The conclusion of a three-part series
After a rapid transformation from an “F” school to an “A” school, many area principals, educators, and politicians want to peek behind the curtain at what has fueled Lakewood Elementary’s turnaround.
Stephanie Woodford, Lakewood’s former principal and current area superintendent, is quick to let people know there is no trick – Lakewood’s success is the result of three years of hard work amid a pandemic. It is also the result of staff that has bought into the data and analytics-based process, and are willing to put in the extra work to make sure their students succeed.
Woodford believes that this is best understood by touring the classrooms. “When you leave, we really want you to have felt the school – not just hear about the school,” Woodford told the Catalyst as she took a group of area principals on a tour of Lakewood Friday.
The last classroom the group popped into was also the youngest – Allison DeMeo’s kindergarten class. Although the children were younger, the approach was the same: progress and data charts blended with other wall decorations, so every student knows where they stand and what they need to improve on. “I’m a level ‘B’,” one child excitedly told the group of visitors as they walked in, in reference to his reading level.
Woodford said it is important the students know where they are and “own their progress.” They also know where their classmates stand. “They support each other through their growth,” said Woodford.
There is no shortage of individual success stories at Lakewood, but one that Woodford is especially proud of is that of a boy named Coop. Woodford got to know Coop during her first six weeks at the school before she officially became the new principal. Coop had a penchant for running out of class, and was “just a handful,” Woodford said with a laugh. One day she sat him down at a computer in her office and discovered that even as a third-grader, Coop could not read.
Woodford found out that Coop’s mother passed away when he was in first grade. He also has a brother and sister who never finished high school, with the brother becoming a father himself at 16 years old. Regardless of the obstacles Coop was facing, Woodford was determined to see this little boy succeed. She began working with him and his aunt and enlisted the help of a teacher to intensively focus on his inability to read – Ms. Summers. Woodford called Summers “the best teacher of reading I have ever seen in my life.”
Coop is now in fifth grade and is taking advanced classes. Woodford said he scored a three on his FSA test and a four on the math portion, which she said “is almost impossible to do.”
“There are so many success stories,” said Woodford. “the behaviors that we saw at that school were not behaviors – they were academic frustrations.”
Woodford said that once staff began to address where the kids were struggling academically, behavioral issues also improved. “The kids were happy, and that was really the change,” she said.
Woodford also tells the story of walking into a classroom last year and hearing a new, frustrated student tell a classmate, “I can’t do this, I can’t read.” Woodford said the other student turned to him and said, “They teach you to read here – they taught me.”
“The kids knew that if they needed something, it was going to happen for them,” said Woodford. “It’s just a joyful, magical place to go to, but the staff made the big difference.”
Woodford pointed out that to get a third-grader to learn how to read takes a committed adult to work with that child every day as well. Getting parents and guardians to buy into the process is just as important to the school’s success as getting the children and staff onboard. One way that Lakewood is doing this is through a parent “support card.”
Similar to a student’s report card, these cards go out to every parent who can then earn points for completing tasks. For example, attending an open house is worth 10 points. Introducing themselves to the principal and faculty and making sure the student is in school on time are also some of the many ways for parents to earn points. Once a parent reaches a certain level, they are awarded a certificate, a personalized Lakewood T-shirt, and they and their family are invited to a special breakfast. There is also a drawing for a $100 gift certificate.
Woodford told the group of principals that if Lakewood can go from an “F” to an “A,” then “C” schools are in good shape, and anything is possible as long as schools put in the work and are dedicated to the process.
“What you have to have are teachers that buy into it, who use the data, who believe in the data – it can’t be show,” said Woodford. “And children who embrace it and are proud of their growth, too.
“Then you sit back and watch the magic.”