- Associated Press - Monday, October 3, 2016

HYANNIS, Mass. (AP) - Once called “the saddest elementary school in Barnstable,” Hyannis West Elementary School has demographics that some experts say should doom it to a lower standardized test ranking.

Nearly half the children in the K-3 school are considered English language learners, and 85 percent of the children are on a free or reduced school meal plan for low-income students.

Fifty to 75 percent of the students have not gone to preschool, 7 percent are on special education plans and 11 percent are considered homeless, said Hyannis West Principal Kathi Amato, a former teacher at the school who returned as principal six years ago.

Due in part to the unstable housing situation, Hyannis West also has a transient school population, with an average of 150 to 200 students entering or leaving during the school year, Amato said.

With these obstacles to learning, it wasn’t surprising that Hyannis West had a history of trailing the district in standardized test scores.

The MCAS administered in 2014 showed just over half of third-graders received “needs improvement” or “warning/failing” scores in English language arts, and 40 percent were in the bottom two brackets in mathematics.

Hyannis West’s unique demographics inspired the “saddest school” headline in a 2012 article by Walter Brooks on the Cape Cod Today news website.

But they inspired Amato to prove that she and her staff could take the obstacles facing them and their students and change them into challenges to be conquered.

“It’s never an excuse. It’s the reality,” Amato said during an interview recently at Hyannis West.

The eighth principal in six years when she took over the troubled school, Amato admits she is competitive.

“Don’t tell me I can’t do something,” she said.

“It was really finding the right formula,” Amato said. “We tried so many different things.”

Scores continued to fall, but Amato and her staff finally found an educational model that was turning student achievement around in Chicopee.

Amato and teachers visited the urban Western Massachusetts school district to observe a “push-in” model that sends specialists, including Title 1, special education and English language learner teachers, into the regular classroom to work with students in small groups.

The school started using the model last year, and it has already borne fruit.

The school’s standardized test scores on PARCC examinations in the spring of 2016 resulted in 62 percent of third-graders meeting or exceeding expectations in math - the same percentage as West Barnstable Elementary School on Route 6A in the more affluent section of town.

It was a 13 percent jump over the year before, a leap that was even more significant in English language arts, where the percentage of students who scored at the top two levels climbed 21 percent to 59 percent.

The results were so striking that not only was Hyannis West designated a top tier, or level one, school - a designation shared in Barnstable only by West Barnstable Elementary - it received a special commendation from state education officials for narrowing achievement gaps.

Eastham Elementary School was the only other school on the Cape to make the list of 49 commended schools in Massachusetts.

“I’m really proud of our school for making Level 1,” said veteran Hyannis West Elementary School teacher Christine Yezukevicz.

On a recent morning, four kindergarten students sat with her at a small table while another group of students sat with Title 1 reading teacher Barbara Burke and a third group took their places on a colorful rug around teaching assistant Suellen Crossley.

The youngsters focused on their teachers, eagerly answering questions and quietly changing groups when Yezukevicz sounded a chime.

Amato said experience showed that students lost valuable learning time when they were pulled out of regular class to meet with the specialists.

“It felt much more disjointed,” Amato said.

Bringing the specialist teachers into the classroom for part of the day and breaking the students into small groups of similarly paced learners made a big difference in closing achievement gaps, Amato said.

It also helped accelerate the learning process, said Hyannis West parent and former PTO president Moira Bundschuh, whose daughters Eliza and Zoe are in first and third grade.

“It’s been amazing,” she said. “I have just noticed a huge gain in the academics since they moved to small group instruction.”

Eliza left kindergarten reading at a second-grade level, Bundschuh said. “She just blossomed and loved school every day.”

The “push-in” instruction wasn’t the only change the school made, Amato said. She said she got a grant for food carts to deliver breakfast to the classrooms, and now most students have their first meal of the day at school.

The school’s unique demographics mean that parents work a variety of shifts, so the PTO schedule includes two meeting times, one at 3:45 p.m. and one at 6 p.m., Bundschuh said.

The later meeting attracts more Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking parents, so an interpreter attends those sessions, she said.

And at Hyannis West, students do not have to pay for fields trips, Bundschuh said. She said the PTO and school officials don’t want parents to have to worry about working another shift to make sure their children get the same educational opportunities as other students.

“We want everyone to really feel at home,” Bundschuh said.

Teachers who come to work at Hyannis West are aware of the school’s demographics, Amato said. “They are passionate about working with the students. We need to meet all of their needs so they can learn.”

In third-grade teacher Chaitra McCarty’s class, Angel Matias, 8, pointed to a poster he drew of himself in a red shirt and blue pants.

“I am looking forward to learning a lot,” he read.

___

Information from: Cape Cod (Mass.) Times, https://www.capecodtimes.com

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