Pressure’s On As “CMT Olympics” Begin

Melissa Bailey PhotoAs anxiety rippled through the hallways in anticipation of the high-stakes Connecticut Mastery Test, Principal Sabrina Breland popped into an 8th grade classroom and delivered a dose of confidence and laughter to nervous students.

The exchange took place as middle-schoolers prepared for the CMT, which is administered to all Connecticut public school students in grades 3 to 8. Testing starts Monday and lasts two weeks.

The tests form the basis on which the state, federal government and New Haven’s own school reform effort measure the success of city schools.

Breland’s K-8 school, Wexler/Grant in Dixwell, faces extra pressure this year: the CMT will be the first major test of a concerted effort to “turn around” a failing school. As the leader of the city’s second in-district turnaround, Breland (pictured above) got the power to choose her entire staff; those teachers not asked back were sent to other schools. The district and the school are now focusing on a plan to improve the school climate and get kids on track in the classroom.

“Obviously there’s a lot of pressure” in the CMT, Breland said, “because how the students do dictates how people think the school is doing”—even if there are other important measures of how the school fares.

Breland finds herself in the same spot where Principal Karen Lott at Brennan/Rogers stood last year—helping a young staff and a challenging student body prepare for a major test without losing their cool.

At 9:30 a.m., Breland sat with teachers at a training session when the school secretary stopped in. A mom had shown up at the school to talk to her daughter, a 7th-grader, who had been acting out.

“We don’t know where she is,” Breland told the mom. “She’s been running in and out of the doors.”

As the mom tracked down her daughter, Breland met with another family and a child who had been involved with a bullying incident.

Breland said her aim is not to suspend the kid, but to listen and defuse the conflict. She ended up sending both kids to a Saturday detention, where they’ll go to a workshop on bullying—and take some time to prepare for the CMTs.

A couple of hours later, Breland found herself in the hallway, “reading the riot act” to a group of 8th-grade girls. The girls had come from gym class, where the teacher was out sick. The girls “tried to stretch the rules” with the paraprofessional in charge. Two of them got caught listening to music on a handheld device.

While the school has long struggled with behavioral problems, Breland said Thursday’s behavior was unusual for the middle-schoolers: “They’re a pretty calm bunch, for the most part.”

“When the CMTs come up, it gives students anxiety sometimes,” offered Faye Brown, a Comer Method specialist who was visiting the school that day.

Breland accepted the theory. “It is the anxiety of the CMT, I think.”

She said this year, the school goal is to make “safe harbor” for a second year in a row. That means the total number of kids scoring proficient in each subgroup (for example, English language learners and special education students) has to rise by 10 percent. Overall, 49 percent of Wexler students scored proficient on the tests last year, compared to 65 percent district-wide.

The CMT figured prominently as Breland made her regular rounds Thursday.

In Katherine Williamson’s 5th-grade language arts class, students were practicing editing each other’s essays.

Among the many motivational and informative messages posted in bright colors around the classroom was a sign with that day’s lesson plan.

Today I am practicing elaboration and DRP [Degrees of Reading Power] strategies.

So that I can rock the CMT!

Breland and her assistant principal, Nicole Sanders, pride themselves in spending a significant amount of time visiting classrooms, the principal said. Teachers know to keep their lesson plans typed out on a paper just inside the door so their visitors can check out what they’re doing.

In visits to three classrooms Thursday, Breland checked with students to make sure they got the point of the lesson.

“What are you learning?” she asked a student in Jay Schneider’s 8th-grade social studies class.

“We’re learning how to revise essays so during the CMTs we can do better,” came the reply.

At another table, Timaquoa Gardner (at right in photo at the top of this story) worked alongside two other girls on a persuasive essay.

“I’m nervous. I don’t think I’m ready,” she said about the CMT. She said she planned to skip some difficult questions, then go back to them if she has time.

“I don’t feel pressure,” she explained, just nerves.

Breland came over and loosened up the tension. The students pitched her on buying fried chicken for a city staffer who had visited the school. They ended up joking about the principal’s cooking skills.

Their teacher, Schneider, said the lesson served as preparation for the CMT, but also for life—“persuasive writing is how you get a job.”

He said teachers have to “walk the line” between telling students the test is important, and “TELLING THEM IT’S IMPORTANT.” He illustrated the latter message by raising clawed hands in the air in mock menace. 

“We’re finding the balance,” Schneider said.

Breland said she tries to remind kids that on the test, “you’re going to demonstrate what you know.” But, she said, many still feel like someone’s “judging you.”

Seventh-grader Benny Torres (pictured) was one of several kids who showed up to school Thursday wearing shirts that read: “Wexler Grant School. CMT Ready.”

Asked if he feels ready, he replied “no.”

He said he feels “nervous.” “It’s a big test.”

CMTs may not reflect progress taking place at the school, Breland pointed out—how teachers are planning lessons, improving student behavior, connecting with kids, or any number of other measures.

For that reason, she said the tests can be a “morale-buster” for staff.

Breland said she’s trying to boost morale in several ways. Teachers and students faced off Wednesday in a monthly basketball game, which is meant to build teamwork and school pride. Breland, a former basketball coach at Hillhouse, made jerseys for the tradition. Hers reads “Magic” on the back.

Breland also boosted spirits by choosing this time of the year to start recruiting for Wexler/Grant’s own basketball team. In addition, staff are offering raffle tickets to students who show up on time for the CMTs and don’t disrupt the testing.

Janoah Fuller, who’s in the 7th grade, will be one kid lining up to get those tickets. He said he planned to study “all the subjects” on Sunday for “thirty minutes to one hour.”

“I feel pretty confident,” he said.

He turned to sit back down with his friends, who were taking a break from CMT prep to play Uno during their a lunch period.

“Failure is not an option!” read the back of his shirt, which he got at a pep rally at Wexler-Grant last year. “I will not be left behind.”

Past Independent stories on Wexler/Grant:

TFA Teacher Hits Stride—& May Leave Town
A K-8 “Turnaround” Enlists Hillhouse Seniors
At “Turnaround,” Half The Teachers Will Stay

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posted by: Miss E on March 5, 2012  9:34am

My daughter attended Wexler Grant last year and I had many opportunities to interact with Ms.Breland. She is a wonderful principal who really makes a point of being directly involved with the students and addressing any concerns parents may have. Keep up the good work Ms Breland..

posted by: Blue on March 5, 2012  8:24pm

No disrespect to the teachers or administrators at Wexler for they are just doing what they are told to do, but the pictures in this story tell a thousand words about the sad state of education this city and country.

That organization chart is dry and boring, and the activites show students merely preparing to take a written test.  Sadly, many middle school classes throughout the city have these charts posted throughout the room—at the expense of student-work displays.  The students in the pictures aren’t exploring, they aren’t creating, they aren’t learning by doing.

Unfortunately, the government has tied money to test scores, so until that changes education won’t change for the better.

posted by: Thomas Burns on March 5, 2012  8:49pm

Go Wexler Grant——champion type students , staff and leadership——we are proud of you—Good Luck in showing us all you know—Tom

posted by: Brutus2011 on March 6, 2012  8:08am

I found it interesting to read this article and then read the 3 comments posted thereafter.

One comment from a parent, one from a teacher, and one from the VP of the teacher’s union.

The parent clearly had a positive experience with the principal.

The teacher clearly wishes to express a perspective that non-educators might miss.

The union education executive clearly wishes to cheer-lead.

After examining the photos of the classroom(s), I have to say that many classrooms look just like that.

Curriculum based posters, student work displayed, probably a word wall, encouraging words, etc—all good stuff.

Why year after year do NHPS test scores come back with little to no growth?

Do people really believe it is because of the teachers?

And, why does the VP of the teacher’s union waste time cheerleading and not countering the public relations campaign of the governor, the state education commissioner, and the charter school executives to channel money away from our schools while bashing teachers with tenure and assorted half-truths to deceive the public?

I have not heard or read of one union exec try to directly contradict the astonishing misinformation perpetrated by the highest office in our state. Why is that? (Except NHFT President Dave Cicarella’s excellent explanation of what tenure means in a public school context.)

Unfortunately, the article appeared in the NHI when the comments blackout was in effect. (Which seems to have had a rather chilling effect upon comments—good for those who obfuscate and deny and bad for everyone else.)

posted by: Thomas Burns on March 6, 2012  12:53pm

You are right on in most of your posts, this isnt one of them—your statement about this VP was disengenuos—-You personally have seen my posts on many sites across CT, that state all that you say and more about the special interests takeover of public education—I do this always and everywhere—The Governor’s Bill must be defeated and we are working arduously with our school community and with legislators all around this state in order to defeat the bill and replace it with one that will have a chance of working—
I do want the students at Wexler to perform well on any task that they undertake—therefore my support—-and I am sure—yours—Tom

posted by: Brutus2011 on March 6, 2012  1:22pm

I apologize if “Tom Burns” feels as though I have mischaracterized him.

Mr. Burns is certainly to be commended for his service to kids, teachers, and public education.

I am frustrated, Mr. Burns, because I see no one standing up and defending the integrity and commitment to education by the vast majority of Connecticut’s teachers.

Administrators clearly want the public to look away from their failed policies and inability to lead us to where education needs to be.

The privateers see this and are eagerly trying to fill the gap of incompetence from the top.

Teachers, in my view, are the most viable alternative to the failed management of our public schools.

Unions should be leading the effort to right the ship—from a teacher prospective.

We are the answer—just not in the way the ed execs would have the public believe.

posted by: Blue on March 6, 2012  8:04pm

@Thomas Burns - Why would a teachers union agree to conditions that provide teachers at Tier I schools with autonomy and teachers at Tier III schools with constant, non-constructive, borderline-harrassment from the honchos downtown?

Tell you what:  Let’s take all the teachers at Tier I schools and put them in Tier III schools to work with our city’s neediest student population.  If they’re such great practioners, as district management would like everybody to believe, then what’s the problem?  Let’s go.

posted by: Tommy Burns on March 7, 2012  4:42am

Blue—I agree—I actually believe the Tier III schools need more autonomy as they have been told forever what to do forever from downtown w/o the desired results—-so give it to the teachers and see what they can do(with support from downtown—-not directives)By the way the teachers/administrators do have the power in EVERY school to get together and decide how that school should be run—thats the idea of portfolio schools which grants more autonomy to each school—-converse in your schools and with downtown and ask for more autonomy—lets see what they say—
then give me a holler—we ALL want to get this right so that our students get what they need—TOGETHER—Tom