Changing Demographics School’s Challenge, Strength

“We come from many places. We are one group, working together.” – Crestview Teacher Robin Nelson

Parent Kris Scharingson and kindergarten teacher Robin Nelson stood in Crestview Elementary’s media center a week ago before the WDMCS School Board and had a frank conversation about their school.

“We are losing many outstanding families who value education and who would be an asset to have in our building,” said Scharingson, who lives in the northwestern border of Crestview’s attendance boundary. “They look at our test scores and their decision is made. They never walk in our building.”

Crestview is in its second year of being labeled a School in Need of Assistance because on the state test specific groups – or subgroups – of students did not make adequate yearly progress as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

This concerns Scharingson, but she also feels the test scores do not tell the whole story. That evening, Scharingson made it clear that the school’s diverse student body is its greatest strength.

Video: Hello’s in Seven Languages

So did Nelson. “We have bilingual children at a very early age here at Crestview,” Nelson said. “We need to value that strength.”

Within the school’s student body, there are more than 15 languages spoken. English is the second language for more than 200 of the school’s 550 students. In addition, the number of Crestview students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch has increased from 17 percent to more than 50 percent over the past seven years.

Nelson said her students come to school with a variety of skills and an eagerness to learn.  “They learn to communicate with one another and learn that we are all human with feelings, abilities and things we need to work on,” she added.

During her presentation to the school board, Nelson cited research  that shows it takes seven years for children who are learning a second language to become academically proficient (Collier 1987, 1989, Collier & Thomas, 1989), and children living in poverty have a vocabulary one half the size of middle-class children by age three (Hart & Risley, 1995, Payne, 2005).

“I have children who can read at an end-of-first-grade level in my classroom to children who are speaking their very first English words and phrases,” Nelson said.

What They Experience

Building students’ vocabulary is a crucial part of our teaching, says Crestview kindergarten teacher Robin Nelson. During her recent presentation to the WDMCS School Board she presented a paragraph to show how a new English learner can read a paragraph and actually answer questions, but not know what they have just read.

“Our students can learn to decode words pretty easily, but they need to understand the content and meaning of words,” she said. “Children learn language through connecting new words to what they already know and to building their background knowledge about a wealth of topics.”

Principal John Villotti has a strategy to help teachers address students’ needs. He is working with his staff to reorganize reading instruction and engage them in professional development focused on literacy and math instruction.  Teachers will also learn more about collecting and using data provided by state tests.

He adds the key is to help all students learn. “We want to focus not only on the high- and low-achieving students, but also those that are doing well but could do even better,” he said.

His goal is to have an increase of seven or more students proficient in math and reading in all the cited subgroups by November 2012.  They will monitor student progress toward this goal using Everyday Mathematics tests, Curriculum Based Measurement assessments, and other measurement tools.

He also plans to involve parents. The school now has family math nights, a “Math Corner” and a “Reading Corner” in the weekly newsletter, and teachers are providing Every Day Mathematic home study links in both English and Spanish for parents. He will also survey parents to better understand what they want to know and how they want to receive information.

Villotti agrees that Crestview’s diversity is its strength, but so is the passion of the school’s staff and parents for their students’ success.

Scharingson and Nelson exemplified this during their sometimes tearful conversation with board members.

“My son is surrounded by students from different countries, backgrounds and socioeconomic status,” Scharingson said, adding that test scores do not show how Crestview has made her son a better person. “My son’s world is much larger because of this community.”