Bruce Drysdale Elementary School principal Christine Smith answered instantly when asked what accounts for the school's impressive gains in student test scores.
"Very simply, it's a laser focus on learning and teaching," she said. "We prioritize the curriculum. We drill down and figure out what the kids need and we don't stop. That and some of the most amazing teachers I've ever seen in my life."
She thinks of something else. "Did you know all of our teachers do home visits?" Her visitor didn't, as many people may not, laboring under the wildly inaccurate view that teachers come in at 8 and knock off at 3.
"We made a 27.7 percent gain in reading for our Hispanic students, which nobody does," Smith said. "I expect more for next year. We are really trying to cut out extraneous events in the school day that keep teachers from doing their jobs."
Bruce Drysdale and Sugarloaf elementary schools and Balfour Education Center all showed significant gains in test scores, and five schools earned the top recognition in state test scores released last week.
Bruce Drysdale jumped eight points in its composite score, from 64.57 to 72.2 percent, climbing from "no recognition" to "school of progress status." Sugarloaf went from 71.02 to 83.3 percent, to go from school of progress to school of distinction. And Balfour went from 36.16 percent to 48.9 percent, earning it a high growth designation. Balfour, which educates high school students with disciplinary problems and students who are young mothers, had met zero of three target goals in 2011. This past school year it met four out of five goals.
"We met 98.4 percent of our performance targets" set forth in federal standards, superintendent David Jones said. That ranks Henderson County schools ninth among the 115 school districts in the state.
In addition, Henderson County continued its relatively high graduation rate, posting a rate of 84.9 percent and leading a trend among all North Carolina high schools of better graduation rates. The rate here was ahead of the state rate of 80.2 percent, the highest ever statewide.
Despite the high spots, the scores offered something of a mixed bag. The five schools making the top rank was one more last year and two dropped into a lower category — no recognition — and one of those had been in the highest rank last year.
East Henderson High School and Hendersonville Elementary dropped into the no recognition category because their academic improvement fell short of expected levels. EHHS posted a composite score of 84.86 percent, up from last year's score of 80.84 percent but below expected growth levels set by the ABC program. Hendersonville Elementary School posted a composite of 85.6 percent, down from last year's score of 93.6 percent, and a precipitous drop from the highest category to the lowest.
A school can perform relatively well on its overall composite score but still fail to meet "expected growth" by individual students based on their previous two years of scores.
There's little mystery in how schools improved.
"I think they became more focused on their instruction," said Kathy Revis, the system's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "They started doing a lot of professional development in mathematics, teaching mathematics in a different way, and they saw some good improvements in math but also in reading, because their approach to teaching mathematics incorporates a lot of critical thinking and student talk, and writing about their thinking, and that just raises their level of literacy throughout the school."
Teacher development will continue to be a focus in the upcoming school year.
"I do think that it is a matter of focus on quality instruction," Jones said. "And some of it is not trying to do it all, focusing in on certain areas, and then also looking at the data, evaluating your strengths and weaknesses, finding out where those kids are and where we need to take them in what areas. That's really going to be a push for our school district this year, with all our schools.
"The things we started at Bruce Drysdale, the Leadership and Learning, staff development, that's something we're going to be doing district-wide with more focus," Jones added. "For example with Clear Creek, that's something they have been doing. I would say they have a diverse population, and they have been successful. To be an honor school of excellence three years in a row I think speaks volumes of their success."
Both the ABCs and the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind ended with the last school year. They're being replaced by a new alphabet soup of strategies that will emphasize fundamentals and measuring of teacher performance.
Schools making the highest designation as an Honor School of Excellence were Atkinson, Clear Creek, Etowah and Glenn C. Marlow elementary schools and the Henderson County Early College High School, which operates a five year program that awards students a high school diploma and two-year associates degree.
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