In February, Quitman’s third- through fifth-grade classes began dividing into small, rotating groups: one at any given time working with the teacher, one doing a group activity or project, and one online working on assignments individualized to address a child’s specific deficiencies. Glover had invested $75,000 getting his teachers trained and buying the necessary laptops and digital content.
Blended learning is one of the most rapidly growing trends in education because it gives teachers the capacity to simultaneously meet the needs of various ability levels. Glover does not yet know whether it will help turn the tide for the school, but in his heart he knows this:
It is Quitman’s make-or-break year.
Not only is the principal self-imposing a deadline to show results or seriously reconsider his path ahead, but he also wants to avoid the possibility of Quitman being placed on a school closure list next year. For both those reasons, significant improvement on NJ ASK is essential. Thanks to the extraordinary performance of a handful of teachers and the hard work of numerous others, Glover believes it is possible.
Yet the challenge to get scores up grows steeper still, as Quitman’s student population continues to grow even needier. This year, the school received 60 new students from two charter schools closed for poor performance. Most arrived far behind academically. Six students from a school for children with behavioral disabilities that was also shut down were sent to Quitman. Staff members throughout the building are identifying more students with untreated mental health issues.
Glover now needs his other hip, the right one, replaced, and his doctor wants him to do it soon. (He has avascular necrosis, a disease that restricts blood flow.) But with so much at stake for Quitman, he will not consider a surgery date before the end of June.
Seeing the promise in Quitman’s NJ ASK scores requires a look behind the raw numbers. The best performance came in eighth-grade English, where the pass rate was 50 percent. That might not sound like much, but consider that, in 2012 as seventh graders, only 4 percent of those same students passed the state English exam.
To Glover, the improvement is proof of the power of excellent teaching. The eighth-grade English teacher is Christina Patterson-Bright, a longtime veteran of the school known for motivating instruction and a deep commitment to the students. Last year, she worked closely with Rosemary Coyle, one of Glover’s new recruits, who emphasized literacy skills in her social studies classes. Patterson-Bright and Coyle pushed the students to persevere when. Though half achieved grade-level proficiency in English, the pass rate in math was a mere 11 percent -- demonstrating the difference that teachers can make.
This year, Patterson-Bright remains at Quitman. Coyle reluctantly left in December to do a mandatory three-semester internship for a graduate program; though she hopes to return in the fall of 2015, her classes are now staffed by a long-term substitute. Seventh- and eighth-grade math are still taught by a teacher who isn’t certified in the subject, but Glover said he is dedicated and working hard, seeking guidance from the math consultant. To Glover, that is preferable to what he had before: a fully credentialed teacher who did not want to be there.
In his mind, last year’s midyear departures of all four sixth- through eighth-grade math and science teach-ers was no excuse for the middle grades’ poor performance on the state math test, but at least it offered an explanation for what were in some cases dramatic declines. Sixth graders saw their math pass rate fall to 32 percent from 57 percent the year before. In seventh grade, the drop was even worse: to 4 percent proficient from 45 percent a year earlier.
While the teachers who quit all had their own reasons for leaving, they generally were overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle the demands of their jobs, despite the fact that three of them convinced Glover otherwise when he hired them the previous summer. One was a teacher the district had required him to keep on.
More perplexing were the results for third through fifth grades, where there wasn’t anything visibly wrong but something clearly was not right. In fifth grade, for instance, only 5 percent of students passed the reading test, down from 18 percent when they were fourth graders the year before.