Monday, January 17, 2011

Africentric school shines: MacDonald

The most scrutinized school in the Toronto District School Board has a very public feather in its cap — thanks to those dastardly provincial EQAO tests.

The inaugural Grade 3 class of the Africentric Alternative School significantly outperformed both the board and the province in this year’s results.

The school’s 16 Grade 3 students collectively had 69% of students reaching the provincial Level 3 standard in reading, 81% in writing and 81% in math. For the board, those scores sit at 60%, 70% and 71%. For all of Ontario, they’re 62%, 70% and 71%.

Sure, it’s only the first year — and educators always caution it’s important to look at improvement over time. As well, the Africentric school’s 2009-10 class was a small one where even a few high-performing — or low-performing — students could significantly skew results.

Still, it shows the Downsview-area school must be doing something right.

It also proves what the black community already knows — black students are capable of high levels of achievement.

“When you see achievement, both great and small, especially in the EQAO, it just provides another context for the reason why you need a school like the Africentric Alternative School,” says principal Thando Hyman, adding enrolment has doubled to 160 for the school’s second year.

Was the school simply blessed with an already high-achieving crop of kids? Nope, she says.

“The students really run the gamut … Some kids at the beginning of (last) year were having challenges in reading and so it really required ongoing consistent teaching and continual motivation,” says Hyman, adding the school “still has some work to do” in reading.

High expectations, consistent routines, a strong sense of purpose based on African cultural principles that students are steeped in during daily opening exercises, after-school tutorials and close, caring attention by teachers are things Hyman believes have fuelled students’ success. With the TDSB battling a 40% dropout rate among black students, she thinks those factors can help students elsewhere do better too.

In the city’s east end principal Glenn Boden credits extra professional development and staff collaboration time — bought by grants under a provincial education ministry struggling schools program — for his school’s dramatic improvements.

Last year’s EQAO results at Cedarbrook Junior Public School were not so hot — see the above note on the hazards of looking at a single year. But since 2005 Grade 3 students’ Level 3 reading performance has shot from 32% to 62% and Grade 6, from 44% to 83%. Grade 3 math has gone from 29% to 76%; Grade 6 from 47% to 66%.

“It’s not rocket science,” says Boden, whose school is in the Bellamy Rd.-Eglinton Ave. E. area. But, “it takes time, it takes planning and it takes (teacher) buy-in.”

Cedarbrook is in the top third of the TDSB’s list of its neediest schools. Teachers meet regularly to analyze student test data and plan how they’ll collectively tackle weaknesses. They watch each other teach and have worked on getting their marking schemes in line with each other so they’re more standardized and less subjective.

The school also set up a professional learning library where teachers can look up research on teaching and get students books aimed at improving specific academic skills.

Last year staff targeted students performing immediately below the Level 3 standard and worked throughout the year to move them up a level.

The results “surpassed our expectations,” says teacher Carri Brown.

“We were really, really excited.”

Two schools. Two successes. And one still-controversial test that allows those successes to shine.

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