How Northside Elementary scored 100% for literacy

A guest column by Joy Tyner

Realizing a 100% pass rate on a state-mandated literacy test isn’t only extremely exciting and rewarding—in my district, it’s expected. In May 2015, our third-grade class at Northside Elementary, a Title 1 school, aced the newly implemented third-grade literacy test, making them the highest scoring class in the Jackson, Mississippi, metro area. It’s a class including English language learners and special education students. The second-grade class also grew 1.4 years in their reading level average, as measured on the STAR Assessment used districtwide.

So how did we do it? We merged the old with the new by deploying a combination of tech tools and curriculum focused on a 1:1 iPad implementation, and took a unique approach to professional development.

Our school is in a small district of about 5,000 students. Many of our families come to Clinton School District because of our community’s rich heritage of educational excellence. With that comes high expectations for the quality of education throughout the entire community. “Excellence is the only option,” isn’t only our district motto, but a way of life each every community member can embrace.

Finding What Works for Everyone

It’s pretty typical to see students at Northside walking around with iPads as opposed to paperback books. We’re in on our second year of a 1:1 implementation, and in that time we wrote an entirely new curriculum to support the initiative. We needed a curriculum that spoke our students’ language while fun and interactive. We quickly realized that a technology-based world is where our students live, and we needed to meet them there or we wouldn’t reach them at all. Now, our students never sit quietly for more than 15 minutes at a time.

Like many other schools, we had no way to afford new textbooks to support our new curriculum. We also struggled with finding funding for new programs and resources supporting our 1:1 technology model. For an entire year, our students collected box-tops for education with the goal of raising enough to adopt myON, a personalized learning environment and digital library accessible to every student.

A digital library was the key to putting relevant books into the hands of our students for a fraction of the cost of hardbacks. I recall students running up to me in the halls showing me how excited they were about books on their iPads, and how easy and fun reading became for them.

Of course every child is at different reading levels and cognitive ability. One student may be two grades above reading level, and the one sitting next to him may be two grades behind. This makes it challenging for teachers to customize each student’s lesson to fit their individual needs. We believe tracking students at the end of the year is not enough. To give them a quality education, we must constantly be tracking progress. Customized, Lexile-level tracking capabilities help teachers see when a student needs intervention and how they are progressing. We also track student progress, behavior, and overall growth using individualized binders that are updated daily.

Thanks to our 1:1 implementation and newly formatted curriculum, we are able to put more focus on subgroups of students, giving them a great opportunity to succeed. Instead of grouping students needing extra help together and isolating them, we were able to customize their lesson plans and keep them with the rest of the class. Students improved at an accelerated rate because they were challenged not only by their teacher, but also their peers.

Using myON combined with testing capabilities from Accelerated Reader, we saw our student’s literacy rates skyrocket. In our case, easy access to digital books closed the achievement gap, contributing to our outstanding test scores for every student.

The Hunt for Good PD

While many teachers picked up on the new technology easily, others required some professional development to better understand how a digital library and other new tools supporting 1:1 can be used to enhance the traditional classroom setting. We thought, “Our students crave engagement and involvement. How can we create that while teaching teachers?”

Instead of doing an old-fashioned demo, we created a scavenger hunt. Teachers worked through units they had already developed, integrating the digital tools into their lessons. They created virtual bookshelves and assignments they could use in the classroom. They came to realize iPads enhanced what they were already doing. The best part? They got a taste of what engagement feels like from the student’s point of view, learned some new tricks, and had fun while doing it.

A school should look like an elementary school student’s world, and their world never stops. There’s constant interaction, questioning, and discovery. My students jumped grades ahead in reading ability because our motto is ingrained in our school and community. Everyone around them told them that excellence is the only option, and they reached the top. My teachers have embraced technology, and our test scores prove that it is working.

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Joy Tyner is the principal of Northside Elementary in Clinton, MS.

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