own Twitter accounts,” says Torres, but the duo is encouraging more teachers to get accounts so they can share out about what is working and develop professional learning networks. “Little by little, Sarah and I have emphasized reaching out and being that learner you want to see in your students. It has to come from the adult first. If we want our student outcomes to change, we have to change our adult behaviors.”

On Twitter, Torres and Pedrotti have encouraged teachers to engage with educators teaching similar subjects in other struggling schools to build a network. Teachers have participated in chats specific to their discipline. Torres also participates in Twitter book studies and leads and participates in chats such as #EDPiper and the #BmoreEdchat.

“We wanted to reach out to others who were in our same situation and form a learning group,” says Torres.

In addition to campaigning and networking on Twitter, last spring Torres began to implement personalized learning for educators. As a first step, she introduced Google Apps for Education, where she says teachers can communicate with administration and collaborate with one another more readily. Over the summer, the school also used grants to send 12 of their teachers to conferences based on their interest or area of growth. Pedrotti notes that teachers have already begun to implement strategies they learned from conference groups such as AVID, a nonprofit organization focused on closing the achievement gap.

Still, the road ahead for educators at Brook Avenue is difficult. Pedrotti explains that teaching on an IR campus can be isolating as heavy monitoring and scrutiny follows any action educators on such campuses take. It is also sometimes difficult for teachers to see how projects that work in other schools can work on their campus when there are so many barriers to innovation. Torres echoes her concerns, noting how the campus has received criticism in the past for implementing social and emotional programs that are not directly tied to academic achievement.

“In a traditional school you can make innovative practices and decisions and nobody questions you because your students are where they need to be,” says Torres. “Whereas Sarah and I might bring up one-to-one or flexible seating and the first thing that is asked is, ‘Is this going to benefit your students academically?’ But we go back to the research. If students can’t focus, if they are hungry, academics are not going to go anywhere.”

Though Brook Avenue is still an IR campus, Pedrotti points to small gains the school made on the exam last year as evidence that students can pass the test this year. She recommends that schools like Brook Avenue begin to build professional learning networks, clarify the school vision with all stakeholders and change the school mindset in order to see a difference academically.

“The way a child comes into your campus should in no way dictate how they leave,” says Torres, quoting their new superintendent Marcus Nelson. “It can no longer be about ‘We are from poverty,’ or ‘I don’t have my mom at night to help me do my homework.’ That cannot become an excuse for us as education leaders. It is our job to do everything possible to make sure that our children grow.”

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