ELYRIA — Franklin Elementary School teacher Amy Yates said she listened to the ideas school officials were proposing — preschool, arts-based learning, combining technology and curriculum — when she heard about the “New Beginnings” proposal several weeks ago.
Then, she heard the one thing that sold her: Starting next year, Franklin’s school day will include 45 additional minutes of instruction.
It’s less than an hour and some may say not enough time to really make a difference — the last time out, Franklin students didn’t pass any of the seven tests the state uses to rate performance — but Yates, a fourth-grade teacher who has taught at Franklin for five years, said 45 minutes is an eternity.
“That’s when I had absolutely no reservations,” said Yates, whose career spans 13 years and includes a stint at the now closed Roosevelt Elementary School. “I knew I was going to vote yes before there was even a vote. I am absolutely thrilled and excited.”
Yates’ enthusiasm is not unusual. In recent years, there have been many outspoken cheerleaders proclaiming all the good work that goes on in the troubled school. There also have been just as many plans for increasing test scores, holding parents more accountable and changing the image of Franklin as the district underachiever.
It begs the question: What will be different this time around?
Yes, the Stocker Foundation’s involvement is a major change. It’s not often that a private foundation makes a $1.25 million commitment over five years to one school.
But Franklin Principal Lisa Licht, also a Roosevelt Elementary transplant, said teachers are excited because they are getting more of what they have sought: Simply more time with their students.
“Staff meetings always end up with teachers saying the same thing, ‘I wish we had more time and we could do this,’” Licht said. “They always feel like they are rushing and they just skim the surface to get in as much as they can. This extra time with the students will be great for writing exercises and one-on-one conferencing with students.”
Time to learn
Adding time to a school day is not an innovative idea.
A group of charter schools across the country — working under the Knowledge is Power Program —works with a school day that in some schools starts as early as 7:30 a.m. and doesn’t conclude until 5 p.m. They even throw Saturday classes into the mix for more time in the classroom.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wants it for all the children in his state, claiming in his State of the State address that it’s about making students more competitive.
Elyria’s Director of Academic Services Ann Schloss, who is Amy Yates’ sister, said more time on task will not cure all that ails the school, but with the new standards known as Common Core hitting teachers hard, it will definitely not hurt.
“Common Core is so much deeper,” she said. “The state will tell you they have done away with some things, but what we are left with is so much more rigorous. We know what that means and what we have to do to prepare these kids for success. Time is everything.”
The teachers of the youngest students, who are pegged with getting students to reach the Third-Grade Guarantee — a state mandate that all students must read at grade-level at that point or face retention — will probably add their extra time to the literacy block, allowing for deeper instruction on reading concepts and comprehension.
“I needed no convincing,” said Michelle Bruce, a second-grade teacher who has spent three years at Franklin after coming from a similar-size urban district in Florida. “When I saw we got more time with the kids, it was final for me. Giving kids more time to work with us is everything for a teacher. To a teacher, 45 minutes is the equivalent of four hours to a normal person.”
Yates, 40, said she already is putting in long hours. She lives the “every minute counts’’ mentality.
Her school day starts about 6:15 a.m. and doesn’t wrap up until 5 p.m.
“Family time is very important to me, but my family also knows teaching is very important to me,” she said. “I love Franklin Elementary and I think by working together, helping each other, we can get it done.”
When the Ohio Achievements Assessments were administered last school year, Franklin students put up numbers that were less than stellar.
Just 63.9 percent of the third-graders in the building scored high enough to be considered proficient or higher on the reading portion of the exam. On the math test, just 52.9 percent of third-graders hit that mark.
In both areas, the state has a benchmark of at least 75 percent of students passing. That was last year. This year, the state raised the bar to 80 percent, meaning if Franklin students perform similarly, they will be even farther away from the state standard.
Still, Franklin is improving in many areas.
In both 2011 and 2012, half of third-graders were considered proficient in reading. The 2013 number was a 13.9-point gain to 63.9 percent.
And students at Franklin — as determined by the state report card — are learning more than a year’s worth of curriculum in a year. Referred to as value-added in state education speak, the measurement looks at math and reading scores to determine whether students are making significant gains from year to year.
Franklin got a high score in that area.
Schloss said the plan is to continue increasing test scores, but she also is realistic about expectations for success.
“There is this thing called the implementation drop-off when scores fall as you are working out new strategies,” she said. “This is not something that happens overnight. Good, sustainable growth and change take three to five years.”
As such, the 4-year-olds who will serve as the inaugural class of preschoolers in the New Beginnings program will be closely tracked. The district wants to know if by controlling what the students learn in preschool, will they be more ready for kindergarten, and will they perform higher in the years to follow with more rigorous instruction?
“We can’t control the experiences they have before coming to us, but we can control what is happening once they are in our buildings,” Schloss said. “We have been working with the area preschools to help refine their curriculum, and it got us thinking about what could happen if more students are better prepared for kindergarten and we can control that.”
Licht said not all kindergartners at Franklin attend preschool. Some have no schooling before walking in her doors. Those students are basically entering a race that has already started, she said.
United for change
When Elyria Schools was drafting its reform plan for Franklin, Superintendent Paul Rigda said he knew he needed the teacher buy-in to be huge for it to work.
“Research has show to have a shot at reform, you need to get 75 to 80 percent (teacher) support,” he said. “We got 82 percent — that is huge and speaks volumes to what the staff is willing to do. This plan will take a big amount of change in the way they do their jobs.”
With such a large percentage of the building’s staff behind reform, district officials said they are optimistic. However, they have no real proof any of it will work.
New Beginnings is not modeled after another successful reform school program. There are no other schools with this exact playbook the Elyria school district is using as a blueprint, Schloss said.
Instead, the plan is a combination of all the things Schloss and Rigda know as educators are touted as being successful.
“We know the arts have a huge impact. We know good, quality preschools have an impact. We know learning through technology has a huge impact,” Schloss said. “All these things that we are tying together are the best practices that we know can work.”
It is no secret Rigda, who has more than 40 years of experience as a teacher and school administrator, loves a quality preschool program. He has called it (on numerous occasions) the silver bullet in education. He favors the arts strongly and, when faced with budget concerns, will not sacrifice music and art over sports or other extracurricular programs.
And Schloss, who is in a coalition with 70 curriculum directors in the state, is driven by data, which she said should drive curriculum changes.
Yet both said it’s the backing of the staff that let them know Franklin was the right school, and now is the right time to pull off something as lofty as school reform.
“If you would have asked me three to five years ago if the staff at Franklin was ready to do this, I would have said no,” Schloss said. “But this staff, this mix of people we have in the building right now — they will do what needs to be done to be successful.”
Yates agreed, but added another stakeholder to the mix.
“Franklin is ready with the community and parents behind us,” she said. “It cannot be just Franklin by ourselves, but the community and the district all behind us, supporting us.”