St. Mary Catholic Elementary School serves 305 students from kindergarten to Grade 8 in the village of Elora. Thirty percent of the school’s students are bused, with many spending up to an hour each way. The demographics of the school have remained constant over the past five years, and the majority of students who enrol in kindergarten remain at St. Mary until the end of Grade 8. The staff set high expectations for both the students and themselves as they create a positive school culture.
Dedication to excellence and respect for others are the two guiding principles at St. Mary. Positive behaviour, service to others and academic success are celebrated, and students work hard to have their names posted on the Student Success Board. The school has recently created two additional forms of recognition, the Good Samaritan and the Good Helper awards, so that all students have the opportunity to be recognized. Teachers believe in a holistic approach to teaching and feel they must meet the needs of the whole child. They value the students’ participation in various charities and extracurricular activities and consider these pursuits an important part of student development.
There is a strong connection between home and school at St. Mary, and there is an active parent council that initiates many programs. The school council works hard to engage the parents and plans many events that involve not only the school but also the wider community. The council hosts annual events that parents look forward to and volunteer for. The staff is welcoming, and many parents regularly schedule time to work in the classrooms or wherever an extra pair of hands are needed. Volunteers are also trained to assist teachers in the Strong Start program for kindergarten and Grade 1 students. This program is designed to help students improve their reading and comprehension skills as the volunteers read with the students one on one or in small groups.
Each year, the school team reviews the EQAO data over time to examine the most recent trends and to identify areas of strength and those in need of improvement. Teachers discuss specific questions, analyze patterns and decide on the focus for each division. They also examine school and board data as well as the Item Information Reports to determine next steps. To better understand how students’ perceptions are connected to their learning, the teachers pay close attention to the EQAO Student Questionnaire Data. Class reviews are completed early in the year and, through teacher observation, the students who require further assistance are identified so that they can receive support.
The teachers and administration believe that early intervention is the key to the success of their students. They use school board assessments in language and math in the primary and junior divisions to create a variety of diagnostic tests and to gather data. The data are shared among all teachers because they believe the data can drive instruction and prompt changes to instructional practice that benefit all students. Carla Hodgkiss, a Grade 3 teacher, states: “We work as a team and share our results and ideas and develop strategies to ensure continuous progress is made by our students. Instructional practices are refined and differentiated where needed.” The teachers use programs such as Strong Start, Corrective Reading and Tutors in the Classroom, so they can track students’ progress and provide immediate and appropriate assistance when necessary. They also use the EQAO Cohort Tracking Report to monitor the students’ progress, and the results are shared with the intermediate teachers.
The teachers participate in professional development provided by the board after school and in the summer. Teachers share the information learned at these sessions with all the staff in their Teaching-Learning Critical Pathways meetings throughout the year. They work as a team to develop strategies and to implement new ideas into their daily practice, as they believe that literacy is a lifelong skill needed to achieve success. Many board professional development activities are also organized, and release time is provided for the teachers. The board has also grouped schools together according to their scores from EQAO and various other assessments as well as regular teacher observations to determine a collective focus for literacy and numeracy. As a result, teachers from similar school communities meet to share strategies and resources to benefit their students. One of the strategies developed from this collaboration is the K–8 Writing Continuum, which has proven to be effective in improving student writing skills.
“Our focus and the direction we take are always based on what is best for our students. Our success is due to the exemplary staff that is not afraid to think outside the box or articulate ideas. The teachers are very innovative and willingly take risks. They believe that all students can achieve, and they set high standards for themselves and their students.”
—Andrew Finoro, Principal
Teachers also have access to EQAO’s new Understanding Levels of Achievement: Using EQAO Information to Improve Student Learning to guide their progress. The teachers believe that EQAO testing reflects the curriculum, and they use the data to refine their practice. EQAO testing is not viewed as an event but as a review of the skills mastered throughout the years. Deb Watters, junior kindergarten–Grade 3 Program Coordinator, states: “We do not need to teach to the test, as it reflects the curriculum that teachers teach every day. It gives the students the opportunity to demonstrate the skills they have learned. It is a culminating whole school effort and I see this demonstrated at St. Mary, where the teachers believe the EQAO testing is a celebration of learning and the students strive to do their best.”
The teachers at St. Mary are a cohesive, committed, hard- working team that views school improvement as a shared responsibility. Principal Andrew Finoro states: “Our focus and the direction we take are always based on what is best for our students. Our success is due to the exemplary staff that is not afraid to think outside the box or articulate ideas. The teachers are very innovative and willingly take risks. They believe that all students can achieve, and they set high standards for themselves and their students.”