A year after one of the lowest-performing schools in the district completely revamped its facility, students appear to have fewer discipline problems and teachers say students are performing better in the classroom.
Cook Literacy Model School, formerly Cook Elementary, has completed one year under its turnaround model with a new principal and almost entirely new staff. In February 2016, it was announced Cook Elementary School was one of 11 struggling, low-income schools in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools district, identified by the federal government as a priority school that needed to change.
“We saw some change in the outcomes, and will continue to work to grow and improve,” said principal Paula Wilkins, who was hired in April to lead the school. “We’ve definitely made some progress.”
At a summer enrichment camp at the school beginning July 10, the goal was to get students up to grade level. Extra slots were available for students who wanted to attend. The camp, for rising kindergarten through third-graders, focuses on reading, writing and math enrichment as well as physical education and arts.
“I’m learning about multiplication, flowers, plants and feelings,” said rising third-grader Harmoni Causer, 8. “I like seeing new teachers, playing fun games and learning.”
For Destini Muphy, 8, and Khiya Bristow, 8, they liked learning their multiplication tables this week at camp. However, the girls disagreed on the past school year. Bristow said school seemed harder during the 2016-17 year. Murphy said it was easier.
“The teachers didn’t have to yell at us,” she said, adding it was because her classmates weren’t acting up as much.
The school has received preliminary data about how it performed in its first year under the new model, but official data won’t be released until September. Wilkins declined to give specifics about the preliminary data.
The new staff improved student success in different ways, they said. For first-grade teacher Alisha Taylor, it was about creating a community with students and parents. She wanted the kids to have fun while having structure in the classroom, she said.
She applied to come to Cook because she wanted to be part of a fresh start — for the school and herself. Prior to joining Cook she was a special education teacher. Last year was her first as a first-grade teacher, and she said it was remarkable to watch students learn to read by the end of the year.
“I wanted to be part of something awesome,” Taylor said of joining the school.
She also kept the phone number of every parent in her cell phone to call if she had questions or if a child was absent more than three days in a row, Taylor said.
That type of attention to detail is what Wilkins credits with helping improve the school’s retention data — students who start the year at Cook Literacy Model School and remained there throughout the year.
“Staff picked up students. The transportation department also worked with students who moved, for kids who didn’t want to change schools,” Wilkins said, adding their improved retention numbers were, “a win for us.”
Pre-K teacher assistant Darnetta Hughes said teachers worked with students to improve discipline.
“We taught them language and how to express their feelings,” she said. “They had a lot to say but didn’t know how to get it out.”
Wilkins said student discipline is a success of the past year.
“We took a strategic focus on discipline,” Wilkins said. “Reducing suspensions was our goal. We worked on alternative things.”
That included conferences with students and parents to talk about what was going on.
“We’re still looking for other alternatives,” Wilkins said. “It’s still about what precedes the behaviors, not the behavior itself, because that’s the underlying piece. You may have children with trauma in their home life, and we have to work on patterns, to create positive patterns for positive behaviors.”
Another big change at the school included lengthening the school day and adding 10 extra days. That created a total of 23.5 more school days at Cook than the rest of the district. The school is still looking at how to maximize the additional time to the students’ best advantage, Wilkins said.
Adults also greeted students every morning, part of a policy that for every corrective action there needs to be five positive interactions, Wilkins said.
There were also more parental involvement nights, student performance opportunities and more technology at the school funded through grants. Teachers also conducted home visits prior to the start of the school year and during the last quarter of the year, Wilkins said.
Second-grade teacher Courtney Morrison is one of three teachers who stayed at Cook through the transition, she said.
“I fell in love with the kids and thought ‘if I’m not here for them, who will be?’ It’s the best feeling to see them grow,” Morrison said.
She credits Wilkins with holding the school together during the transition, but said teachers have worked hard to help the school and students be successful.
“I’ve made sure to be consistent and build relationships,” Morrison said. “I’ve had kids grow two grade levels in a year. They had low confidence and motivation, and they became engaged in reading.”
She said switching to something new every 30 minutes in the classroom helps to keep students active, engaged and focused.
In the second year of the turnaround model, Wilkins said the school will continue to work on additional training and professional development for the staff, improving parental involvement and focusing on the social and emotional role that plays into the success of students and staff at school.