Winter 2008
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St. Francis de Sales Elementary School

Celebrating the success of an Ontario school

Roden Public School
Toronto District School Board

Roden Public School in Toronto’s inner city is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic junior school serving 311 students from families who speak a total of 17 different languages. In 2005, the Ministry of Education designated Roden as a Turnaround school.

With a view to strengthening the writing and readings skills of the great number of the primary children who were struggling at level 2 or under, Principal Teresa Tafaro and her dedicated staff launched a series of initiatives. They pooled expertise, best practices and data to devise strategies that have yielded exciting results.

The EQAO Grade 3 writing scores for 2006–07 were the highest ever at 66%, up from 53% the previous year and 31% in 2004–2005. Writing scores for Grade 3 show a similarly positive trend, with 2006–2007 at 74 %, up from 65% the previous year and 44% in 2004–2005. The Roden story shows that improvement begins with dialogue.

In 2005, with support from the Ministry, the principal set up two Professional Learning Communities. Initially, these were directed by the principal and the Literacy Coach Karin Kurkcuyan, but teachers soon took ownership.

It was at these PLCs, as well as at other staff meetings, that purposeful analysis of data became a standard, and popular, agenda item. Together, administration and staff reviewed EQAO data, CASI, DRA, report cards, special education information, suspension records and early development instruments for insights that could be linked back to classroom assessments.

“Staff at Roden, who had always viewed themselves as learners as well as teachers, added researchers to their self-descriptions,” says Katherine McKeown, Primary Chair and Grade 1 teacher. This new perspective was triggered by the PLC meetings at which EQAO data was offered as fodder for thought for all teachers, not just those in the Grade 3 and Grade 6 classrooms. “We used to feel the EQAO data didn’t affect those of us who weren’t teaching Grade 3 or Grade 6, but now we see our school’s EQAO results, and other data, as a reflection tool that informs our teaching practice and identifies where we may improve on our practices,” says Mrs. McKeown.

As an example, Mrs. McKeown recalls a junior division teacher shared at a PLC that her students were struggling with navigating through text. One outcome is that Mrs. McKeown now duplicates math sheets for her Grade 1 students on a white board so that together the class can identify and examine the key instruction words that appear on their sheets. “We have rich discussions about the difference between draw and print,” said Mrs. McKeown. “We no longer assume children know this unless it has been explicitly taught. We also talk about whether the illustrations are there for decoration or to help guide us. I’m hoping that if we do this repeatedly in Grade 1, students will gain the confidence to navigate between the information they need and the information they don’t need by Grade 3.”

Continual cycles of reflection

With teachers approaching data to make connections between findings and classroom improvements, the school adopted the Teaching Learning Critical (TLC) Pathway. Literacy Chair Karin Kurkcuyan explained how Roden follows that pathway. The first step is gathering data, which could be EQAO, running records, CASI, etc. The second step is to identify areas of greatest need. Next, the staff reviews current practices and creates a data wall, with rubrics, and culminating tasks using student exemplars.

Together, the divisions decide on student gaps, and what the teachers will focus on in classrooms over the next six to eight weeks. The next step is moderated marking and the sharing of findings. A new cycle begins every six to eight weeks.

Areas of challenge for Roden

The TLC Pathway is instrumental in helping staff act on areas of challenge discovered through looking at EQAO data and other assessment tools. The gathering of data led staff at Roden to determine the following:

  • Students needed more explicit instruction in comprehension, in particular in inferring and making connections.
  • Students needed more instruction and opportunities to respond to open response questions.
  • Students needed to work on conventions in writing in both primary and junior divisions.
  • EQAO questions targeted a higher level of Bloom’s Taxonomy than had been sought in the classroom.
Action strategies that work

To address the identified needs, staff implemented numerous initiatives. These included:

  • Reviewing professional readings for models, notably Reading with Meaning by Miller and Asking Better Questions by Morgan and Saxton to help develop higher order thinking. Other resources the staff used were Reality Checks by Tony Stead, Strategies that Work by Harvey and Goudvis, and Units of Study by Calkins.
  • The teachers created a “living data wall” which is updated regularly (using DRA and running records scores) and used as a basis of discussion at each PLC.
  • The primary division created long range divisional plans for the instruction of comprehension strategies. Teachers collaborated on a chart that lists seven literacy skills: making connections, mental imaging, inferring, asking questions, determining importance, synthesizing information, and repairing understanding.

For each, the teachers determined the appropriate grade in which to introduce/touch on this skill, teach & assess it or extend and review strategies to reinforce it For example, asking questions is introduced in JK/SK, and taught and assessed in Grades 1 through 3. Synthesizing information is touched on in JK to Grade 2, and taught and assessed in Grade 3.

  • The primary division also created read aloud book bins specific to comprehension strategies, such as questioning, making connections, schema, inferring, etc.
  • Collectively, staff developed questions for each level of Bloom’s Taxonomoy for popular read alouds.

“We’re now constantly thinking about how purposefully we are delivering a lesson,” says Primary Chair Mrs. McKeown. “The question we ask is ‘Why am I doing what I’m doing? What are the links to the teaching objectives?’”

Planning with links in mind

To help determine those links, Ms. McKeown says taking a funnel approach to planning has proven extremely effective. It used to be that she wrote out only long range and daily plans. “I had in my mind what I was going to do for the term and the week, but I only documented in detail the long range and daily plans,” she explains. Now, she has added two other pieces to her reverse pyramid template. At the top are her long range goals, then using backwards planning, she fills out “term at a glance,” linking curriculum expectations to culminating task and lessons, which she next narrows down to “week at a glance.” At the tip of her upside pyramid are daily plans.

Kindergarten Night makes a difference

The gathering of data beginning in JK as a launching pad for purposeful discussion is a pivotal practice at Roden, and one which has already led to many significant successes, says Principal Teresa Tafaro.

A few years ago, Roden adopted the Early Development Instrument, a tool to gauge school readiness of JK and SK children by measuring such factors as social competence, emotional maturity, cognitive knowledge, communication skills and general knowledge. Data showed that the SK students scored low on language acquisition, social development and independence. Discussions about this finding prompted the administration and primary division to develop Welcome to Kindergarten Night, which is now held annually in May.

Every student who registers in JK (or SK for the next year) receives a bag with books, Playdoh, magnetic letters and numbers, scissors and construction paper. Teachers at Roden credit this initiative with contributing to the vast improvement in Grade 1 reading skills. Kindergarten teachers report that students are beginning school with a high level of motivation, and with greater skills, such as recognition of books in the classroom that they received in their welcome bags, and knowing how to hold scissors.

Suspension records prompt change

A review of suspension records also prompted action. Ms. Tafaro and her staff revisited suspension records and noted 14 suspensions in 2005-2006, a number she and staff were determined to reduce. They succeeded. Suspensions dropped over the years to just four between September and early December 2007. The principal has identified professional development as being a critical factor. Staff have extended their knowledge of independent learning plans and differentiated instruction which has reduced student frustration.

EQAO as launching pad for dialogue

Staff at Roden view the EQAO Detailed School Results and other EQAO documents as valuable for providing interesting insights that fuel dialogue, notes Literacy Coach Ms. Kurkcuyan. “The first time we saw the EQAO Framework Document we thought it was a very powerful piece, and were amazed at the detailed information it contains. We were surprised to discover that it gives you a blueprint of the assessment for a given year.” The Framework Document is available on the EQAO website well before the assessment. The Item Information Reports, Student Booklets and Scoring Guides are also discussed in depth.

Dialogue is the key

“Anytime you can release people in this profession to get together and talk about their students, their classrooms, what they can change, their challenges and successes, you have an invaluable exchange,” said Principal Tafaro.

With that in mind, on a recent PD Day, Primary teachers at Roden hosted teachers from a school within its family to share expertise. The teachers reported it was a “fabulous experience” added Ms. Tafaro, “Everyone loved sharing their ideas and as importantly receiving feedback.”

The Principal also conducts five-minute walkthroughs, purposeful visits to classrooms with a specific objective in mind, such as to learn more about the use of anchor charts or rubrics in the room. These visits generate stimulating professional dialogue that is supportive and beneficial to staff.

As well, Ms. Tafaro has also reorganized within the school to ensure same grades are close together to facilitate exchanges and that same grade primary teachers share at least one common prep. time for planning.

There’s no doubt that the students at Roden are benefiting from the informed professional conversations that happens in the school’s staff rooms and in the corridors. EQAO scores shows that in 2006–2007, 66% of Grade 3 students achieved levels 3 and 4 in reading, up from 53% the prior year and 31% in 2004–2005. The improvement in writing was equally significant, with scores rising from 44% in 2004–2005 to 65% in 2005–2006 to 74% in 2006–2007.

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