How one failing St. Paul school made the grade

  • Article by: EMILY JOHNS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 20, 2008 - 10:41 PM

St. Paul's Ames Elementary, once labeled as underperforming, has found a way to meet the federal No Child Left Behind standard.

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From left, Jamarcus Johnson, Benjamin Thompson, Deonte Johnson and Tarome Bowman, all fifth-graders at Ames Elementary School, worked math problems during class earlier this month while teacher Nikki Schilling presented sixth-graders a different lesson. The St. Paul school is one of only a few dozen schools taken off Minnesota’s list of underperforming schools.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Delores Henderson, the kinetic principal of St. Paul's Ames Elementary, strolled through her school's hallways on her way to a kindergarten classroom. But after spotting some student artwork on the walls, she stopped abruptly.

She pointed at cut-out photos of grinning student faces, attached to a drawing of their bodies.

"Look at these beautiful faces," she said, smiling, then went quiet for a second. "I love getting up and coming to work. It's a lot of work, it's stressful, but we know we don't play around. It's a whole different ballgame, wanting to be on top."

On the face of it, Ames Elementary has all the ingredients needed to make a failing school. Its families are poor, many students struggle with English and there is a high proportion of students of color. But this year, a year in which richer and whiter schools were being added to the rapidly increasing state list of schools falling behind, Ames was removed from the list entirely.

What the school has done to turn things around can be an interesting case study for other Minnesota schools struggling to educate disadvantaged students. The school has adjusted its curriculum, stepped up efforts to connect with parents, started a Saturday school, instituted uniforms and made a cultural shift to raise children's sights toward graduation and college.

"This school is built on helping the children find what their gift is, what their strong points are," said Rochelle West, who has four children at Ames and is a co-chair of the school's site council. "This school helped them find who they are, and who they can be."

Reaching out to parents

In August, more than 200 Minnesota schools were added to the state's list of schools not making adequate progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law. That means that just about half, or 937 of the state's 1,951 are not making the grade under the law, including even traditional powerhouses such as Edina and Wayzata high schools.

Ames was one of only about two dozen schools that were removed from the list, a feat that requires two years in a row of test scores that meet the law's ever-rising bar. In the 2005-06 school year, Henderson said, Ames didn't make the grade because of the performance of its special education students on the state tests.

For Henderson, one of the primary steps the school has taken in recent years is to actively engage parents in the education process. At the beginning of the year, each parent has to have a discussion with his or her child's teacher to develop an individual learning plan for the student. The plans are required by law for special education students in Minnesota, but requiring them for every student in a school is rare.

The plans list what the teacher, and the parent, consider the student's strengths and weaknesses. Parents get progress updates at conferences.

Ninety percent of the students come from low-income families, so Henderson realizes that many parents work two or three jobs. School site council meetings alternate between day and night meetings, and the school serves meals with other parent meetings. It even operates its own food shelf to draw the neediest parents into the building.

This fall, a $2,000 infusion of food for the shelf, courtesy of a foundation, disappeared in five days.

Finding students strengths

In class, teachers focus on students' different "intelligences." The school believes that every student has one area in which they are gifted, whether it be math, reading, logic, etc. Finding out what it is, capitalizing on it, using it to build student confidence, and using it to lead to confidence in other subjects is important, teachers said.

"We're good at math," said 9-year-old Deouzjh Mack, a fourth-grader at the school. He stood outside his classroom with classmate Mista White, talking about what their strengths in schools are. "If there is a math question, we're the first two to have our hands up. Even when the teacher gives fifth-grade questions, we'll shout out the answer."

For math and reading in the school's later grades, boys and girls are separated during class time. Henderson thinks it helps the students concentrate, and better educates the boys and girls, who learn differently.

"I like the math and reading with just boys," said Mista, who is West's son. "Boys get along with other boys easily, and boys don't get along with girls that easily."

The school also has an after-school program open to all students, as well as Saturday school from 7:30 a.m. to noon. Saturday school is also open to all students, but those falling behind are most encouraged to attend. Saturday school, along with after-school programming, is paid for out of the school's everyday budget, Henderson said, which includes Title I funding for poor students. The district also gets help from a nonprofit that provides funding for the school to have four black psychologists work with students.

Teacher Gloria Johnson attributes some of the school's test score success to a reading intervention program the school ran, as well as constant assessment of the students and where they were struggling in school.

"We find out their learning styles, then we can address each child's needs," Johnson said.

For parent Pauline Mang, the first time she walked into Ames Elementary, she loved the school. She wanted her children to be challenged in school, and she wanted them to be cared for. She says they have a thirst for learning now, and her fourth-grade daughter was one of the best in her class on last year's state tests, she said.

"We have good children here," she said last week while sitting in the school's media center with West. "We have good families. We're not a rich school, we're a very poor school, but we have love here."

West jumped in: "You know how they say 'It takes a village?' This is our village. Ames is the village, and the children are being raised."

Emily Johns • 651-298-1541

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