- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - The prekindergarten classroom is filled with the stuff of childhood.

Puzzles.

A firefighter’s uniform and other dress-up clothes.

A “science center” for exploration and discovery.

The room is plastered with primary colors and, on this day, filled with 4-year-olds singing along to a book the teacher is reading.

“It makes all the difference in the world,” Pfeiffer-Burleigh School Principal Karin Ryan said. “This kind of thing is a game changer for our community.”

The prekindergarten classroom, added to the East 11th Street school at the start of the school year, is more than a place for children to learn how to identify letters, shapes and colors.

Here, in the heart of one of the poorest areas of the city, the classroom is a crucial tool in the district’s ongoing efforts to weaken a strong link between poor academic performance and poverty.

An Erie Times-News analysis of U.S. Census poverty data from 2010 to 2014 and recent Erie School District standardized test scores shows student achievement is lowest in Census tracts with the highest poverty.

At Pfeiffer-Burleigh, where 90.5 percent of its nearly 800 students are classified as economically disadvantaged, only 7.5 percent of students in grades three through eight scored proficient or advanced in math on the 2014-15 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment. Just more than 17 percent scored proficient or advanced in reading.

The picture is much different at JoAnna Connell School at 1820 E. 38th St., where only 9.8 percent of people living within the school attendance boundaries fall under the poverty line.

Just more than 54 percent of students in grades three through eight scored proficient or advanced in reading on the PSSA, and 39.2 percent scored proficient or better in math.

Scores for both schools were considerably lower than in 2013-14 because the PSSA was for the first time aligned to the more rigorous Common Core standards in 2014-15.

The challenges that students living in poverty face are educational — they have fewer books in their homes and are exposed to a more limited vocabulary than their more affluent peers, studies show — but also emotional and social, Erie schools Superintendent Jay Badams said. Those challenges show up in the classroom.

“There are hundreds of stressors in the environment and many times more stressors on children in households in poverty and neighborhoods in poverty than on families who have more resources,” Badams said.

Ryan, a veteran educator in the district, came to Pfeiffer-Burleigh at the start of the 2014-15 year with a mission to turn the struggling school around.

With the help of a multimillion-dollar School Improvement Grant from the state, she and a hand-picked staff of teachers who committed to staying at the school for three years launched a series of efforts to boost test scores.

The grant has helped pay for teacher development, the hiring of “academic interventionists” and instructional coaches to work with students and teachers, books and technology. Working with community partners, the school has also extended the school day and the school year with after-school and summer programs.

Pfeiffer-Burleigh was also one of the first to participate in Breakfast in the Classroom, a program in which students are served prepackaged breakfast meals in the classroom at the start of the school day instead of in the cafeteria before school.

The aim of the program is to increase the number of students who take advantage of free breakfasts offered by the district through the National School Lunch program. Serving breakfasts in the classroom eliminates the stigma around receiving free breakfasts and the logistics problems some students faced in getting to school early to eat in the cafeteria, district administrators say.

The program has helped boost schoolwide attendance to just under 95 percent, Ryan said.

“Our kids are coming to school,” Ryan said. “That speaks volumes about parents’ understanding of the value of education.”

Taken together, the efforts are working, Ryan said.

Though the school’s PSSA scores remain among the lowest in the district, a state measure called the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System shows students are gaining ground.

“We’re closing the achievement gap,” Ryan said.

The link between poverty and academic achievement is an intractable one, but one some schools are successfully fighting using a variety of strategies, including setting high expectations, hiring extremely effective teachers, and extending the school day and school year, said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-policy think tank.

Pfeiffer-Burleigh is using many of those strategies.

Schools, starting with quality prekindergarten and ending with college or technical training, are the most promising vehicles to address poverty, Petrilli said.

“It’s a classic chicken and egg problem. If we’re not able to break the cycle by getting lots more kids into the middle class, mostly by getting them into college or high-quality technical training that gets them into a good job, we’re going to see this cycle continue.”

Ryan said her team focuses on what they can do now.

On a recent day, four third-graders huddled around a table, writing a series of words on dry erase boards. They come here for 45 minutes a day, every school day, for extra reading help from Mary Kearney, a Title I teacher.

Kearney walked them through different words, some with “oi” spellings, like “coin,” and others with “oy,” like “toy.” At the end, she handed out a book for the students to read at home, “Looking for Bigfoot.”

“What kind of story do you think this is?” Kearney asked.

“Fiction,” one student answered.

“Why?” Kearney responded.

“Because he’s not real,” the student answered again, prompting a smile.

Back in the prekindergarten room, the 4-year-olds were working on floor puzzles.

Ryan and her staff don’t use the challenges students and their families face as an excuse for academic performance. Poverty is a stressor in a child’s life, but the biggest determinant of a child’s academic performance is his or her teacher, Ryan said.

“We could sit and list all the barriers a kid has to face, but if we can’t control it, why waste the time? We try to be very mindful to say ‘What can we do? What can we do to help them here?’”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1lYReBg

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Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com

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