Learning First Alliance

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Reaching for a Common Goal: A Conversation with Greenlawn Terrace Educators

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Louisiana’s Greenlawn Terrace Elementary is a small school achieving big things. It is one of the top-performing schools in its district, a feat made even more impressive given the high rate of poverty of its student population. In fact, the school was recently named a High-Performing High-Poverty School by the Louisiana Department of Education, one of a very few neighborhood schools in the greater New Orleans area to receive the honor.

We recently spoke with members of the Greenlawn community to learn how they do it. Two major themes emerged: their school environment, which is caring and safe for students, parents and staff, and their focus on data.

Principal Katherine “Kitty” Croft, special education teacher and department chair Marguerite Hymel and Title I extension teacher Amy Lang told us more.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Greenlawn Terrace Elementary?

Croft: At Greenlawn, everyone in the school, from the custodial staff to the principal, shares the same vision.

I have been at the school almost 25 years, and that stability, of course, adds to what goes on here. And we are a small neighborhood school, with about 370 students. But when I first came, this was a large school. We were almost 700 children. I took home the yearbook so I could memorize the teachers. But now we are a small, suburban school tucked in Kenner, Louisiana, behind a very busy street. I love it.

Our population…When I first came to the school it was about 66% white, 33% black. Today it is about 41% white, 33% black and 25% Hispanic. We have always been a Title I school, which means that we are always “at-risk.” We have right now about 85% free or reduced price lunch students.

I have always loved psychometry. I figured when I was in graduate school that there would always be some kind of measurement for children. Of course, I did not know how much measurement we were going to have, but that is one of the things that I truly like about [No Child Left Behind]. And one of the things that we are good at is data analysis.

Public School Insights: What is student achievement like at Greenlawn?

Lang: Our children are successful. They reach their academic potential. When they come in, in kindergarten, most students fall into the first quartile academically, but then they excel. The trend is that approximately 75% of those tested in the third, fourth and fifth grades score proficient on the statewide tests. That is a high percent. [We consistently score well above state averages].

Hymel: I am a fifth-grade inclusion teacher, and I work very closely with our two fifth-grade teachers. 10% of our fifth-grade class has been accepted into Haynes Academy, which is a school in Jefferson Parish for children who can succeed at a higher level.

Lang: There are criteria to be accepted into the school. It includes report card grades, scores on statewide tests and different awards the students have received for the last two years.

Hymel: And 10% of our kids’ performance is there. We are so happy about that.

Public School Insights: What are some of the biggest factors in the students’ success?

Hymel: I think the first thing we need to mention is that we do have strong leadership here. Ms. Croft has been my principal for 25 years. I was actually here a year before she came. And her leadership really has shaped the path the school has taken. She has a creative and effective use of personnel and has maximized the amount of people who are actually working with the children at all times through special ed inclusion and Title I extension. She gets that pupil/teacher ratio as low as we can get it. The more a child has hands-on learning one-on-one with a teacher, the more they progress.

Lang: I am actually hired specifically to make the pupil/teacher ratio lower. And in the testing grades, we have a lower number of children in all the classes for reading, English and math, which allows them more individualized attention. As Ms. Hymel said, Ms. Croft does have a creative use of the personnel.

Hymel: Also, we are given a lot of support. [Ms. Croft] gives us the tools that we need, and then she trusts us to do our jobs well. Those who do not do their jobs well may not be invited back.

There is also an environment on this campus that is so conducive to learning. As she said before, everyone from our custodial personnel to the cooks in the kitchen knows the kids. They always ask the children, “How did you do?” They're involved with the children. It is just a wonderful place to work.

Lang: We do have an environment that is conducive to learning. It is not only the great teachers, but the building is clean. The children feel safe. They want to come to school. Even students who perform lower academically feel smart and safe.

Hymel: We also have really good support personnel here at Greenlawn. And we have a drama teacher. We have a visual arts teacher. We have a gifted and talented teacher. We have a PE department that is absolutely wonderful. They teach computer as well as PE. They teach ballroom dancing as well as PE. There are so many people here, and everyone is working for the same goal. And that is to allow every child to be the best that they can be.

Croft: I have to brag about my PE department. The superintendent has a physical fitness program in which all the children in elementary school compete. We had the two top winners [in the district] in their age category. Then they went to Baton Rouge last week, and they came out first in the state.

There is a pride about what we do at this school. We want that trophy—bring me back another trophy!

Hymel: And discipline in the school is another factor in our success. It is very consistent, and it is well-maintained. We have high expectations not only academically, but for the behavior of our students as well. We use Positive Behavioral Support for our children, and the high expectations really come into play there. You hear the students say, “We don't do that at Greenlawn.” They really know. Kids put peer pressure on other kids in a positive way.

We had a little boy come in at the beginning of the year. He was coming from another school with 17 office referrals, and it was only September. We were thinking, “Oh my gosh, what are we going to do with this child?”

Ms. Croft called me in, and we did a behavior plan. And when one of the third grade teachers, Mrs. Wilford, came in, she met the child and said, “We are going to do just fine.” And they did. The child is now one of our best readers. He has an “A” in conduct, and he has not visited this office in a bad way ever since.

Lang: Another child came from a Jefferson Parish school and he actually had…I do not know if it is a “criminal offense” when you are 12, but it was a criminal offense—he had attacked another child. The child was in the hospital. He got kicked out of that school. He came to Greenlawn. He had strict rules—he was not even allowed around other children for a little while. But then he fit in perfectly. The positive good model behavior is contagious. He learned that there is a way to act and that we have high expectations of how you should act. And it is positive peer pressure—they have to do what's right.

Public School Insights: Do you have a detention or suspension rate that you can share?

Hymel: Another job that I do here is chair the academic and behavioral intervention team. Once a month, we sit down and look at behavior. Most schools have what is called the “Top 10” in office referrals. I think we have six. Six children who have been suspended. That is absolutely considered a very, very good statistic. But no one outside of us really knows it—it isn’t reported anywhere.

Public School Insights: Could you talk a bit about parental involvement at the school?

Lang: Parental involvement is one aspect of our school improvement plan. And actually 1 to 2% of [Title I] funding is dedicated to it. We invite parents to as many activities, academic or otherwise, as possible, to get them involved in their child's education. We have mandatory grade level meetings three times a year. These get parents into classrooms with teachers to get them the expectations—what we expect of their children and what is going to be expected of them for their children to succeed.

We also provide activities for parents and families. For example, in the fall we might have a festival somewhere around October 31 and have face painting or a pumpkin toss. We get the parents to work the booths or even just engage in the fun with their children.

We provide holiday homework and weekend homework for parents to do with their children. At first parents thought, “We do not want to do that,” but now they understand that it is a group effort, that it takes all of us for the children to do well.

We also offer summer workbooks and summer programs to help the students. A new program started in Jefferson Parish [our district] last summer. I actually worked it with two others. It is called LAP, the Literacy Advancement Program. This program is different than other programs we have done. It is offered three weeks prior to the beginning of the school year. It addresses reading difficulties in children coming out of kindergarten, first and second grades—so it’s early childhood intervention, to get them before they get to third grade as nonreaders. It was successful. I do not have any final statistics, but they do know that it worked based on DIBELS scores and class grades. They are doing it again this year. (Learn more about LAP from a New Orleans Times-Picayune article)

Public School Insights: Ms. Croft mentioned data earlier. Could you talk more about how data are used at Greenlawn?

Lang: We are very proud of how well we analyze data. We take test scores, everything from DIBELS to state testing, and we tear them apart as soon as the scores come in. It is probably not a week after we get the scores that the teachers know what is going on. If we can stay up late enough, you will have the results by the end of the day.

Public School Insights: Who does that analysis?

Lang: It is Ms. Croft, along with a few key members of her staff. We get together as soon as possible, because not only do we want to know the results, but we want to share. We want to say “Okay, we did really well in this, and we can improve in areas like this.” It is very important to us that we know what our focus is, and should be.

Hymel: Yes, not only do we analyze the data, but we put it to use effectively. We know the weaknesses and the strengths of our children before we even know what they look like. And we know exactly where they need to go.

Croft: I have a team that I hire with Title I money. And over the summer, as soon as the scores come in, we analyze them and write a prescription for each student. So when the teachers walk in on the first day of school, we hand them an educational prescription for their children. I like that. My teachers know what to look for.

Before there was DIBELS and before there was data available by computer, I did this longhand on a spreadsheet on my kitchen table. That is how it started. If I would've known, I would've written a computer program for it, and I would not be sitting here talking to you today.

Public School Insights: Could you talk about the professional development opportunities offered at Greenlawn?

Lang: We had a district-wide professional development this year in August. It was basically a technology institute—all technology-related workshops and in-services. It was held at one location, the Convention Center downtown, and all the teachers went and had a choice of sessions to attend. It was two full days. We were all given a laptop through the school system.

We [as a district] got a new reading series, and so we also have professional development monthly for English Language Arts. The PD is basically just about all of the components of the series and how to better use it. They also bring in different speakers with ideas about writing strategies or reading comprehension strategies and things like that.

We also do a lot of professional development at the school level monthly. We have our “School Improvement Design Team Meetings.” We pick topics that usually have to do with our interval assessment, a district-wide assessment given six times throughout the year. The assessment lets you know if you've touched all of the GLEs [Grade-Level Expectations] and if the students have strengths or weaknesses in any areas. We discuss the results of the interval assessments and how we can use them.

Croft: It is embedded with the parish. It is not something that I truly created, but the key is that the staff has to be motivated to attend and to come back and share it.

Could one of you chime in with something about collegiality?

Hymel: I guess you can kind of get from the way that we are talking that we all love Greenlawn. We love working here, and we love who we are working with. Every Friday we get together and each grade level takes turns making breakfast. I was here at six o'clock this morning cooking two gallons of grits.

We truly care about each other. We are very supportive of each other. If I need something done, I have three people who will offer to do it for me. And we return the favors. Usually when someone comes to Greenlawn, you have to pry them out of here. Very few people leave by choice.

Public School Insights: I was also wondering if you could talk about community involvement at Greenlawn.

Croft: As the single person leading the school, that is probably one of my weakest areas. You need to have time to go out to go to the Winn-Dixie [Supermarket] and say, “Will you adopt me?”

We do a few small things—we collect coffee labels. I have a person who is on my campus, who is really a central office person but she is part of my staff, and she will go to Home Depot and ask for some plants that we can put on the campus. In fact, she put out some for a meeting the other night. But these are all very small things.

The Kiwanis Club is a supporter of the school. They support Accelerated Reading and Accelerated Math. They give two bikes to the school at the end of every year and at Christmas time. The Knights of Columbus, another organization, donates every year to my special education department—it is a cash donation. Representative Ligi from our state government is coming to the school, and he wants to give a gift to the school.

And after an article appeared about us in the Times-Picayune, I went to a Rotary Club luncheon. They wanted to find out what we do. They want to adopt us, and they want to put some small, tangible things in the school. For example, things related to economics.

I need to thank the Times-Picayune reporter for what she wrote. I also ordered workbooks for the summer for the children. The vendor lives in Covington. He mentioned he had read the article, and I thought maybe he could help me with a discount. He said he would try, and maybe I wouldn't have to pay shipping. So little things. It is all in the day’s occupation.

But I'm going to tell you the truth. That is my weakest area. I wish I could do more to get the community involved.

Public School Insights: As I'm sure you know, the Obama administration has called to reauthorize Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind. Are there any aspects of the law that you would like to see change to better support the work that you do at Greenlawn? Or any aspects that you find vital that you think should be maintained?

Croft: There are some things that we feel are not addressed [in NCLB], like art, PE and those sorts of subjects.

Also, I had a child walk in from Honduras, and he had to take the LEAP [Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, Louisiana’s state assessment]. The child did not know a word of English. There need to be better disclaimers or provisions for ESL students. Same for special education students who, by the very nature that they have an evaluation, should not necessarily be succumbed to the same test as a regular education student.

Another thing—and this is something you do not have control over, it is within our parish—is to let the principal hire the staff, to get people who have the same philosophy or mission. We do not have that luxury—staffing decisions just filter down from central office, and they show up and hopefully they fit in. I have been very fortunate to get some excellent people this year.

But for example we must have a certain number of teachers with masters’ degrees. Sometimes it is not the teacher with the master’s degree or the nationally board-certified teacher who is the best. Sometimes it is a teacher who comes in with no years of experience, but is gung-ho. And I'm always looking for new blood. I think it is refreshing and it keeps all of us on our toes.

Hymel: Two of our faculty members are former students. I think that in itself shows how much people love being here.

Croft: Yes, two of our former students are teachers here. No, three. People feel comfortable here.

I am going to tell you a little story about one of my teachers. Or she was a teacher, but there was a staff reduction. In order to stay at the school she took almost a half pay cut, and she became a paraprofessional. And I called her mother. I knew her mother, and I said, “I'm not making this decision by myself.”

But that gives you just a small look at some of the inner workings and the dynamics of the school. It is just a little school, 373 children. We are very happy here. And I probably should've retired five years ago, but I'm still here. I'm able to continue, because I have a staff that picks up the ball and goes over the goal line to make that touchdown.