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For Teachers, Top Task Is To Motivate for MEAP

Ohanian Comment: Remember those pictures of little kids in China being brainwashed about Mao? Is the regime described below any different?

Pepper Elementary School in Oak Park is one of 760 Michigan schools identified as failing to meet state requirements in reading and math under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Today's report is part of an occasional series that will be published during the school year, capturing the school's struggles and triumphs as it seeks to improve.

Brenda Clavon is barely in the classroom for a minute before she has whipped the fourth-graders into a frenzy.

"What are we here for?" she asks the students, her voice rising with each word.

"To beat the MEAP," answer most of the students.

The 12 students are getting extra math help from Gail Foster Dorsey, who -- like Clavon -- is among a team of retired and expert educators spending the year working with students at Pepper Elementary School in Oak Park.

"Do you feel it here?" Clavon wants to know, lightly tapping her chest with her right fist.

"Yes!" the students shout.

At Pepper, where student performance on the MEAP this winter will help determine the school's future, the test is ruling everything.

Twice a week, Foster Dorsey and retired educator Yvonne McKey pull small groups of fourth-graders into special sessions where students can boost their math and language arts skills.

And Principal Carol Johnson told parents at a recent Parent Teacher Organization meeting that nothing -- including field trips -- can be arranged without the activity having some alignment to MEAP standards. In fact, she told parents, there will be few trips this school year.

"We have to make sure that everything we do at this school is directly aligned with our school improvement plan," she said at the Sept. 25 meeting.

And part of that plan is to boost MEAP scores, and thus be removed from a list of 760 Michigan elementary and middle schools that failed to meet academic standards prescribed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Pepper already has to offer parents the choice to send their children to other schools and offer services such as tutoring to some of those who stay.

But if scores don't improve, the sanctions will get worse and can include replacing staff, replacing curriculum or extending the school day or school year.

For now, it appears things are looking up. The 2003 MEAP scores released Friday show 39.8 percent of Pepper's fourth-graders passed the English language arts test last winter. To meet federal standards, the school needed 38 percent to pass.

It's too soon to say, though, that Pepper met the standard for this year because the state still needs to do some calculations that might change the school's scores.

Much at stake
Johnson told parents at that September meeting that with so many eyes following its progress, the school has to show it's moving in the right direction.

"It just means you are under a microscope," Johnson said.

With more time spent trying to ensure students will be ready for the MEAP, some things had to give.

The PTO wanted to have a skating party for students, but Johnson nixed the idea because it had no academic value.

She acknowledges there is a danger in stressing the MEAP too much for students. "We have to make sure we don't burden the children," Johnson said.

But where do you draw the line?

"You have to know when you've offered enough instruction and children are burned out. You can tell that. They droop, they're restless."

She said much can be done to prepare for the MEAP in ways that draw kids in instead of stressing them out.

"Instead of saying, 'Oh, here's a MEAP skill you have to learn,' they can do it in a creative and interesting way so children don't feel so put upon," Johnson said.

When Clavon asks students why it's important to beat the MEAP, she gets answers like "because this is going on our permanent record" and "so we can beat fourth grade."

But Clavon doesn't get the answer she's looking for until one boy chimes in with, "So we can become smarter."

The teachers tell the students the MEAP is like an elephant. If you want to consume an elephant, they say, you have to do it piece by piece because it's so big. Same with the MEAP, they say.

The teachers have no patience with students who don't listen or misbehave in class.

Those students are dealt with swiftly. One girl is told to leave class if she doesn't want to learn.

There is too much to get done. And there's too little time.

The teachers hope the students will be ready. Many are far behind.

Along the way, there is a steady stream of encouragement.

"If they don't believe they can succeed, nothing is going to happen. You have to convince the kids they're going to do it," Clavon said.

When Clavon hears a boy say he can't do something, she holds his arm and tells him to strike the word "can't" from his vocabulary.

"There is never anything you can't do," she tells him.

In a perfect world, students have this instilled early, well before they reach fourth grade. And if they have it, they'll be better prepared to ace the test.

"The idea is to build it in so you don't have to scramble," Foster Dorsey said.

Layers of learning
McKey and Foster Dorsey run three sections of support classes Tuesday and Thursday mornings. On those afternoons, two more retirees work with two groups of struggling students on math and reading skills. It's similar to a program that began in the spring -- when the state released the list of schools that didn't meet expectations -- and continued during an 8-day summer school program.

Later this month, Mary Ann Smith Owens, a former Detroit teacher and coordinator of the child development program at Marygrove College, will launch the school's first parent academy, helping selected parents learn ways to work with their children.

The retirees and experts are a backup to the regular classroom teachers, Clavon told a group of parents who attended a curriculum night on Sept. 30.

Clavon, who works at the school two days a week as a technical administrator, is leading the effort of the experts and is Johnson's mentor. Clavon also gives pep talks to the students.

One day, when she is visiting Foster Dorsey's classroom, Clavon sits down among the students working on a math project.

"Anyone who's frustrated, come over here. We'll get you unfrustrated," Clavon tells the students as Foster Dorsey moves from child to child, making sure each grasps the day's lesson.

In McKey's class, students have been working on an essay about favorite things they've brought to school in a paper bag.

First, they talk about what they've brought, then they write paragraphs, explaining what they brought, why they brought it and why it's among their favorites.

On one Tuesday, when they were done with their second graph, some students read aloud to their classmates.

The responses varied. Arnisha Jones brought a calculator, "because I like to do math. Math is my favorite subject."

In another wing of the building, Foster Dorsey's group is working on a math problem using a bunch of colored tiles.

But before they get started on that project, the students are asked to come up with variations of math equations that lead to the answer 15.

Many of the students are coming up with equations like 14 plus 1 or 5-times-5-times-5 when Victoria Tramble whispers, "Ooh, I got a big one," while holding her hand up.

"One hundred take away 85," she tells Foster Dorsey.

Back in McKey's classroom, the teacher is frustrated with her latest group of students, who are having difficulty writing paragraphs, even though she's given them clear directions and written the beginning of their sentence on the chalkboard.

Some have done the work well, but others have completely ignored the directions. At the end of class, she tells them their regular classroom teacher won't be pleased at the lack of progress.

"When you take the MEAP test you're going to have to read some stories, you're going to have to answer some questions and then you'll have to write. And if you know how to do it, you'll be OK."

McKey is quick with praise too, telling one boy he did good work.

Just minutes before, she had to explain to him again how to write the simple paragraph.

"See what you can do when you put your mind to it?"

— Lori Higgins
For teachers, top task is to motivate for MEAP
Detroit Free Press


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