Bayside Middle School Principal Dr. Paula Johnson recalled what one parent, beaming with pride, shared with her during a schoolwide family event to showcase students’ writing journals.
“I never knew my child could write so well.”
Another parent attending the event was nearly in tears as she proudly recorded her son reading his essay.
“It was just very touching,” Johnson said.
One parent was so proud about her child’s work that she stopped Johnson in the hallway specifically to ask how to get copies of the work.
English, which includes reading and writing, had been the area that Bayside had been working on for the past six years to meet the state’s benchmark to earn full Standards of Learning (SOL) accreditation.
That evening, not only did Bayside students go home with awards recognizing their vocabulary, reading and writing skills—it would be a predictor of good news to come for this school as well as all Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS).
The school division is projecting 100 percent of its 82 testing schools will earn full SOL accreditation for the 2017-2018 school year. SOL accreditation is awarded to schools if they meet or exceed all the state-determined benchmarks on the SOL assessments administered in grades 3-8 and high school. VBCPS is making this preliminary projection based on SOL passing rates which the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) is scheduled to release Aug. 15.
“These SOL results affirm what we, in our school division, have been emphasizing these past three years: the simple fact that every student—regardless of economic status, background or school—can achieve academic success,” VBCPS Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence said in the school division’s press release. “Our administrators, teachers and support staff are creating stimulating environments for every student, every day in our schools. We firmly believe learning should be joy-filled and exciting, and that has been a key to these successes.”
One example of those successes is a 23-percentage-point gain in history at Birdneck Elementary School where school administrators and teachers were not only cheering students on, they were meeting multiple times a week to share lessons, activities and class assessments.
“While we did get deep into data, a lot of our success really focused on planning great lessons, sharing best practices and pumping up as well as getting to know each one our students and cheering them on,” Principal R.V. Yoshida said.
They also integrated curriculum, which is a term used to describe incorporating concepts that are taught in one subject into another.
“For example, we have vocabulary flash cards that integrate small passages from geography,” said Birdneck fifth-grade teacher Cristina Howell. “Or, while we taught geography, we would have students read about Virginia’s regions, look up words in the dictionary or write synonyms.”
Another strategy was revisiting topics taught earlier in the year.
“For example, if we taught about Virginia regions and rivers in September or October, the homework that we assigned in January could include a few questions about the regions and rivers that we taught at the beginning of the year,” Howell shared.
The school also dedicated time throughout the year on getting students accustomed to taking tests online.
“Tests are a little bit different now,” Yoshida shared. “They are computer-adaptive tests. There are slider bars that you can use so we actually taught students how to use these items and practice at least a couple of times a week, if not every week. We actually focused on how you take a test.”
As part of the test-taking strategies practiced throughout the year, students were also encouraged to use scratch paper to work out test problems before selecting their answers on their screen.
“Instead of just making the ‘a,’ ‘b,’ or ‘c’ choice, they were working out the problem,” Yoshida added.
There was one other group who made a difference: the school’s second-grade students, who do not take SOLs since state testing begins in third grade.
According to Principal Yoshida, Birdneck second-grade students, adopted the hallways and covered them with inspiring motivational messages – everything from “B-e-e Amazing” featuring fun, colorful decorations decked out with the honey-making insect.
Another hallway bulletin board encouraged students to “dough-nut stress over tests,” which the younger students reinforced through well-wishing notes decorated in the bakery treat motif.
“Second-grade students were so excited just to cheer their fellow students and, conversely, students in the upper grades loved getting the notes from students stating, ‘You can do it,’” Yoshida added.
The same spirit of believing in students was also true for Bayside Middle School, where the school’s theme was “believe.”
“Success takes time in some cases,” Johnson shared. “But it’s first believing in ourselves and that includes the staff, parents and even the support staff—the cafeteria workers and the custodians.”
She shared a story where a custodian was hurriedly progressing through the hallway when an administrator saw and stopped him to ask what was happening. The custodian mentioned that a class needed more pencils. The administrator quickly assisted to get the pencils to the custodian who delivered them to the classroom.
“We all know the sense of urgency to help students,” Johnson said. “But it’s also about having high expectations.”
For example, their writing journals were not just diaries. Bayside Middle School teachers taught students the writing process and each time they wrote, students were expected to not just brainstorm but think about the content of their topic.
“We had students really focus on the critical thinking piece: what does this look like, how does it feel, what does it smell like and can you write about it in detail,” Johnson said.
Even though the writing process was taught in English classes, all classes supported the writing journals by having students use them regardless of the class.
“Everyone is a literacy teacher,” Johnson said. “Everyone has a part in it.”
Those same high expectations were not just for writing, it was for all subjects and was expected in their communication.
“When we ask students a question and they respond verbally, we’re looking for complete thoughts,” Johnson said.
As an example, she shares that if a student is asked “Why is the lady carrying an umbrella” and a student responds by “because it’s raining” that’s not a complete sentence or thought, according to Johnson.
“We have to have high expectations and believe in ourselves,” Johnson said. “We can do it. We all have the ability within us to do it.”