St. Michael Catholic Elementary School is a junior kindergarten to Grade 8 school in a beautiful region of Niagara-on-the-Lake. It is home to 400 students and has a small population of English language learners. It has a low mobility rate, and most of its graduates move on having attended only St. Michael. There is a YMCA before- and after-school program, a half-day Ontario Early Years Centre, a full-time kindergarten and a full-day, alternate-day junior kindergarten housed in the school. There is also an active school council that highly values education and works closely with the principal to stay informed. Parents give generously of their time. They volunteer in the classrooms, chaperone on trips and fund school initiatives. A case in point is the Bag-a-Book program, which was organized and supported by the parents to encourage reading throughout the school. St. Michael scores above the board and provincial averages in all areas on EQAO assessments.
The assessments are an important part of the planning and teaching process at St. Michael. Each September, the staff studies the detailed school results thoroughly. The entire staff is split into multi-divisional groups, and each group examines a section of the report and then shares its observations with the others. The conclusions drawn from this exercise become the basis of SMART goals, which, when set, become the focus for planning and teaching to improve student achievement in specific areas. Application and problem solving in mathematics were areas of concern. With the implementation of new strategies, however, application showed immediate improvement. When problem solving did not yield satisfactory results, it was referred to the School Improvement Team and ultimately to a board initiative called Collaborative Inquiry for Learning in Mathematics. The entire staff used a vehicle called I-Charts to compartmentalize each level of problem solving across the grades. Teachers of each grade became aware of the position of their class in the skill progression and of what preceded and followed their grade level. They also became aware of the appropriate vocabulary to be used in problem solving, and all teachers now communicate with the same terminology and follow the same progression of skills. Principal Brian Palujanskas states: “When you talk about successful schools you must talk about leadership at the board level. We appreciate that our Director of Education is open, visible and active in facilitating growth opportunities and change.”
At St. Michael School, assessment drives instruction, and the school makes good use of the Board Data Warehouse. All divisions administer their assessments in October and May (PM Benchmarks and the Observation Survey for primary and the DRA for junior and intermediate). The teachers then score the assessments and input their results. The principal reads the summative report and presents the findings to the staff, and together instructional adjustments are decided upon and instituted.
“When you talk about successful schools you must talk about leadership at the board level. We appreciate that our Director of Education is open, visible and active in facilitating growth opportunities and change.”—Brian Palujanskas, Principal
What is surfacing is a model for success that is evident in the way this school does business. All staff members are involved in all activities; all staff members have a voice in the development of a meaningful and effective education continuum for their students—from junior kindergarten to Grade 8. This is evident in the moderated marking initiative at the school. A Grade 4 story was taken from the exemplars and the questions were adjusted to challenge each grade level appropriately. Each teacher scored the assessment and assigned a level from 1 to 4 to each student and then presented the results to his or her peers. The ensuing discussion of what constituted a certain level at a certain grade was at once enlightening, perplexing and often heated, but it was important professional development that unified an understanding of program and scoring across the grades, much to the benefit of the students.
“It’s all about staff. When you empower staff you are ultimately empowering the students and guaranteeing their success.”—Brian Palujanskas, Principal
St. Michael School is a good place to be, and outstanding attendance records show that students want to be there every day. Great pains are being taken to address the quality of education being offered, but the school provides for all the needs of the child. A strong connection with the local parish solidifies the partnership of school, parents and church. Since all children are bused to school, there are many activities to complement academics. Lego robotics, chess, Scrabble, Math Olympics, Gauss Math, Science Fair and Heritage Fair, and intramural and competitive sports are available to pupils. A program called PALS sees Grade 6 and 7 students receive training from the health department and then act as organizers and leaders of student activities in Grades 1–5.
Technology is important at St. Michael School. The Grade 8 classroom has pilot tested iPads. Teachers have LCD projectors, and there is a movement to use white boards and interactive projective systems. The staff is enthusiastic about new technology and is eager for training in this area.
Finally, it is important to comment on the culture and climate of the school. It has a relaxed and positive atmosphere where the students feel comfortable, and their academic success is a product of a cohesive staff that works together for a common purpose. Principal Brian Palujanskas adds: “It’s all about staff. When you empower staff you are ultimately empowering the students and guaranteeing their success.”