To lead one of the area’s most-improved schools means going to lunchtime with a game plan.
Kansas City’s James Elementary School Principal Jo Lynne Nemethlooks
like she could simply be a roaming Wal-Mart greeter, but she knows her targets.
“How does it feel to come to school every day?” she says, calling a boy by name and leaning in close at his cafeteria table. “You’re not too far behind, are you? It’s a good thing.”
She knows the children who have been skipping at their former schools. She knows who’s new. She’s quick to pair up two boys where there has been name-calling.
“Can you guys sit down and make a plan?” she says. “See if you can work it out. I’ll come right back and see what plan you’ve made.”
James Elementary is one of seven area schools in Missouri and Kansas that have been recognized as their states’ most-improved schools.
Nine other area schools have been recognized as some of their states’ highest achieving schools.
The recognition comes as part of new state-created accountability plans that replace the No Child Left Behind Act. The roughly two-thirds of all public schools in Missouri and Kansas that receive federal Title I dollars are held accountable by the plans. Top Title I schools and the most-improving schools are recognized, and schools most in need of improvement are also identified and must create turnaround plans.
There’s little resting at James, where 95 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and around 80 percent are either learning English or speak it as a second language.
Since 2010, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in communication arts rose from 16 to 30 percent. In math, the percentage improved from 29 to 53.
Success would seem to have followed Nemeth from McCoy Elementary School, one of the Kansas City Public Schools’ highest-achieving schools before the old building was one of many the district closed in 2010.
But Nemeth sees herself as the inheritor of a tireless staff at James.
In the hall, she passes by Grace Whiting’s third-grade class readying for a bathroom break. They’ve sung themselves into line and marched out into the hall where they sit cross-legged in neat rows. Each one has a clipboard with their math assignments so they can continue working seated on the floor while Whiting sends children a few at a time to the bathroom.
“You don’t want to lose instruction time,” she says.
Kindergarten teacher Alyssa Detwiler is passing by on her way to meet a parent during her planning time. The canvas belt of pouches she wears lends her the appearance of a carpenter.
Nemeth stops her for a moment.
“How late were you here Wednesday night?” she asks, remembering the regular team meeting the three kindergarten teachers and the language specialist convened to plot strategies.
Past 6 p.m., the teacher says.
Stepping into Lynn Raynor’s fifth-grade classroom, Nemeth marvels at the myriad ways the teacher has her children learning math.
They’re scattered about the room, some at their desks testing, others tapping away at computers along the wall and some in pairs at the three portable DVD players that Raynor bought herself to put more programs in their hands.
And they’re not just any math DVDs, Nemeth says. Raynor helped write the district’s math curriculum over the summer and she spends many hours researching DVDs and computer programs to find exercises that match the school’s learning targets.
“It’s worth it,” Raynor says. “It’s my life. My husband understands.”
If she could, Nemeth would have a health clinic and a dental clinic in the school as she had many years at McCoy. The grant funding she needs is hard to win, but she keeps trying.
The health and wellness of children — “caring for the whole child” — is essential to good academics, she says.
There’s more, of course. The strategies, echoed in various ways across the area’s high-performing schools, include college campus visits beginning in pre-school, and big goals and ambitious targets.
But most of all, Nemeth says, a school’s success is measured in its staff’s “intensity, tenacity and passion.”
Olathe Assistant Superintendent Erin Dugan knows what she means. The growth that put Olathe’s Indian Trail Middle School on the reward school list relied on strong relationships between staff and students, she said.
Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry, she said. And they can’t focus if they’re worrying all day about not having track shoes for the track meet after school.
If staff know their students and their families well enough, she said, “We can meet those kinds of needs so that then we can get on to the business of math and reading comprehension.”
Eisenhower Elementary on Fort Leavenworth, one of Kansas’ high-achieving reward schools, has to be particularly quick in learning the skills and needs of its students, Superintendent Keith Mispagel said. Half of its students move every year because of their parents’ military reassignments. Teaching teams meet regularly to gauge each child’s progress and prepare specific education plans.
Blue Valley and Spring Hill described the same intensity over data at their Title I reward schools.
At Boone Elementary School in the Center School District, Principal Sheryl Cochran talked of involving parents and making them key players in understanding their children’s needs and building the grand expectations that have boosted Boone onto the most-improved list.
University Academy, a charter school campus that goes from pre-school to high school, makes its expectations clear from the very beginning, Superintendent Maggie Anderson said.
At the end of the line, their seniors have to be accepted to a post-high school institution — be it a university, community college or trade school— to graduate.
When the school meets with its new parents for its pre-school program and its kindergarten roundup, that message serves as a keynote address.
The school and its community partners will support them, Anderson said, including helping its graduates as they go into college. But they make sure parents know what is expected of them. For University Academy, like other high-achieving schools, success is a great collaboration.
They tell the parents “this is where we are going,” she said. “And this is the agreement you have made.”