Utah: 'Not even close' to closing the poverty gap

Published: Friday, June 17 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

"We can't do anything about income, but we can do something about achievement," Lewis said, who added that the school believes focusing more on where students are coming from and how they are progressing every few weeks will help the students perform better in the future.

Belknap Elementary School in Beaver School District was the only school in the state with half or more of its students on free or reduced lunch to score in the top 50 schools in the state. Belknap, in fact, scored in the top 10.

Principal Brady Fails attributes much of this success to having a strong literacy program, teachers and administrators who care individually about each student and a staff that collaborates together on data-driven ideas.

"We have a very close, tight-knit faculty and staff," Fails said. "Everyone is here to help everyone else. The teachers also see the kids in and out of school. They go to little league games or dance recitals when they can. The kids know the teachers are there for them and I think that especially helps in a Title I school. I believe that when students feel they are generally cared for, they will do more to be high achieving. They need to know that they are not just a number."

And Fails has seen this more over the last few years.

About five years ago, the school implemented the state's literacy program, said LaRayne Brown, literacy specialist for the district. Back then about 70 percent of Belknap students were measuring above the state-designated proficiency rate on state tests, she said. Now that number is more than 90 percent. Each night every K-3 child takes a new book home that is on their reading level. So do fourth- through sixth-graders who are behind, she said. Parents are required to sign off that the child read the book.

The students are also tested regularly to figure out what they need help on and those who are further behind are tested more often. The school then breaks the students up to get instruction from their teachers and literacy coaches depending on their needs and have a three-hour literacy block each day. She recalled one fifth-grader this year who was reading on an early third grade level, but with the help of the program he was on his grade level by the end of this year.

"The program is not a one-size-fits-all," Brown said. "They are instructed in reading on their own level. When they are doing well and working on a level where they can see success, they feel good about themselves and about school. The scores are great, but that's just an indicator. The real beauty of this is they are reading better."

Many of the other high-poverty schools that performed well attributed their achievement to successful literacy programs that instructed students on their own level — helping those who were struggling catch up and pushing students who are already advanced. Principal Jade Shepherd of Salina Elementary in the Sevier School district, which was one of the top high-scoring, high-poverty schools, said all-day kindergarten has been a big help. Teacher aides pre-teach the next day's lesson to the struggling students, which helps the students learn the material better and feel more comfortable asking questions. The students also are regularly monitored on their progress and make their own achievement goals. The school has also made a more concentrated effort in teaching differentiated math over the last couple of years.

Principal Daryl Guymon of Woodruff Elementary attributes part of his school's success to an attitude shift over the last couple of years. Woodruff, in Logan School District, came in 51st in the school rankings and has a poverty rate of nearly a 60 percent.

"As a building we have gained the attitude that every kid can learn and every kid will learn," said Guymon, who has been principal at the school for six years. "We are the deciding factor; it is not whether they came from a home of poverty or a home where they speak a different language. We are going to teach them, and we have that expectation."

He said this attitude has also rubbed off on the community and on parents.

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