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Karin Chenoweth Headshot

'You Can't Just Put in a Program and Think It Will Solve the Problem'

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In 1993, Terriann Phillips had one Latino student in her second-grade classroom at De Queen Elementary School. Since then, hundreds of families from Mexico and Central and South America, lured by work in Pilgrim's and Tyson poultry plants, have settled in the small houses and trailers in the town of De Queen and surrounding area of southwestern Arkansas. Today, Phillips is principal and more than three-fifths of her students are Latino. Eighty percent meet the qualifications for free and reduced-price meals.

In this remote area three hours from Little Rock, Phillips and the other educators in De Queen Elementary have, matter-of-factly and without fanfare, taken on the challenge of ensuring that the children of parents who spend their days and nights killing, cleaning, and plucking chickens learn to read, write, compute, and, in their words, "think deeply."

They seem to be succeeding. About 90 percent of the almost 600 students in third, fourth, and fifth grades meet or exceed state reading and math standards, putting De Queen in the top tier of schools in the state.

A few years ago, when the state began testing students in science and only 47 percent of the students passed the test, the teachers were unhappily surprised." It's a pride issue," Phillips said, adding that the teachers said, "I'm better than that." The teachers attended workshops to increase their knowledge and improve their teaching methods. The music teacher had the students perform a musical about force and gravity to reinforce scientific topics. Science kits were created to assist teachers with hands-on activities. In 2012, 85 percent of fifth-grade students were proficient or advanced on the science portion of the Benchmark Exam compared with 60 percent in the state.

In other words, when their students didn't do well, teachers throughout the school assumed responsibility and intensified their commitment to science education.

Not that the teachers and administrators are in any way satisfied. They know that meeting current state standards is not sufficient to be ready for the world that is waiting for their students. That is why they are enthusiastically embracing the new Common Core Standards that have been adopted by 43 states, including Arkansas.

Common Core Standards are "clear and concise and good for kids," says Gayla Morphew, the school's literacy coordinator. She is particularly enthusiastic about the opportunity they provide to help students make connections between facts and ideas. "The most powerful question is, 'what do you think of this?'" she said. "And the next most powerful question is, 'Why?' We want our kids to be arguers."

After reviewing the Common Core Standards, the faculty at De Queen decided to use textbooks only as a backup resource, not as a main guide for instruction. Grade-level and subject-matter teams at the school mapped out when each grade would teach which topics and planned nine-week units. Morphew and her math counterpart Maribeth Revels spent countless hours developing kits -- housed in clear plastic tubs -- with trade books and materials for each nine-week unit, with plans to review how each unit went and how it should be improved for the next year.

Revels recalled a supply-gathering trip to Walmart in the middle of a school day when her cart was filled with 28 packages of straws, baseballs, and "all this stuff" when she saw the chairman of the school board. "He looked at the cart and said, 'math project,'" she said, laughing.

Because they began working on adapting instruction to Common Core Standards earlier than other schools, they've been getting panicked calls from educators elsewhere in Arkansas and even nearby eastern Oklahoma, asking if they would share their binders, the binder being the organizing principle of most schools.

Phillips and her teachers say they are happy to share their frameworks and plans, but, Phillips says she adds, "we've developed them for our kids, our school, our programs -- they may not be appropriate for you."

De Queen is an example of how powerful a common, high standard can be in helping all students achieve. But it is also an example of the concomitant need for knowledgeable educators to bring their expert judgment to bear on how they can get their individual students to meet those standards.

The educators at De Queen are among the many who are figuring out what it takes to ensure that all students learn to high levels.

In future columns, I'll be profiling other schools that are just as impressive and inspiring.