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Jefferson Academy keeps students in class longer
Josiah Burgess, left, and Cody McDowell play a math game with cards at Jefferson Academy. - photo by Tom Reed

JEFFERSON — Jefferson Academy is not your typical elementary school.

While many people still are commuting to work at 7:30 a.m., the elementary-age students at Jefferson Academy are sitting at their desks ready to learn.

Students at Jefferson Academy start their day about 15 minutes before — and end about 15 minutes after — neighboring schools; a small amount of time that helps the school make a big impact on student achievement.

"Our state standards are packed with content, and we always feel as though we are pushing against the clock to cover the required content in a way that will engage our students," said Ellen Deremer, a third-grade teacher at Jefferson Academy. "The extra time provides us with a few more minutes to make connections to our learning, develop depth in our discussions and have more opportunities for inquiries."

The concept for the current Jefferson Academy grew out of the Jefferson city school system’s Martin Institute, which was a school strictly for fifth-grade students.

"We wanted to have a place where kids could be challenged above and beyond what other fifth-graders were doing," said Sherrie Gibney-Sherman, Jefferson city schools associate superintendent.

"When we outgrew that school, we decided to build a new one and expand the model to include third- and fifth-grade students. When we moved into the new Jefferson Academy building (last school year), we also carried over that accelerated academic environment."

One way that the academy has succeeded in providing a more accelerated school environment is by reducing the amount of instructional time that students miss each day.

To achieve that goal, the school has its gifted, special education, and other "specials" teachers come into the student’s classroom, instead of the students going to the teachers.

"By having our specials teachers — or those teachers that teach things like speech or language — come to the students, the students never have to miss out on a piece of the instructional day," said DeMaris Gurley, Jefferson Academy principal.

Instead of teaching a completely different lesson, the specials teachers coordinate with the regular classroom teachers to devise lessons targeted at their specific student.

"For instance, say we have a student who has trouble saying ‘L’ words and their regular teacher is working on a lesson about pronouns. The speech teacher would come in and work on ‘L’ pronouns with that student, so they are working on the child’s speech and helping the student stay on track in their regular classroom," Gurley said.

This type of collaboration takes a lot of pre-planning and teacher collaboration, another factor that Gurley says sets Jefferson Academy apart from other schools.

"Our staff can’t just fly by the seat of their pants. Our curriculum requires a lot of planning as a team," she said. "But our teachers are good about working together and sharing ideas. We work by an all-for-one motto and that ‘one’ is the student body."

To ensure that teaching techniques are reaching the students, the school has implemented a two-week progress check.

"One thing that really drives our instruction is our ability to monitor our students every two weeks. We administer the same probe to each student. We plug that information into a computer program and then analyze the results," Gurley said. "We then have grade-level meetings every two weeks to see where students are strong and where they may need extra help."

Having a strong roster of teachers helps the school achieve its higher academic goals, officials say.

"We do a lot of on-campus training for our staff," Gurley said. "Also, another unique feature of our school is that we have a minimum of two certified gifted teachers for each grade level, instead of just one or two certified gifted teachers for the whole school."

Having increased technology in the classroom also helps the school boost student achievement. Each classroom at the school is outfitted with at least six computers, a noise-filtering sound system, portable smart boards and LCD projectors. The school also has another feature that is unique to an elementary school — a fully functioning science lab.

"The prescriptive computer software is a great tool since each student is challenged at their level of ability, and all may measure accomplishment from where they began, rather than in relationship to their peers. One size does not fit all," Deremer said. "I have a listening station for reading, which allows challenged readers to read along and gain comprehension, even if their decoding skills aren’t strong.

"Our students learn in many different ways — visual, auditory and kinesthetic. The varieties of technology help to support their learning styles and reinforce the content and skills," Deremer said.