In one math class at John S. Martinez Sea & Sky STEM School, students no longer sit in neat, orderly rows. On new four-wheeled desks, they swivel around the classroom without a seating chart.
Moving the old desks around caused a raucous break from the classwork. The new desks glide as quietly as a whisper.
“They can just scooch over,” said Angel, a fifth-grader.
The teacher, Diane Mitchell, said that ease allows her to change seating arrangements multiple times a day. Students can get closer to see what’s on the board, circle up to work with partners, then regroup to share with others.
The mobile desks are being piloted as just one way to promote more collaborative, hands-on and personalized learning— an approach that new test score results suggest may be paying off.
For years, New Haven Public Schools have tried to shift the way classes are taught. Rather than covering the same material with the entire class, teachers are now expected to differentiate the lessons for a wide range of skill levels. Delivering an abstract lesson from the front of the room is out; working through problems in small groups is in.
At least, that’s what curricular supervisors say should be happening districtwide. They point to schools like Martinez, a K-8 magnet in Fair Haven that’s open to city residents, and Mauro-Sheridan, a K-8 interdistrict magnet in Westville that accepts suburban students, as examples of schools that are getting it right.
Right down to the physical layout of the classroom, the two schools have reshaped instruction to encourage students’ individual growth. And the results are showing up on standardized test scores. Martinez and Mauro-Sheridan both notched significant gains on a key measure of how much students learn each year. Most importantly, those high scores held for high-needs students, who face significant hurdles of poverty, language and disability.
Ronald Ferguson, director of Harvard University’s Achievement Gap Initiative, said personalized instruction, a culture of achievement and active parent involvement are often found at schools where achievement is rising rapidly. He said it’s not just a strong bond with kids that matters, but a responsiveness to individual needs that makes a difference.
“People do emphasize relationships, but it’s really attention to detail and customization, tailoring. Sometimes people say personalization,” Ferguson said. “It’s really attending to the particularities of children’s learning needs. They’re individualizing both the diagnosis of learning problems and the prescription.”
The district’s elementary school students, as a whole, are far behind on measures of proficiency. Last school year, 66.5 percent tested below grade level in reading, and 78.8 percent tested below grade level in math. But administrators are hoping they can replicate the strategies that are working at Martinez and Mauro-Sheridan to start closing the gap.
Going For Growth
Rather than looking at “proficiency” alone, how many student display mastery of a subject on standardized tests, Connecticut’s State Department of Education (SDE) actually gives more weight to “growth,” the learning an individual student demonstrates across multiple years.
The growth targets for each student are supposed to be an “ambitious yet achievable” benchmark that will keep them on grade level. For students who are behind, the targets are spaced out so that they will catch up within five years. That means they actually need to cram more than a grade’s worth of instruction into each year.
The goals aren’t any different for high-needs students, whom the state defines as kids who are impoverished, who are learning English or who are diagnosed with a learning disability.
Across Connecticut, public schools are struggling to meet these benchmarks, especially for the high-needs students who are only learning just about half of what they need to know. That likely means that the key to closing achievement gaps statewide remains elusive.
“Every student who comes into our schools — whatever their achievement level, high or low — we want to see that growth. That is our promise,” said Ajit Gopalkrishnan. “We want to see growth numbers be a lot stronger than they are,” he added, because they’re “probably a leading indicator of where things are headed long-term.”
While the state as a whole hasn’t cracked it, several of New Haven’s standout elementary schools are getting close.
At Quinnipiac Real World Math STEM School, Worthington Hooker School, John S. Martinez Sea & Sky STEM School, L.W. Beecher Museum School and Strong 21st Century Communications School, the most vulnerable students are beating statewide averages in growth, including the one set by their less challenged peers.
There’s still a ways to go. On average, Martinez’s high-needs students are completing 70 percent of their goals in reading and 63 percent in math; Mauro-Sheridan’s, 62 percent in reading and 67 percent in math. But administrators say those schools are setting an example that the rest of the district should follow.
New Haven is systematically focusing on the “individual growth and success of each student,” trying to “meet the students where they are,” Superintendent Carol Birks said, and the district is already seeing the payoff on “internal and state assessments.”
Going forward, schools district-wide will lay out “established” and “measurable” standards for each student’s growth that teachers and parents can all get behind, emulating what’s working in the top-performing schools, Birks said.
“By scaling and replicating these successful efforts and practices across the district, through a system-wide effort of learning and teaching as One New Haven, I am confident our growth we have witnessed in New Haven will continue and accelerate,” she added.
Lou Menacho, who completed a successful turnaround after becoming Martinez’s principal in 2016, said that his school’s success has been all about connecting with students. If they find the material engaging and trust the person who’s teaching it, they’ll want to perform, he said.
“One of the things we talk about is engagement at Martinez: How do kids feel about the learning?” he asked. “Is there effective pacing, physical movement, humor? Are we building relationships? How do we present the material? How do they figure out whether it’s important, if it’s connected to their life ambitions?”
Leading that kind of class is often different from the way that the teachers themselves were taught, the district’s supervisors say. The curriculum has been updated so that math is grounded in concrete examples and pictorial representations, and reading builds on a foundation of sounding out words.
But more importantly, students are now divided into groups to work on those skills. “Now a classroom is not just everyone reading ‘Animal Farm,’ Chapter 3,” said Will Clark, the district’s chief operating officer. “They’re reading 27 different books maybe and explaining them to each other.” With that differentiation, students who are struggling don’t feel left behind, while students who are running ahead can still feel challenged by the work.
When schools relied solely on boosting their proficiency numbers, they often focus on the students who are right at the cusp of reaching grade level. But by emphasizing growth, every student’s learning matters.
“It’s all about high expectations and rigor,” said Sandy Kaliszewski, the bubbly principal who’s run Mauro-Sheridan since 2014. “Our instruction is tailored to what the child needs.”
At her school, students talk through their goals in reading and math with their teacher every six weeks. Those help determine how students will be grouped. Kaliszewski emphasized that those pairings change constantly.
“We don’t wait until the next test and see that a student didn’t make it,” said Lynn Brantley, the district’s reading supervisor. “We know what they’re doing all along and shouldn’t be shocked.”
Teachers also make sure parents are clued in about that growth plan at each report-card conference, Kaliszewski said. They break down exactly what each child is expected to learn and offer suggestions for how they can help at home, she added.
Administrators said that changing up the instruction only works if students trust their teachers. Those relationships are strengthened, they said, through restorative practices.
On a recent morning at Mauro-Sheridan, a class of fifth-graders arranged themselves around the edges of a blue carpet, emblazoned with the presidential seal, and started discussing the concept of responsibility.
As ambient music played in the background, Claudia Post, the teacher, kicked off the discussion by asking students what responsibilities they have and how they feel when they don’t get follow through.
“Mad at myself.” “Unaccomplished.” (“I love that word choice,” Kaliszewski chimed in.) “Weird.” “Remorseful.” “Guilty.” “Unreliable.”
Post then asked the students to think of one thing they could change about themselves so they didn’t have a reason to feel that way.
The ritual — the teacher’s open-ended question, the chorus of answers and student’s individual action plans — is repeated throughout the building’s three floors at the start of every school day.
Kaliszewski said that those “restorative circles” help students put a vocabulary to their emotions, build a sense of character and set a school-wide culture. “It’s like a safe haven for children to talk to each other,” she said. “It’s all about teaching them to make the right decisions.”
Ferguson, the Harvard professor, said that many schools struggle to maintain a “peer culture of achievement.” Too often, rather than motivating one another, kids undermine each other’s success, distracting from their studies.
“One of the biggest problems in schools is that students get trapped in a peer culture,” he said. “They get in trouble or go off-task because they’re trying to do what other kids want them to do. That interferes with learning.”
Ferguson said that a culture that “prioritizes and celebrates achievement,” like at Mauro-Sheridan and Martinez, keeps everyone focused on the same end goal.
“If you think about it, a kid’s main influences are their teachers, their peers and their parents. It looks like these schools are operating through each of these influences and having some success,” he said. “Particularly in a school district that can sustain that kind of effectiveness for, say, 12 years, you can really turn kids’ lives around. That’s partly the schools, partly the parents, and partly the community.”