Success at a Steady Pace
Port Chester Middle School is no overnight sensation. With deliberate and carefully executed steps over the past eight years, it has become a nationally celebrated model for improving learning among disadvantaged students.
The school is located in a working-class city in Westchester County, home to some of New York's wealthiest residents. The school has the county's highest percentage of nonnative English speakers (12 percent of its 795 students are English Language Learners), and more than half of its students come from low-income families. Yet in 2004, it was the only middle school in Westchester County to make New York state's most improved list in both math and English, which means test scores rose by at least 20 percentage points between 1999 and 2003.
The school's academic transformation began in 1999, several years after its principal, Carmen Macchia, arrived in 1993. His first six years were focused primarily on making the school safe, clean and orderly. But in 1999, the principal discovered that barely one-third of eighth-graders passed basic English and math on a newly instituted state exam. He implemented a number of improvements that included teacher collaboration, building student literacy, and having teachers map out their curricula from one grade to the next.
Literacy at All Levels
Macchia also emphasized improving literacy, no matter the subject. At the start, he asked to see teachers' lesson plans to be sure that they included literacy instruction. Now all teachers meet by grade level to coordinate their lessons so that everyone works on the same language skills at the same time and each teacher knows how much work (and type of work) another teacher is assigning.
Teaching literacy has made a tremendous impact on students, says Aida Velez, a seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher. "For the majority of my students, if they saw a problem with numbers and very few words they could get it. If it had lots of words they'd give up, because it was intimidating," says Velez. "When I help them understand how to read the problem-both in understanding the English language and the language of the problem-it's much easier for them.
Training the Teachers
Professional development for teachers has also been critical. For the past 10 years, the school has worked with an educational consultant who has helped teachers master their instruction and curricula building and has guided them in designing worksheets and tests that mirror the state standardized exams. Critics of such forms of test prep may see this as teaching to the test, but superintendent Donald Carlisle says it is an "obligation to provide more preparation for the exam and to help reduce test anxiety" among the students, especially given their English skills.
In 2004, math scores at the school were in the top 10 percent of all New York middle schools. In 2005, two-thirds of students met the state standard for English language arts. Last November, the school was one of five in the nation recognized by the nonprofit group Education Trust for its success in raising student achievement among minority and disadvantaged youth.
Macchia is hoping for continued success this year, with 75 percent of students at the school meeting the state English language arts standard. "We're making nice steady progress, always moving up," he says. "It all takes time."
Lucille Renwick is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.