An urban school serving needy kids posted big test gains. How did they do it?

September 16, 2016

(Photo: Center for Inspired Teaching)

This piece, which features 2011 Inspired Teaching Fellow Milton Bryant, was written by Perry Stein and originally appeared in the Washington Post.

Sandra Priester has four grandchildren who live with her and attend Ketcham Elementary School, with a fifth slated to start preschool there next year. Money’s tight, but Priester does her best to make it work.

She shepherds the children to class each day, dresses them in clean uniforms and even orders school photos each year. When she didn’t have enough money for the photos last year, she planned for the children to skip them. They took them anyway, thanks to the generosity of the school’s principal.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was thankful. I couldn’t believe she thought of me that way,” Priester said. “They call them college-bound here, all my kids keep talking about how they’re going to college.”

Such occurrences are common at Ketcham, which serves some of the District’s neediest children but managed to push its students to some of the biggest one-year test-score gains in the city this past year.

The challenges are many: Fourteen percent of the student body is homeless, 88 percent of students are considered at risk of not making it to graduation, and 100 percent qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. Some of the students live at D.C. General — a large homeless shelter in Southeast Washington that has been described as dangerous, dirty and dysfunctional and that the city is working to shut down.

Teachers, parents and Principal Maisha Riddlesprigger describe a community at Ketcham that has been created out of necessity — a community where families and faculty help one another to meet children’s needs inside and outside the classroom. Riddlesprigger shuttles students to and from school, teachers quietly pay for new backpacks and shoes, and families donate hand-me-down clothes to each other. There’s a monthly food pantry, where children and families can stock up on fresh and nonperishable foods. And the school just got a washer and dryer, so staff can wash uniforms for students.

And the Ketcham community is doing more than just keeping the students clothed and well-fed: The school posted major gains on standardized tests linked to the Common Core academic standards.

The computerized Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers grades students on a five-point scale, with those who earn a 4 or a 5 meeting or exceeding expectations and considered ready for college and a career. Students are tested in grades three through eight and once in high school; results for last school year’s tests were released in August.

At Ketcham, 13.3 percent of students earned a 4 or 5 on the English portion of the exam in the 2015-2016 academic year — an increase from 8.2 percent the previous year. On the math portion of the exam, more than 33 percent of Ketcham test-takers were considered proficient — a big pump from the 15.7 percent of students who earned similar marks the year before.

Ketcham’s gains outpaced the average citywide; the District saw an increase of less than three percentage points in the number of students who earned 4s and 5s on both portions of the test. Citywide across all grade levels, 27 percent of students were considered college and career ready in English, and 25 percent were considered that in math.

“We set goals, and we set targets. Every individual student had a goal,” Riddlesprigger said. “It’s really putting a face to the numbers. I want our data conversations to be about students and individuals and not just data.”

Significant gains in test scores sometimes draw scrutiny, either amid concerns about schools teaching to the test or allegations of possible cheating; between 2008 and 2010, the District was found to have high rates of wrong-to-right erasures, which can be a sign of cheating, though several analyses have not found widespread evidence of cheating at D.C. schools. Riddlesprigger said the scores at Ketcham — which still have major room for improvement — are the result of hard work and higher achievement.

Riddlesprigger said the school took special care to individualize its approach for each student. Groups of teachers and administrators met to analyze each student’s past test scores and to determine goals. They sometimes discussed students’ home lives to see what they could do to meet specific needs, such as securing rides to school or healthy meals.

“If you don’t believe that a student can go from a 2 to 4, then this isn’t the school for you,” Riddlesprigger said.

Riddlesprigger credits some of the success to an increased focus on teacher development — an emphasis that has been occurring throughout D.C. Public Schools. Teachers also conduct home visits with almost every student at least once during the year. And about a third of the Ketcham students participate in the school’s academic-oriented after-school programs.

The school has encouraged lessons that involve real-world applications of math concepts the students have learned, hoping to engage students beyond just the academic setting.

On a recent Wednesday, second-graders sat in a circle, cheering their classmates on when they answered a math question correctly. Third-graders could be found talking to their seat neighbors about a reading on democracy and voting rights — a lesson that teachers ensured came before Election Day.

Milton Bryant, a fourth- and fifth-grade math teacher at Ketcham, said he often talks to students about their homes, social lives and aspirations — and then works to incorporate what he’s learned into his math instruction.

“It has a lot do with empathy and belief. These students have been beaten down a lot with things in their environment and in school from failing so much,” Bryant said. “Our kids are no different than the kids in Northwest, they’re just as great problem-solvers. They’re just solving different problems.”

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