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November 21, 2014

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Neon Eden:

What makes a CCSD five-star school?

At Halle Hewetson Elementary, progress is the norm

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Steve Marcus

Working-class excellence: Halle Hewetson Elementary principal Lucy Keaton has taken her school to new heights.

Lucy Keaton has a wall in the office at Halle Hewetson Elementary School that is covered with data, multi-colored charts that resemble something you might find at the Pentagon.

The charts show that Keaton, her teachers, staff and students are excelling, a verdict cemented recently when the Clark County School District unveiled a new grading system—the “School Performance Framework”—and placed Hewetson among 37 “five star” elementary schools of 217 in the district.

What’s especially cool about Hewetson is that it’s near Eastern Avenue and East Bonanza in a working-class Hispanic neighborhood. Of 960 students from kindergarten to fifth grade, every single child is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty. The median home price in the ZIP code is $49,000. More than 90 percent of the children are English language learners when they arrive. By the time they leave, however, most will be voracious readers and at grade level in mathematics.

“It gives our community a wonderful message,” Keaton told me, “because it says no matter what, children can learn. It doesn’t matter what the challenges of the child are. We need to have high expectations. Low expectations equals low achievement.”

Part of the reason Hewetson is a five-star school is because the district has moved to what’s called a “growth model.” This places importance on progress rather than mere proficiency. Hewetson wins big points for bringing students from illiteracy to proficiency.

The idea is that students who are behind must be brought to grade level, students who are merely average must excel, while excellent students must reach still higher. This explains why many suburban schools that we may think are excellent actually aren’t—they’re bogged down by complacency and a lack of student progress, which drives down their assessments.

And that’s the beauty of the new school assessments—they clear away the clutter and help us see which schools are succeeding and which aren’t.

I asked Keaton for the keys to her success, and she called in literacy specialist Salvador Rosales to join the interview.

There’s been a backlash against standardized tests, but not at Hewetson, where they love Keaton’s wall of data. Students are frequently assessed, and a month without progress is considered a month wasted.

“Teachers see each other’s results, so it keeps us all accountable,” Rosales said. A teacher who is outperforming his peers can share techniques. Students who have fallen behind are given extra attention and tutoring.

As for the objection that teachers who “teach to the test” are not really teaching, Rosales said a well-designed test will measure proficiency with the curriculum, and the curriculum should be a reflection of what we want students to learn. In other words, it’s not teaching to the test. It’s teaching. (Anyway, the notion that we wouldn’t use data to measure success or failure is absurd. Welcome to the 21st century.)

Parents play a big role, and Hewetson teachers don’t take a fatalist view of their parent community despite its working-class backgrounds.

New parents often don’t understand the urgency of the teachers, but soon they get with the program. “That’s how we keep parents accountable—we harass them,” Rosales joked.

Now, the parents have totally bought in, especially with the new five-star rating. Recently, the parents held a benefit yard sale for the school, and the morning I was there, they were outside directing traffic for the first time, Keaton said.

A final piece is discipline. I watched as classes of youngsters moved through a courtyard, arms folded over their chests, as required, usually clutching books, walking in perfectly straight lines, in total silence. It was monkish.

All of these elements together—assessment, intervention, rigor, parent involvement and discipline—have combined to change the culture of the school, Rosales and Keaton said. The library is filled with students after school. A student who spends his elementary school years at Hewetson will read 500 books. Children at the school now routinely say they want to be doctors or veterinarians. (Hey, what about the wealth and glory of journalism?)

Now it’s time to export that success to the entire district.

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at [email protected] His Neon Eden radio show airs Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. on 91.5 FM.

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