03/05/2012 03:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Connecticut School Faces Mounting Pressure As State Mastery Tests Near

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

As anxiety rippled through the hallways in anticipation of the high-stakes Connecticut Mastery Test, Principal Sabrina Breland popped into an 8th grade classroom and delivered a dose of confidence and laughter to nervous students.

The exchange took place as middle-schoolers prepared for the CMT, which is administered to all Connecticut public school students in grades 3 to 8. Testing starts Monday and lasts two weeks.

The tests form the basis on which the state, federal government and New Haven's own school reform effort measure the success of city schools.

Breland's K-8 school, Wexler/Grant in Dixwell, faces extra pressure this year: the CMT will be the first major test of a concerted effort to "turn around" a failing school. As the leader of the city's second in-district turnaround, Breland (pictured below) got the power to choose her entire staff; those teachers not asked back were sent to other schools. The district and the school are now focusing on a plan to improve the school climate and get kids on track in the classroom.

"Obviously there's a lot of pressure" in the CMT, Breland said, "because how the students do dictates how people think the school is doing"—even if there are other important measures of how the school fares.

Breland finds herself in the same spot where Principal Karen Lott at Brennan/Rogers stood last year — helping a young staff and a challenging student body prepare for a major test without losing their cool.

At 9:30 a.m., Breland sat with teachers at a training session when the school secretary stopped in. A mom had shown up at the school to talk to her daughter, a 7th-grader, who had been acting out.

"We don't know where she is," Breland told the mom. "She's been running in and out of the doors."

As the mom tracked down her daughter, Breland met with another family and a child who had been involved with a bullying incident.

Breland said her aim is not to suspend the kid, but to listen and defuse the conflict. She ended up sending both kids to a Saturday detention, where they'll go to a workshop on bullying—and take some time to prepare for the CMTs.

A couple of hours later, Breland found herself in the hallway, "reading the riot act" to a group of 8th-grade girls. The girls had come from gym class, where the teacher was out sick. The girls "tried to stretch the rules" with the paraprofessional in charge. Two of them got caught listening to music on a handheld device.

While the school has long struggled with behavioral problems, Breland said Thursday's behavior was unusual for the middle-schoolers: "They're a pretty calm bunch, for the most part."

"When the CMTs come up, it gives students anxiety sometimes," offered Faye Brown, a Comer Method specialist who was visiting the school that day.

Breland accepted the theory. "It is the anxiety of the CMT, I think."

She said this year, the school goal is to make "safe harbor" for a second year in a row. That means the total number of kids scoring proficient in each subgroup (for example, English language learners and special education students) has to rise by 10 percent. Overall, 49 percent of Wexler students scored proficient on the tests last year, compared to 65 percent district-wide.

The CMT figured prominently as Breland made her regular rounds Thursday.

In Katherine Williamson's 5th-grade language arts class, students were practicing editing each other's essays.

Among the many motivational and informative messages posted in bright colors around the classroom was a sign with that day's lesson plan.

Today I am practicing elaboration and DRP [Degrees of Reading Power] strategies.

So that I can rock the CMT!

Breland and her assistant principal, Nicole Sanders, pride themselves in spending a significant amount of time visiting classrooms, the principal said. Teachers know to keep their lesson plans typed out on a paper just inside the door so their visitors can check out what they're doing.

In visits to three classrooms Thursday, Breland checked with a students to make sure they got the point of the lesson.

"What are you learning?" she asked a student in Jay Schneider's 8th-grade social studies class.

"We're learning how to revise essays so during the CMTs we can do better," came the reply.

At another table, Timaquoa Gardner worked alongside two other girls on a persuasive essay.

"I'm nervous. I don't think I'm ready," she said about the CMT. She said she planned to skip some difficult questions, then go back to them if she has time.

"I don't feel pressure," she explained, just nerves.

Breland came over and loosened up the tension. The students pitched her on buying fried chicken for a city staffer who had visited the school. They ended up joking about the principal's cooking skills.

Their teacher, Schneider, said the lesson served as preparation for the CMT, but also for life—"persuasive writing is how you get a job."

He said teachers have to "walk the line" between telling students the test is important, and "TELLING THEM IT'S IMPORTANT." He illustrated the latter message by raising clawed hands in the air in mock menace.

"We're finding the balance," Schneider said.

Breland said she tries to remind kids that on the test, "you're going to demonstrate what you know." But, she said, many still feel like someone's "judging you."

Seventh-grader Benny Torres was one of several kids who showed up to school Thursday wearing shirts that read: "Wexler Grant School. CMT Ready."

Asked if he feels ready, he replied "no."

He said he feels "nervous." "It's a big test."

CMTs may not reflect progress taking place at the school, Breland pointed out—how teachers are planning lessons, improving student behavior, connecting with kids, or any number of other measures.

For that reason, she said the tests can be a "morale-buster" for staff.

Breland said she's trying to boost morale in several ways. Teachers and students faced off Wednesday in a monthly basketball game, which is meant to build teamwork and school pride. Breland, a former basketball coach at Hillhouse, made jerseys for the tradition. Hers reads "Magic" on the back.

Breland also boosted spirits by choosing this time of the year to start recruiting for Wexler/Grant's own basketball team. In addition, staff are offering raffle tickets to students who show up on time for the CMTs and don't disrupt the testing.

Janoah Fuller, who's in the 7th grade, will be one kid lining up to get those tickets. He said he planned to study "all the subjects" on Sunday for "thirty minutes to one hour."

"I feel pretty confident," he said.

He turned to sit back down with his friends, who were taking a break from CMT prep to play Uno during their a lunch period.

"Failure is not an option!" read the back of his shirt, which he got at a pep rally at Wexler-Grant last year. "I will not be left behind."

Read more on Wexler/Grant at the New Haven Independent.