Elmdale Public School provides comprehensive and challenging programming for 500 English and Early French Immersion students from kindergarten to Grade 6. In recent years, the most significant changes in the school’s stable, affluent residential neighbourhood have been reflected in small influxes of English language learners and a dwindling enrolment in the English cohort.
Today there is much to celebrate at Elmdale. In 2007, however, after careful examination of the EQAO data, the school team discovered that Early French Immersion students were not performing as well as their English counterparts on EQAO assessments. The teachers knew they had more work to do. So, as part of the school improvement plan, Elmdale staff engaged in serious collaborative conversations, examining their teaching practices and exploring strategies to improve student achievement school-wide. In partnership with the board, the school began to take action: aligning staff, pooling resources, setting up literacy rooms, formulating common assessment practices, using common curricular language, holding common planning sessions and encouraging teachers to open up their classrooms to one another. They referred to these initiatives as the “deprivatization” of their classrooms, and an added benefit of this process was the staff’s increased confidence operating as a team. In time, aided by strong inspirational leadership, a wealth of timely and topical workshops, access to professional reading resources and extensive teacher moderation training, this focused and tenacious team achieved consistent curriculum delivery across the school. Open, honest and collaborative conversations among colleagues led to a school culture focused on learning for all.
Vice-principal Andrea Williams states: “We have a common focus, same language, same thinking. Now we are focusing on critical thinking across the curriculum with every single teacher involved. Professional development across the district mirrors that message.” By 2010, the school’s exceptional educators were purposefully making a good school great. Embedded school-wide use of the Write Traits program served as a springboard for the exploration of Garfield Gini-Newman’s high-yield strategies for critical thinking. Gini-Newman’s strategies aligned well with the school’s own improvement plan and provided scaffolding for both teachers and students to evaluate and justify their work in the context of specific criteria.
“Using EQAO data has allowed us to start conversations and to be very specific in targeting the areas of need and making the most efficient use of time, when teaching kids, so we make sure all students are moving forward.”
—Suzie Robertson, Principal
With the groundwork laid through collaborative planning and teaching in every class, English and Early French Immersion students now share the same rubrics and move seamlessly between the languages. Students now understand questions requiring them to justify, reflect and explain their learning using the “Habits of Mind and Thinking Strategies” protocol. This is achieved through extensive cross-curricular instruction using EQAO anchor charts, levelled work and timely descriptive feedback. These methods help students to organize thinking, set goals, select strategies and employ them before coming to a conclusion or judgment. Communication and accountable talk are encouraged, with critical thinking as the goal. In addition, students are encouraged to perceive teachers as co-constructors in their learning as opposed to transmitters of information. Within this framework of common goals and practices, both staff and students benefit from an atmosphere in which originality, debate and risk-taking are valued and expected outcomes. Indeed, when the board adopted Gini-Newman’s model, staff eagerly embraced the challenge, taking full advantage of the support offered.
Data drive instruction at Elmdale. EQAO data, once reviewed by staff and shared with the school council, help identify areas of need and trends over time. It guides conversations about student achievement. Using information from PM Benchmarks, CASI and their French counterparts, as well as other local data, the staff at Elmdale has designed a specific overall plan for the school. Their SMART goals lead to pre- and post-assessments at each phase in the plan, helping focus instruction and assessment practices. Routine use of the Ministry’s Achievement Chart has proved a useful strategy in formulating critical thinking questions and determining congruency between the rubrics and curriculum expectations. Principal Suzie Robertson adds: “Using EQAO data has allowed us to start conversations and to be very specific in targeting the areas of need and making the most efficient use of time, when teaching kids, so we make sure all students are moving forward.”
The school frequently uses EQAO materials to assist in the creation of student tasks and teaching tools, thereby providing continuity and consistency in assessment practices. Fully engaged and in control of their own learning, students speak a common language and understand the purpose of their work.
Students scrutinize EQAO and other rubrics to make sure they comprehend the criteria for each level of learning. They set personal goals, engage in high-order thinking, peer-edit and respond to timely constructive feedback viewing “next steps” in a positive light. There is an understanding that even at Level 4, one can improve. Citing student engagement as a major key to success, Principal Robertson observes: “They’re not just on task, doing their work; they are thinking, contributing, collaborating and creating their own learning.”
Mindful that struggling readers are not necessarily struggling thinkers, staff at Elmdale value higher-level input from all students. The differentiation of instruction to accommodate specific needs is another important contributor to student success. The In-School Support Team and Students of Concern meetings are two parallel processes in the school that ensure all students’ needs are met. Elmdale employs a full integration model for special needs students, with specialists working alongside classroom teachers to differentiate learning and monitor progress. Similarly, school-wide access to assistive technology, frequently with the aid of technically trained volunteers, has become a strong motivational teaching tool for all.
Elmdale is committed to a strong relationship between school and community. It maintains a partnership with parents through curriculum newsletter updates, school council meetings and multiple information nights. Elmdale’s “Hopes and Dreams” visioning process, which began the school’s journey of learning back in 2007 and included all members of the school community, has no doubt laid a strong foundation for ongoing success.