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Poverty vs. performance: Some area schools buck trends
Language gap an obstacle for many schools, but some overcome
Sugar Hill Elementary third-graders Gabriel Doss, right, and Nathan Bennett, both 9, work on a PowerPoint presentation of Georgia habitats during class. Sugar Hill Elementary has been bucking trends that CCRPI results usually correlate with high-poverty levels. Despite higher poverty levels at the school, test scores are rising.

Not all students are created equal.

They begin their school day with different backgrounds. Some can’t speak English. Others have moved and switched schools multiple times in the past year. Some may not have had anything to eat since their school lunch the previous day.

And while many teachers and school officials welcome all children through the school doors with open arms and a willingness to meet them where they are, those outside obstacles are often reflected inside school walls via test scores.

“It’s a common thing, that scores are lower with higher poverty,” Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said. “But they’re lower in different ways and for different reasons. It’s just really interesting.”

That trend was reflected when the 2013 College & Career Ready Performance Index results were released April 21. The index, which reflects a mixture of a school’s achievement, progress and gap between low and high achievers, is mostly calculated using results from standardized test scores.

The resulting index number is on a scale of 0 to 100, designed to give parents and community members an easy way to see how a school is doing academically.

“The Georgia Department of Education in their statement, put out that the scores that were released are not in any way correlated to a grade,” Dyer said. “The parents and community should take into effect all of the other factors that they know and make their own decisions.”

And there are many factors, especially at a school like Hall County’s Lyman Hall Elementary. It saw a slight improvement in its results this year — from 41.3 to 42.9.

But while it’s an improvement, 42.9 on a 100-point scale is not where the school leaders want to be.

“It’s still low,” Principal Robert Wilson said. “We’re trying really hard to implement summer school in the lower grades, so the kids aren’t losing ground over the summer. And then we’ve also instituted Saturday school for our upper grades (third, fourth and fifth grades).”

Ninety-eight percent of its student population is on the free and reduced-price lunch list, which is based on income levels. Practically 100 percent are Hispanic and classified as English-language learners. Around 820 students attend Lyman Hall.

“It just puts us behind the eight-ball,” Wilson said. “The biggest thing is if you can get poverty parents involved in their child’s education, then those are the schools that do really well.”

It’s not so much the English-language learners, school officials say, or diversity in a school that leads to lower scores. It’s the poverty levels, often defined by students receiving free or reduced-price lunch rates.

A household can’t exceed a set annual income for students to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch; for example, a household of four can’t bring in more than $43,568 annually or they no longer qualify for the program.

While Lyman Hall’s population is unique, there are other schools that reflect those numbers. For example, 94 percent of Chicopee Woods Elementary students are on free and reduced-price lunch. That school’s index result was 57.1.

Tadmore Elementary has 95 percent on free and reduced-price lunch, and an index score of 66.1.

“Parent involvement is a huge piece,” Tadmore Principal Robin Gower said. “But it is a very difficult thing to do, especially when you have parents who don’t speak the language. How do you get parents involved, not just in coming to the school, but how do you involve them in the education?”

Next year, Tadmore parents will be tasked with their own homework assignments, things to work on with their children outside of the classroom. For example, parents will learn simple math games they can then play with their children.

Wilson said Lyman Hall has a similar program, where parents go into the school and learn more specifically what’s going on in the classrooms.

But it’s tough to get them in there, especially when many are working multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Still, there are some schools across the state, and in the Hall and Gainesville systems, challenging the trend even with low-income student populations. Schools like East Hall Middle School and Gainesville’s New Holland Knowledge Academy have higher levels of low-income students, but still have posted consistently higher testing and index results.

The one thing these schools have in common is school officials and teachers constantly poring over data results, almost to an obsessive level.

“We look at their previous history, their grades, even their (standardized test) scores,” East Hall Middle Principal Vickie Tribble said. “This was a Needs Improvement school. That was the worst it could be.”

That was seven years ago. Now the middle school has an index score of 82.4, slightly up from last year.

“It’s a multilayered approach,” Tribble said. “I think what’s so important is the expectation. We have high expectations for all of our students because we think every student, no matter what their socio-economic background, deserves a seat at the table of access and opportunities.”

East Hall Middle teachers meet weekly to discuss specific student needs. It’s the same story at New Holland Knowledge Academy.

“Every single Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, we meet with departments and grade levels,” Principal Pam Wood said. “Teachers collaboratively talk about individual students — their strengths, weaknesses, growth, gains.”

New Holland has a 90 percent free and reduced-price lunch rate. Its index result is 83.5, one of three Gainesville schools to see an increase from the previous year.

“We are a very high poverty school,” Wood said. “But we don’t look at poverty as being the reason why a student is not achieving at the level they need to be achieving at. We look at what gaps in learning do they have that we need to fill.”

But some of those gaps naturally go hand-in-hand with low income. School officials noted children coming from economically disadvantaged households often don’t have real-life experiences to draw from when learning in the classroom, which can be a serious drawback.

To combat that issue, Sugar Hill Elementary Principal Beth Skarda makes sure her students are scheduled to take many field trips throughout the year, including trips to Atlanta.

“We take them to the circus,” Skarda said. “We got a grant to take them to the Georgia Aquarium. They had never been anywhere like that. Just the drive to Atlanta, it made me have tears in my eyes because they were like, ‘Oh, look at the buildings.’

“Of course, that does not apply for every child here. But that’s background knowledge. When I talk about Atlanta now, or their teacher talks about going to a big city, they know what that looks like now.”

It’s the same story for many children, including those at Lyman Hall.

“When they go across the lake, they think it’s the biggest thing. They’ve never been across Lake Lanier on Thompson Bridge Road,” Wilson said. “They think they’re going over the ocean.”

Sugar Hill is one of the schools that bucks the trend, so to speak, increasing their index score from 68.2 to 77.9.

Slightly more than 90 percent of the students are on the free and reduced-price lunch program. Many are also Hispanic; while some may speak English, they likely come from a home where Spanish is the primary language.

“We have to build a lot of background knowledge because there’s that language barrier,” Skarda said. “So when we talk about a certain word, they may not have heard of that word. So we have to stop and explain and show pictures so that we’re talking about the same thing.

“Definitely, it takes a little more time in building background knowledge and vocabulary. Those are definitely two things that we really have to put a lot of extra time into so that they can be successful.”

While every school is different, with different sets of children and needs, there’s one common thread — regardless of how they score on a test result, at the end of the day, it’s all about the children and developing them as human beings, not scores on a piece of a paper.

“You can’t make all the decisions based on the test scores and the index numbers,” Dyer said. “You have to consider the needs of the school and the needs of the students.”