December 2010
November 19, 2010

Path to college starts on Day 1

Author: Clarisse Butler Banks
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Showing their Genesee Street Elementary School pride are, from left, members Darcy Koziol, a teacher aide; Felicia Granato, a special education teacher; and Michelle Petrosino, a teacher aide. Photo by Clarisse Banks.

Judging by test scores alone, educators at Auburn's Genesee Street Elementary School are doing a phenomenal job working toward closing the education achievement gap and preparing their students for future success.

Students have posted consistent gains on state math and English language arts exams — 75 percent of the school's third- through fifth-graders scored proficient in 2009 on state ELA tests, up from 51 percent in 2007.

In math, scores rose from 74 percent to 89 percent. Before the state changed its scoring methodology for 2010, the school — serving mostly students from low-income families — was on track to continue the upward trend.

But it's not the whole story. A quiet culture shift at the school and in the surrounding community — one that can't be measured by state tests — is already paying dividends.

With a revamped literacy curriculum and an emphasis on college, educators are making sure students grasp their potential from Day 1.

Since 60 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, a poverty indicator, Genesee St. Elementary is a school-wide Title I plan school. The designation gives the school more flexibility to implement programs at the building level.

In turn, educators at the school developed their own assessments — and interventions. The past few years, educators have focused on building a new literacy curriculum for kindergarten through second grade and incorporating more time for individual and group student work.

Lisa Eldred, an AIS teacher and member of the Auburn TA, helped develop the in-house assessments that focus more on determining each student's starting point and building from there.

In the past, educators may have focused on introducing one letter per week to all kindergartners across the district, for example.

"(The district) wanted us to be almost at the same place, so if a child moved from one elementary school to another, they would be doing roughly the same thing," said kindergarten teacher Susan Terry.

Now, Eldred said, "we assess the students on the letters they know first and build on that. You may have a student reading words and putting them together, while another student is working on letter recognition."

The change is working. "Last year, one girl knew six letters in September," Terry recalled. "With the change in instruction she knew 25 letters by the November assessment. I was blown away."

The continued gains at Genesee are made possible because practitioners are involved at every step in creating the curriculum and assessments, said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. "Students' needs are supported when educators work in an environment that encourages the use of data to improve instruction," she said.

The Cayuga County school has also adopted a new approach to preparing students for a future beyond elementary school. Genesee Street Elementary is the first school in New York state to become a "No Excuses University" school.

Similar to the Say Yes to Education program under way in Syracuse, No Excuses places an emphasis on preparing students for college both academically and mentally — making sure traditionally underrepresented populations know higher education is within reach.

Each class has been adopted by a college or university; connections might include a pen pal relationship between Wells College students and students in Cinda Gilmore's fourth-grade, or a joint food drive effort between Mansfield University and Holly Dietsche's fifth-graders to benefit a shelter in Auburn.

"Because we talk about college they see it as an opportunity," said Terry.

Her kindergarten class proudly wears their brown and white St. Bonaventure University T-shirts on Fridays, when every student and teacher dresses in their adopted school colors. On Mondays, students wear "No Excuses University" T-shirts.

Terry's students have taken a virtual tour of St. Bonaventure and had a visit from an admissions officer. Terry's son, a student at the school in western New York, also shared pictures of his dorm room and the dining hall, "to give the students some idea what college life is like," Terry said.

For Jenna Vasile's third-grade class, the connection with the University of Florida goes beyond a discussion about college and continually inspires her lessons.

"I tie it in as a social studies lesson; we talk about Florida and the other states," said Vasile. "They haven't all been to Florida so we did a geography lesson and for ELA we're going to do a scavenger hunt on the university's website." Among other things, students will research class size and course offerings.

Principal Ronald Gorney said the "culture of universal achievement" being fostered at the school has carried over to parents as well.

"We've heard from admissions counselors at Cayuga Community College that parents are going back to school because they're inspired by their children." The elementary school has also launched a parent university. Last summer six parents enrolled in classes to earn their GEDs.

Both No Excuses and the school-wide plan emphasize heavy parent participation. All parents, teachers and students must sign a pledge to each do their part to help the student succeed.

"We have a lot of paperwork in the beginning of the year," said second-grade teacher Judy Garrett. "Of all the papers that went home, the three-way pledge came back signed by everyone."

"The educators at Genesee Street are doing great things," said Sally Jo Widmer, president of the Auburn TA. "It's a challenging school, but everyone is working really hard."