With a culturally diverse population, Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School faces a wide variety of learning needs. Administrators turned to Success for All, implementing the strategy in fall 2011 with help from a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant.
Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School in Hyattsville, Maryland, doesn’t shy away from the challenges it faces: an English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) population around 65 percent and the highest free or reduced price lunch population—96 percent—in Prince George’s County. Looking to face these issues, Principal Amy Stout sought something that could address the school’s wide range of learning abilities. “I wanted to be able to reach those students that were struggling, and I wanted to be able to push those students that weren’t struggling,” she said. “I just really felt like that wasn’t happening.” After visiting a school that was using Success for All (SFA), Stout was sold. Langley Park implemented SFA in fall 2011, and in just one year, teachers and administrators say they are far better equipped to meet every student’s needs and are excited to see what achievements are on the horizon.
Funds for Success
Not people to just “get on any bandwagon,” Stout and Langley Park administrators were especially eager to implement SFA because it is a research-based method. “SFA speaks for itself,” Stout said. “You can’t argue with data.” However, the school’s budget issues presented an obstacle. So when she learned that the district was eligible for discounted implementation thanks to SFA’s federal Investing in Innovation (i3) scale-up grant, Stout jumped at the chance to adopt the method. The grant covered a portion of the cost; without it, Stout said, there “is no way at all it would have happened. There is no question about it.”
Cooperative Culture: "Upping the Ante" on Student Achievement
Before implementing SFA, teacher Alicia Kalberer found that students’ disparate learning abilities were causing her to focus on one particular group over another. She was pleased to find that SFA’s cooperative-learning strategies placed everyone on the same page, giving them a common language and enabling her to distribute her time among all students. “It gives the kids a more homogenous feel,” she said. “I think it’s a fantastic program.”
Because they now have that common language, not only are students working harder on their own learning, they’re encouraging their peers to excel as well. “The cooperative-learning environment has really upped the ante of student accountability for their work in tremendous ways throughout the school,” said teacher Katie Reese. “The fact that everybody’s on the same page, the same expectations are clear across the board, and students are really taking ownership of their ideas and their outcomes is a really fabulous thing to see schoolwide.”
Additionally, because students work collaboratively in small groups at their own ability levels, they gain confidence—something Stout said brings timid students out of their shells. “It’s really nonthreatening because they’re working on the level that they’re comfortable with,” she said. And what a change it’s made. Before implementing SFA, some students would never speak in class; now “you can’t stop them from talking!”
And the cooperative culture doesn’t end with the students; teachers and staff have also integrated the method into their instruction: “One of the conversations that you hear now amongst teachers is these are ‘our’ kids, not ‘my’ kids,” Stout observed.
SFA creates consistency in every classroom, which is also something teachers appreciate. Kalberer noted that “it doesn’t matter who’s speaking to them or if there’s a substitute, they know what the expectations are from classroom to classroom.”
SFA’s emphasis on critical thinking—paired with that cooperative culture—encourages active communication among students, who learn to question one another and think critically about the curriculum. Both teachers and administrators are pleased to see this collaborative effort. “It [gives] me goose bumps when I’m listening to all of the student engagements,” Stout said.
Teacher Josué Rentas has observed that SFA’s strategies extend far beyond reading. Once students learn cooperative-learning strategies, they become second nature and naturally permeate all other subjects. Kalberer agreed. “I can definitely use [SFA] in my classroom all day long,” she said.
Langley Park’s Maryland Annual Measurable Objective (AMO) target numbers have held steady, and administrators are optimistic about future results. In 2011, the school’s reading AMO was 85.2 percent. In 2012, the school made a slight gain to 86.5 percent. With a strong first-year implementation, Langley Park students are on track for even greater success in the coming years.
Eager Readers: "Every Teacher's Dream"
Reese has noticed that because students are now comfortable and confident, they love to read. “It’s every teacher’s dream that when the bell rings, all the kids go, ‘Time’s up already?’ As long as I’ve been teaching SFA, that happens every single day. I [say], ‘Time flies when you’re having fun!’ at the end of every single day.”
Not only are students eager to read, they’re eager to progress. The school’s SFA facilitator, Gerri Toure, notes that SFA “creates a sense of ownership for the kids.” She’s found that students are excited to move up and approach her about what else they can do to advance.
Kalberer sees this in her classroom as well. “It’s almost like a social motivation for them,” she said. When students know they are below their own grade levels, she’s observed that they work harder to progress. Stout agreed. When students move up, “it’s a status symbol,” she said.
Imparting a sense of responsibility is yet another benefit that staff has noticed. The morning begins with the ninety-minute reading block, and students independently make their way into the correct classrooms without a teacher escort—something they find novel. “They think they’re super cool,” Stout said. “They do what they need to do, and we just all move on with the day.”
A "Leg Up" on Common Core
With the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) just around the corner, Reese is pleased that her students are already thinking critically and crafting in-depth questions and answers. Because these concepts are used daily as part of the SFA model, teachers are confident that students will be able to transition well into CCSS. "We really feel like we have a leg up on some other schools that don't have this in place because we're already in that Common Core collaborative learning," said Reese. "We already go for the depth."
Kalberer agreed, noting that it's now standard for students to question one another. "For a very long time, it was just a teacher tells you that's why the answer is that," she said. Now "SFA has laid a foundation for everybody. That's exactly what Common Core is: them taking their own thinking and expressing why they know answers," she said.
SFA gives students the tools to learn, and it gives teachers the tools to be effective educators. Professional development is built into the model, and coaches and facilitators provide teachers with ample support. Teachers find this especially valuable when first implementing SFA. "I think especially in that first year, without the [professional development sessions], I don't know if we would have been able to get off on such a smooth start as we did," Reese said. Langley Park found that its thirty-two professional-development days in the 2011–2012 year were vital, and staff members look forward to their nineteen days this school year.
SFA's teacher support was especially valuable to Rentas, who began at Langley Park in November—four months into the school year. He worked diligently with the facilitator to become familiar with SFA, and when he took over his classroom, the transition was easy. Stout observed, "They offer you a lot of support."
SFA provides teachers with a framework but allows them to tailor their teaching styles based on the school's and each student's individual needs, something Langley Park teachers appreciate given the school's diverse population. "It's really best practices to see [when] these kids need more activation on background knowledge," Kalberer said.
Reese agreed, using a colorful metaphor: SFA is "almost like an unstuffed Thanksgiving turkey, and then you fill it with all that flavor that makes it delicious for the students to learn."
Stout appreciates that balance between structure and creativity. "You see that personal flare, but you still see the authenticity of the program," she said.
In only one year, Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School has seen a palpable change in students and teachers alike. "I want to be able to say at the end of every day I touched every child's life, and I'm making a difference," said Stout. With SFA, she's coming closer and closer. "I love what it's done for my kids; I love what it's done for my teachers," she said. "I absolutely love SFA."