“All we had to do was try harder, and we did it,” said 10-year-old Jahson Allen (no relation to his teacher). He is one of many fifth graders who come in early and stay late for tutoring when Jessica Allen asks them to. “She motivates us to not give up,” Jahson said. “She helps us to do our work very good.”
Some of Allen’s teaching strategies are practical ones for test preparation. She is constantly drilling stu-dents on the concepts they have learned throughout the year so they do not forget. But while many urban educators are criticized for taking the fun out of learning to get their students to score better on state exams, Allen stands out for the opposite reason. Her third-floor classroom is part garden and part zoo, with students growing corn, basil, and peas, to name a few, and raising snails, turtles, beetles, and frogs. The guppy fish are having babies. Students are preparing for a squid dissection, and Allen will bring in her deep fryer so they can make calamari.
She fits in more than most teachers imagine possible by being a stickler for time management, looking to save a few seconds anywhere she can. In a Southern drawl that is the source of much laughter in her classroom, Allen often speaks to her “munchkins,” as she calls her students, in fill-in-the-blank sentences (“So my answer is actually . . . ”), awaiting their rapid reply. That’s faster and more effective than asking a question, waiting for students to raise their hands and calling on a single one, and it requires everyone to pay attention.
She designates a well-behaved child -- on February 18, a boy named Phillip -- as the student teacher, with authority to judiciously dispense bathroom passes so she doesn’t have to waste class time on matters so mundane. When students work independently and in small groups, she gives them extra worksheets on concepts learned previously so that, if they don’t understand something and she’s occupied with their peers, no one sits around waiting. “If you cannot do it on your own, there’s another activity you can be successful at,” she tells them. There are also “table captains” selected weekly who meet with Allen to learn how to explain assignments to their classmates.
Asked how much of her own money she spends on classroom supplies, Allen replied with a giggle. “Don’t tell my husband,” she said. “I do spend a ton.”
If Quitman’s 43 fifth-grade students (Allen sees them in two groups a day) were to take NJ ASK today, the school’s internal testing indicates that 16 of them would pass. But another nine are on the cusp, and others are not far behind. Allen’s goal -- she’s reluctant to say it out loud -- is an 80 percent pass rate, up from 17 percent for the same class last year.
“I want 80 percent of my children to walk out of this classroom being successful and ready to go to sixth grade,” she said. “I want them to walk into the room with confidence knowing that, when they sit down with that sixth-grade teacher, they will know every previous skill they needed up until now. I don’t want them to go to another grade and feel upset. I don’t want them to feel discouraged, and I don’t want them to feel that they hate math. I don’t want them to get back to that point.”
Great teachers are one critical ingredient for a school turnaround. Involved parents are another.
Parents passing through Quitman’s main office are encouraged to pick up a four-page packet sitting on the counter. It is called “School Snapshot for Families,” and in no uncertain terms it describes the challenges facing Quitman -- and asks for families’ help. One heading asks, “Are Students Coming To School?” and pie charts answer the question: Last academic year, 29 percent missed more than two days per month, and 34 percent missed one to two days monthly. “Attendance is critical for school success,” the packet says. “Be sure to get your children to school every day on time.”
Turn the page, and the topic is NJ ASK. The question is how many students performed at grade level last spring, and the answers are grim.
Reading grades three through five: 14 percent, compared with 38 percent citywide. Math in those grades: 29 percent at Quitman vs. 53 percent in all of Newark.
Reading grades six through eight: 23 percent, compared with 46 percent citywide. Math: 14 percent for Quitman, 47 percent for Newark.