Sunday, March 21, 2004

School rising to challenge

Testing the Limits

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LINCOLN HEIGHTS - No Child Left Behind expects all children to be proficient in reading and math for their grade levels by 2014.Many educators say it can't be done, but Tyrone Olverson thinks his 435 kids can do it even sooner.

Lincoln Heights Elementary School principal Tyrone Olverson laughs while talking to a teacher in the hall.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
Olverson is the first-year principal of Lincoln Heights Elementary, one of 12 schools in the nation that have pledged all of its students will be proficient in less than 12 years. That's the span between passage of the legislation in 2002 and 2014.

Lincoln Heights is the only school in Ohio selected to participate in the "12 Under 12" initiative, a program of the National Staff Development Council, based in Oxford. The nonprofit educational organization, which helps improve schools through staff development, believes 12 years is too long for low-achieving children to perform at the proficient level.

Olverson's school will try to meet the goal by 2011 - three years earlier than the federal requirement. It's a tall order for the school, facing an achievement gap with mostly economically disadvantaged students. Olverson is realistic, but he believes in having lofty goals.

"My grandmother always told me, 'Quit reaching for the stars. Reach for the moon. If you miss the moon, you'll land on the stars,' " the 36-year-old Olverson said. "You go out and try to be the best you can. If not, you're still doing well, because you're ahead of where you would have been."

Olverson was intimidated last year when he met with principals from the other 12 Under 12 schools.

"Ten of the 12 schools are high-achieving - the kinds of schools you read about in magazines," he said. "I thought, 'What are we doing here?' "

Olverson's school is 99.5 percent African-American. Some 95.7 percent are economically disadvantaged, and 12.4 percent have disabilities.

But Lincoln Heights Elementary needn't make any apologies, said Hayes Mizell, distinguished senior fellow with the National Staff Development Council.

"While they may be a school that has some greater challenges than some others, they also happen to have a very energetic principal who seems to want to try to do whatever he can to move the school forward. That counts for a lot," Mizell said. "Most schools are wringing their hands about No Child Left Behind."

The council doesn't provide the schools with financial help, but offers technical support. For example, a council staff person annually visits each school to help develop plans.

"It's really them embracing the challenge and using that as an inspirational target and somewhat of a motivating tool to keep themselves moving forward," Mizell said.

Lincoln Heights, a preschool-to-sixth-grade school in the Princeton City School District, is off to a promising start. On last year's proficiency tests, the district met the "adequate yearly progress" standard.

To achieve the goal of all children being proficient by 2014, all public schools and districts must make satisfactory improvement each year among all students.

"I think it's doable, especially if you look at our particular test scores," said Linda McDaniel, an intervention specialist. "We're already on our way. All we've got to do is fine-tune key points."

Teachers help students before and after school with computer-based programs. Princeton High School students tutor after school. General Electric has provided 145 mentors for Helping One Student to Succeed (HOSTS), a reading program.

Next year, teachers will concentrate on total focused instruction. Students will be assessed frequently. Those who don't understand a concept will get help.

There's still much work to be done. The school only met three of 11 possible Local Report Card indicators last year. It barely missed indicators in fourth-grade reading and sixth-grade math and writing,

So Olverson wants to focus on fourth-grade math and science, and sixth-grade reading. Last year's proficiency results showed only 45.5 percent of fourth-graders were proficient in math and 40.9 percent were proficient in science. Only 51.1 percent of sixth-graders were proficient in reading.

Attendance is key to meeting the school's early goal. Lincoln Heights achieved the attendance indicator on the last report card with a 94.3 percent attendance rate. The rate right now is 95.3 percent, but the principal still isn't satisfied.

"Kids have to be in school," said Olverson. "If you get attendance turned around, everything else comes with that. Good behavior. No one's behind."

Teachers and staff talk up attendance to students and parents. Truant students are cited to diversionary court.

Meanwhile, the school's 48 teachers and staff are writing grants for professional development to build upon their teaching methods.

Judy Sharp, a guidance counselor, credited Olverson for allowing the staff to take innovative approaches to learning.

"He helped us look at things in a different light, to make us examine ourselves and why we've been doing what we're doing," Sharp said.



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