A Profile in Progress: Central Elementary School, Allentown, PA

Central Elementary School demonstrates that school improvement is not only possible but also can begin quickly when new resources and instructional strategies are combined with strong leadership and a sustainable plan for school transformation.

After several frustrating years of failing to make the school’s goal for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), Central Elementary School’s 700 students met that goal for the first time in the 2010–2011 school year. And they did so in impressive fashion, meeting all twenty-five AYP targets and making solid gains in reading and math on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). Moreover, school absences decreased by more than 1,000 from the previous school year, and suspensions dropped by 50 percent.

School and district officials attribute the upward trends to a number of important shifts working in concert: financial assistance from the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) and Investing in Innovation (i3) grant programs, a reinvigorated teaching staff, stronger and more focused community involvement, strengthened instruction through the implementation of Success for All programs, and a new school leader committed to staying the course toward improvement.

District and school officials are committed to making high expectations and student success the norm in this diverse school where 92 percent of students come from low-income families.

Federal Resources

Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded the Allentown School District two SIG grants totaling $10.8 million. The resources have been a welcome infusion to the district, which is Pennsylvania’s fourth largest and has 18,000 students and a per-capita income of $16,282 (2009).

Central Elementary was one of six schools to share in the first grant, which totaled $2.6 million per year for each of three years. Last fall, the district received another SIG grant of $1 million per year for three years.

More assistance followed in 2011 when the district’s partnership with the Success for All Foundation (SFAF) led to additional funds through the i3 grant program. As the winner of a $50 million i3 expansion grant, the SFAF was able to give Central Elementary a substantial subgrant that allowed for a far deeper partnership and more teacher training and coaching.

Academic Strategies

Facing flat academic performance and no clear plan for sustained improvement, the Allentown School District brought the Success for All program to Central Elementary in the fall of 2010. SFA’s rigorous research base met federal guidelines for a school-turnaround model, and SFA’s proven instructional strategies for providing training and ongoing coaching to teachers promised to meet some of the school’s most pressing needs. The partnership was first intended to address core reading-instruction needs, but it has also become a catalyst for implementing SFA’s math program.

Using the i3 grant, Central received more intensive support from the SFAF, which jump-started the school’s success. Thanks to the grant, a highly trained professional-development and literacy coach works at the school three days each week, which is about 30 percent more time than the school could have previously provided, and allows the partnership to go well beyond what had been anticipated.

With these new resources, Central Elementary is under great pressure to improve quickly. So far, the intensive interventions are helping it do just that:
  • From 2009–2010 to 2010–2011, the percentage of African American students scoring at or above proficient on the PSSA rose 10.1 percentage points in reading and 21.3 in math.
  • Latino students saw a 6.8 percentage-point gain in reading and an 8 percentage-point gain in math.
  • Students from low-income families improved also, gaining 6 percentage points in reading and 11.2 in math.

Strong Leadership

The critical piece to Central Elementary’s reform plan was the addition of its new principal, Jeffrey Fries, in January 2011. He is a strong supporter of the SIG effort and the transformation strategies in place. Rather than introduce new strategies, he ensured stability during a time of transition by keeping a proven strategy that was just beginning to be implemented. He looked at what was working and chose to bring even greater fidelity to successful strategies, hold school staff accountable for their efforts and results, and ensure that teachers have the supports they need.

Principal Fries understands that schools need good leadership, but it’s how he defines leadership that makes a difference. He does not shy away from pointing out where student and teacher performance comes up short, but he is also the first to celebrate progress and highlight the work of the school’s teachers and support staff. His leadership extends into the community, where he has worked with school staff to create a more meaningful outreach plan to get parents of English language learners more involved—a shift that has contributed greatly to the improved attendance and discipline trends.