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October 14, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, October 14, 2005

Theuerkauf pulls ahead Theuerkauf pulls ahead (October 14, 2005)

Despite challenges, one MV-Whisman elementary school turns its test scores around

By Molly Tanenbaum

After a year of slipping test scores, Theuerkauf Elementary School has now achieved results that meet state and federal standards, due to pointed efforts at improving literacy, among other skills.

At last Thursday's school board meeting, Principal Connie Sawdey and two Theuerkauf teachers presented the methods which they say led to a reinvigoration of test scores. In the previous year, the school's overall score -- as measured by the Academic Performance Index, which is derived from individual student scores -- had dropped from 725 to 707.

"We were very, very concerned [about the decline] so we immediately began investigating," Sawdey said.

In their examination of the school, Sawdey said, she and the teachers omitted what wasn't working, such as individual outreach to parents and the community, identified student and parent needs, and implemented new programs, such as a PTA and Rosetta Stone English instruction software, to help students fare better on tests.

The apparent result: a 23-point improvement, raising Theuerkauf's overall score to 730.

Theuerkauf is comprised of about 460 students who speak 20 languages and dialects; 53 percent of students are English language learners. Because the decline in test scores was primarily in the reading and language arts area, Sawdey said, Theuerkauf focused improvement efforts on literacy.

One new reading evaluation tool Sawdey and Theuerkauf teachers added to their arsenal is an "Assessment Wall," a clear, visual representation of how students are doing in reading. The "wall" is a large grid of plastic pockets in which teachers in each grade level place index cards representing each student.

Each column of the grid signifies a level of reading ability. Once a month, teachers move each student's card according to improvement, analyze the card distribution and target the areas with the biggest need.

"It keeps us cognizant of what we need to do," Sawdey said. "To have it truly meaningful, we need to have it up front."

Further, Theuerkauf teachers implemented a "flexible grouping" system, whereby students practice reading with other students at their level, instead of just staying in their regular classroom throughout the day.

Sawdey also did away with automatic grade level teacher assignments. Sometimes, she said, teachers are assigned to teach a certain grade level because of the available job and not because of their skill or desire. Allowing teachers to switch from year to year keeps them excited about their jobs and provides them with the opportunity to find their preferred grade level, Sawdey said.

All of these changes were made without any increase in cost, according to Sawdey. The school carefully examined its expenditures from state-received funds and directed less of those funds toward materials and more toward services and staff.

With Castro school in its second year and Slater in its first as Program Improvement schools under the No Child Left Behind Act, Theuerkauf's success is especially relevant to the district.

Theuerkauf reading teacher Tom Miyoko credited Sawdey's efforts for pulling the students' scores up.

"If it wasn't for Connie and her leadership, we couldn't have done this," Miyoko said.

E-mail Molly Tanenbaum at [email protected]

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