The children in Kerri Larson’s first-grade class huddled at their small desks peering at clusters of beads arranged in groups on colored construction paper as part of their math lesson for the day.
Their eager eyes looked up and about curiously as Fair Street School Principal Will Campbell entered the classroom with a couple of visitors.
The children were not shy.
Adrian Canas, 6, smiled and had a quick answer when asked what he liked about coming to Fair Street.
“You get smarter,” he said.
Landon Beasley jumped into the conversation.
“I like learning math,” the 6-year old said.
Jaylinn Zamora said she was looking forward to going to her next class, Connections, which is the school’s cluster of activities including art, music, physical education and science, technology, engineering and math.
“I like music,” 6-year-old Jaylinn said. “I want to learn to play the piano.”
The children in Larson’s class were mostly African-American and Hispanic, which is in line with the school’s overwhelming number of minority students.
Officials including the city school system’s superintendent, Wanda Creel, challenged anyone in the community to come visit Fair Street after the school was added earlier this month to a list of chronically failing schools by Gov. Nathan Deal’s Office of Student Achievement.
Fair Street found itself on the chronically failing list after posting College and Career Ready Performance Index test scores below 60 for three consecutive years.
Campbell attended last week’s Gainesville school board meeting in which Creel and school administrators addressed the CCRPI scores and Fair Street’s inclusion on the chronically failing list.
Creel compared the “F” grade to the “tip of the iceberg,” which is on the surface but doesn’t show what’s going on underneath.
The undercurrents, as school officials noted, include the school’s more than 90 percent minority student body, a CCRPI testing methodology that is inconsistent and does not take into account that the trajectory of test scores.
The technology platform supporting CCRPI “has been sketchy,” according to Creel, and she said even Georgia lawmakers recognize the “assessment program lacks stability.”
The CCRPI score also fails to account for the fact that more than 50 percent of the students at Fair Street are learning English as a second language and there’s a high percentage of students with disabilities requiring special education.
Fair Street reading coach Leslie Jost, who was recently recruited by Campbell from England, and math coach Coleta Easington don’t put much stock in the CCRPI scores. They say the scores are old and don’t reflect the improvement they see in the classroom.
“We’re finding out where the holes are and putting together a plan for each student,” Jost said, adding that she’s seeing students moving from red scores to yellow and green on their tests.
Jost and Easington said faculty at Fair Street are looking forward to the next round of state assessments in April.
Easington said the faculty are looking at the data in math to see where students need to improve.
“I’m very excited in the direction we are moving,” Easington said.
Sarah Bell, chief academic officer for Gainesville schools, added her view of what’s happening at Fair Street.
“There’s improvement to be made, but we’re also making progress,” she told the school board.
By noon, as he walked the halls of Fair Street, Campbell had already put in a day’s work. At 6 in the morning, he had been taking photos and waving goodbye to students who filled two buses for an annual environmental field trip to a barrier island on the state’s Atlantic coast.
Campbell said 70 to 80 students in their last year at the school have been going on the two-day trip for the past 15 years. He said the approximately $15,000 it costs to put the trip together is raised from donations in the community.
As classes filed down the halls, children would occasionally break away from their lines to give Campbell a hug.
“Kids hug,” the principal said. “They love to hug.”
To mark the 100th day of the school year, teachers added white streaks to their hair and walked bent over a little with canes in hands.
Children were having fun, but were quiet and orderly at the same time.
Asked about the stigma of the “F” label and how quickly the school could put that in its rearview mirror, Campbell paused for a moment before answering.
“Our minds will change when the results are consistent,” he said. “I only know that what we’re doing is working. We’re seeing the results of the work. For us, the people in the building, we are seeing the green happen.
“We’ve got a plan and we’re going to work that plan,” Campbell added. “We’re going to continue to progress, not digress… I encourage people to come and see what is happening at Fair Street.”