One city public school did it. Forty-three to go.
The school in question, Davis Street 21st Century Magnet, has eliminated the achievement gap. How? Students like Tiana Grant, teachers like Erin King (they’re pictured together), and moms like Dorothea Jaynes have relentlessly worked together to reach higher. Tiana went from a low scorer to a star student in just one year.
Davis succeeded in boosting scores enough to become the first New Haven public non-charter school to see its African-American fifth-graders do as well as all Connecticut fifth-graders on standardized tests.
The news came this past week in a report from New Haven-based ConnCAN, an education reform group. Several New Haven public and charter schools made the report’s “top ten” lists for student achievement. (Click here for complete results.)
One focus of the report—and of ConnCAN’s work—is the “achievement gap”: the lag in performance between white and non-white students. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano has made closing that gap a top priority of his emerging citywide public school reform initiative. School reformers here and nationwide have made closing the gap their top priority; some call it this generation’s top civil rights crusade.
The achievement gap is particularly acute in New Haven. Statewide it’s dramatic enough: Only 34 percent of African-American fifth-graders in non-charter public schools reached “goal” (the expected level of accomplishment) on Connecticut Mastery Tests, compared to 62 percent for students of all races. Only 32 percent of New Haven African-American fifth-graders did. And only 27 percent of New Haven eighth-graders in non-charter public schools did.
But not at Davis: 62.6 percent of the school’s African-American fifth-graders made goal on the most recent exams, slightly higher than the overall state average, almost double the average for African-Americans.
“They’ve closed the achievement gap,” declared Marc Porter Magee, chief operating officer at ConnCAN.
Magee’s group looked at how African-American fifth-graders throughout the state performed on standardized tests covering all subjects. It examined the 85 elementary schools that have at least 20 African-American students. It ranked the schools based on how many students reached state “goal,” not just “proficiency,” since “goal” represents the level the state expects students to reach.
Davis’s fifth-graders ranked fourth statewide. (New Haven’s Elm City College Prep, a charter school, ranked first.)
The Independent has been checking in this academic year on Davis, a leading light in a struggling school system searching for clues for how to pull off a successful, nationally watched reform drive.
Exhibit A: Tiana Grant’s turnaround year.
Tiana, who’s now 11 and in sixth grade, made the biggest leap last year.
She started out the year doing poorly on tests, not doing her homework, resisting fifth-grade teacher Erin King’s efforts to have her participate in class.
Tiana said she was “scared” in class, scared kids would laugh at her. She had transferred to Davis a year earlier when her family moved from Hamden to the New Haven side of Elizabeth Street, which straddles the border of both towns. She didn’t know the kids well yet. And she didn’t know her times tables.
Tiana felt doubly intimidated because Davis has a challenging math curriculum. It teaches problems well beyond those covered on standardized tests for the grade. Tiana thought she recognized problems from her older sister’s high-school homework.
One day early in the year King had the class play a math version of the game “All Around the World.” Two students would get a card with a problem. The first one to answer moved on; the other sat down.
“I went to the bathroom so my turn didn’t come,” Tiana recalled in a conversation at the school Wednesday.
That surprised King; she hadn’t known that. She had known Tiana was struggling. “She didn’t have confidence,” King recalled. “She didn’t want to risk being wrong.”
King dealt with the problem partly by reinforcing to the whole class that laughing at kids would not be tolerated. She also pointed at her own mistakes at the blackboard. The idea was to create a “safe” environment for kids to participate without worrying about giving wrong answers.
Meanwhile, King sent home notices each night to parents reporting on whether students completed or failed to turn in homework. Students were supposed to return the forms to class with their parents’ signatures. Tiana wasn’t doing her homework—and wasn’t turning in her forms.
King called Tiana’s mother Dorothea Jaynes. Mom came in for a meeting with King and Tiana. She laid down the law: Tiana must do her homework. And she must return the forms. No wiggle room.
It turned out Tiana was feeling neglected at home. Her mom raises five kids—alone. She works full-time as a surgical tech at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital. She also is pursuing a nursing degree at Gateway Community College. Lately she’d been working extra shifts at the hospital. When she was at home, she had to focus on Tiana’s older sister, who’d been getting in trouble at high school.
“I didn’t get a lot of attention, Tiana recalled. “That made me forget about my homework. I’d be watching TV instead. Mom would arrive home around bedtime.
That changed after the conference over homework slips. Mom dropped two of her four classes at Gateway for the semester. She took some accumulated vacation time from work.
And she had flash cards ready—when Tiana woke up, when she came home, when she went to bed. Now, Tiana said, she was receiving “a little too much attention. I didn’t even get in the door yet. She’d meet me down the street: ‘Let’s do your homework!’”
And mom had a mantra: “You’ve got to get into a good college one day.”
Mom started showing up at school events, too. When she had to work, she sent Tiana’s grandmother, grandfather, aunt or cousin.
Meanwhile, King focused on Tiana in the classroom. She often divides her students into small work clusters, grouping together kids with similar challenges and strengths. She has the groups work independently while she visits each cluster and works more closely with individual students. She saw Tiana start to participate in those clusters.
Then, as she mastered her times tables and got to know her classmates better, she participated more in class. She got a 96 on a test; she beamed when King told her it was the highest score in the class. (Another surprise discovery for King Wednesday: Tiana has kept the test to this day.)
In King’s class, kids get second chances. If they do poorly on a test or an assignment, they can do it over. However, they must show how they arrived at the right answers this time, and what mistakes they’d made last time. Tiana took advantage of that option.
Tiana also started attending an after-school program at Davis. Some days she played saxophone with the band; she said it helped focus on homework when she got home (partly because she could tell her mom she’d already practiced her horn). Other days the program drilled Tiana and classmates on the CMTs.
King (pictured) said she could tell just by observing Tiana that she was doing well on the CMTs last March.
The actual scores arrived this fall. King (no longer Tiana’s teacher) made sure mom Jaynes saw them.
Tiana remembered hearing the news from her mom. Mom looked stern.
“She said, ‘You got below basic [the lowest ranking] on everything.’ I went in my room and cried. She said, ‘I’m just kidding. You got goal in everything but science!’”
Mom and daughter headed to Friendly’s for celebratory fudge brownie ice cream. Tiana remembered her confection arriving with “congratulations” written on it.
Davis officials keep reams of data on each student’s test-score and classroom grade progress throughout the year. The notebooks include a second ranking of standardized-test performance—not scores on the test, but a “vertical scale” quantifying overall progress from year to year, grouped by five “levels of understanding” assessment. Tiana started the year low in “Stage 1” of the scale, at a score of 300, signifying a “very limited ability to read and respond to informational and literary texts.” By year’s end she had leaped up to the higher reaches of Stage II, with a 482 score, the biggest jump in the grade. Her academic progress has continued this year, along with her positive attitude, reported Principal Lola Nathan (at left in photo reviewing the data with a top administrator, Mary Derwin).
Tiana’s mom said she appreciates the way Davis administrators and teachers work with kids who are struggling, the way Tiana was last year.
“They’re more like a family,” she said. “When someone gets in trouble, instead of suspending them, taking them out of school,” they find ways to engage the student and set high expectations.
One result: no more achievement gap.
Previous stories about Davis Street 21st Century Magnet School:
• She Made Time To Get Off Work
• Reading Target Set: 90% By February
• Principal Finds A Place For “Magic”
• Comer Is Back
• Davis Kids Examine Apathy & Genocide
• Principal Keeps School On The Move
• Pot Melts
• So Long, Old Davis
• Music History Steps Offstage
• Music Video Of The Week
Some previous stories about New Haven’s school reform drive:
• She Made Time To Get Off Work
• New Leaders Sought For City High Schools
• Report Card Night Revamped
• Parents Challenged To Join Reform Drive
• Where Do Bad Teachers Go?
• Reform Committees Set
• Mayo Extends Olive Branch
• School Board Makes Mom Cry
• Next Term Will Determine Mayor’s Legacy
• Reading Target Set: 90% By February
• Teacher Pact Applauded; Will $$ Follow?
• Mayor “Not Scared” By $100M
• Useful Applause: Duncan, AFT Praise City
• Reformer Moves Inside
• After Teacher Vote, Mayo Seeks “Grand Slam”
• Will Teacher Contract Bring D.C. Reward?
• What About The Parents?
• Teachers, City Reach Tentative Pact
• Philanthropists Join School Reform Drive
• Wanted: Great Teachers
• “Class of 2026” Gets Started
• Principal Keeps School On The Move
• With National Push, Reform Talks Advance
• Nice New School! Now Do Your Homework
• Mayo Unveils Discipline Plan
• Mayor Launches “School Change” Campaign
• Reform Drive Snags “New Teacher” Team
• Can He Work School Reform Magic?
• Some Parental Non-Involvement Is OK, Too
• Mayor: Close Failing Schools
• Union Chief: Don’t Blame The Teachers
• 3-Tiered School Reform Comes Into Focus
• At NAACP, Mayo Outlines School Reform
• Post Created To Bring In School Reform
• Board of Ed Assembles Legal Team