cover_story (2005-31)

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Photo with no caption

National program targeting inner-city schools meets with

WORKIN’ HARD: Sarah Moore Greene principal George Anna Yarbro beams over her students’ success.

SMILE WHEN YOU SPELL THAT: Project GRAD feedback coach Kitty Creekmore shows off “Alfie” and “Bette.”

NO SOUR GRAPES: Inskip Elementary principal Elisa Luna isn’t sore about not getting Project GRAD at her school.

GLAD HE’S DONE WITH GRAD: Glenn Noah, a former teacher at Dogwood Elementary, doesn’t miss Project GRAD.

The ABCs of Project Grad

by Molly Kincaid

The tiny, tunneling hallways of Sarah Moore Greene School emit that familiar elementary school smell: a mix of Elmer’s Glue, chalkdust and little humans.

The chairs are elfin, and so are the semi-circle tables with the little indention for the teacher to squeeze into. Bright stuff is everywhere. Art projects adorn the walls with colorful pipe cleaners boinging out of them. Bubble-lettered posters chide kids to “Read, read, read!”

At first glance, SMG, located on Brooks Avenue in East Knoxville, is the portrait of a typical elementary school. But one thing does set it apart, at least from most of the other Title I elementary schools in Knoxville; it doesn’t use the pervasive

“Success for All” reading program, which is part of the recently implemented Project GRAD curriculum that dictates how a variety of subjects are taught in 14 Knoxville schools, including 10 elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools.

Project GRAD (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams) is one of many national programs that use a formulaic approach in efforts to improve graduation rates in inner city schools. Beginning in Houston, Tex. in 1993 and subsequently spreading to 12 other states, GRAD installs a consistent method of teaching throughout grades K-12 using two main components: Move It Math and a reading program called Success For All. When GRAD implemented in Knoxville in 2001, Sarah Moore Greene elected to use its Move It Math program, but requested to be excused from the Success For All reading program on the grounds that they had just begun a program called Literacy Collaborative. Like GRAD, Literacy Collaborative is a nationwide program that has been adopted by schools dotting the country. Both programs have similar aims; they both attempt to improve the learning process at schools with low socio-economic pupil populations. Both have reported vast success, but opinions of those programs vary depending on who’s doing the talking.

Most administrators at Knox County schools agree that Project GRAD and its Success For All reading program has made positive differences in its 10 elementary schools. On the other hand, some teachers, especially those with years of experience, resent the program and say it’s too structured and inhibiting of creativity. One teacher at Dogwood School went so far as to write “Project CRAP” on a GRAD memo and post it on his door. Still, others see the scripted nature of the program as extremely beneficial to greener teachers who may not be familiar with the different challenges that face inner city schools. With the positive results reported so far, many see GRAD as a necessary means to an important end.

The numbers would point to Project GRAD’s success; the number of students achieving reading proficiency on their TCAPs (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program) jumped from 62 to 72 percent last year among the 10 elementary schools, and those numbers went from 64 to 75 percent in math proficiency. “I would just credit that focus on curriculum and student learning,” says Knox County Schools director of research and development Mike Winstead. “There certainly was good teaching before, but now we have consistency, in that the Success For All program is more scripted.”

It’s noteworthy that all Knox County Schools saw significant improvements across the board. Numbers of students reaching proficiency in non-Project GRAD schools went from 86 to 91 percent in reading and from 85 to 90 percent in math, or about half the increase of Project Grad schools. Winstead credits a statewide effort to streamline curriculum to match up with what’s tested on the TCAPs. “As a state employee, you teach the state curriculum,” he says.

But then there is a possibility that the test scores are skewed because of such streamlining. If teachers structure classes solely on those tests, how comprehensive can those classes be? Kids could know a million vocabulary words, but not how to string a sentence together. The statistics are also based on the concept of the somewhat deceptive term “proficiency,” which requires only that the student is not in the lowest 20 percent of test takers. So while statistics like Maynard School’s jump in proficiency from 42.9 to 84.4 percent in just two years are indeed staggering, they should still be taken with a grain of salt.

That criticism magnifies when it comes to Project GRAD schools in particular. There’s a concern that, though test scores are increasing, classes are too focused toward the standardized tests, in turn setting up roadblocks on avenues for creativity.

While teachers and administrators insist that the two programs aren’t at odds, contrasting the Literacy Collaborative program at Sarah Moore Greene and the Success For All program at the other Project GRAD schools may be important in figuring out what works best at Knoxville’s inner-city schools.

Inside Geraldine Armstrong’s summer school classroom at Sarah Moore Greene, six kids who’ll be entering second grade this year are sitting on the floor rifling through their “browsing bins,” plastic containers filled with floppy paperbacks. A young man named Dakota chooses the book Copycat and he reads it aloud. In a hoarse voice, he bashfully but skillfully reads the story, which tells of a kitten who copies the actions of a grown-up cat. Later Dakota says, “We write stories, too, about what we did in real life. I wrote about when I went to Ohio to see my Granny.” He says he likes to read and wants to be a rapper when he grows up.

Next door, in Carol Rudolf’s class, kindergarteners sit around a low table and chat. A closer listen reveals that they are talking about the stories they are writing. The assignment is to draw a picture and write a story-like description of it. One little girl wearing a rainbow-striped tube top holds up a roughly drawn picture of her family. The crayoned caption reads, “A blessing brown. My mom and my brother.” Another student needs help spelling “Power Rangers.” Another takes matters into her own mind, spelling kittens as “ctns” in her story. Rudolf chuckles, “Now that’s creative writing.”

For a so-called underprivileged school, Sarah Moore Greene’s reading classes are undoubtedly advanced. Creative writing in kindergarten would be impressive at any school. Most striking, though, is the kids’ enthusiasm about reading. In all of the classrooms at Greene, there’s hardly any disciplinary action needed—the kids are too wrapped up listening, reading and writing to misbehave.

Greene’s teachers rave about Literacy Collaborative. “For me this is a huge eye-opener for how kids learn to read and write,” says Gail Stockton, who teaches fourth grade. “I have been working with Literacy Collaborative for two years now, and I realized I was just skimming the surface before that. I am just so impressed with this program.”

Just up the road from Sarah Moore Greene is Green Magnet School, a Project GRAD school that sits behind Townview Towers. The mood there is exceedingly more rambunctious than at Greene. In the gym, a handful of kids are rolling about on their backs on thick red mats and chanting numbers in Spanish at the top of their lungs. This is “SMART class,” which incorporates physical activity with learning, says Project GRAD feedback coach Kitty Creekmore. A “feedback coach” is one of the many supplemental positions that come with Project GRAD. Creekmore visits multiple schools to oversee the program and offer encouragement. All GRAD schools also have a social worker on staff. Young and eager, Creekmore bounds through the hallways at Green Magnet, one of several schools she frequents, and talks excitedly about GRAD, almost like a cheerleader gushing about her football team.

In a first grade reading class at Green, kids stand on colored cardboard construction papers arranged in a circle on the floor. They get to move forward if they correctly identify a vocabulary word. “It’s like a life-size board game,” says Creekmore. Then she asks the teacher to prompt the kids to do the “peanut-butter-and-jelly song,” which is a very cute instructional song and dance on how to make a PBJ. Lots of “spreading” and “squishing.” Later, a first-grade class demonstrates another, more familiar song, the alphabet song. The kids stand in a line and sing lines such as, “H is for horse, I is for insects crawling up my shorts,” while doing ants-in-the-pants dances and other illustrative motions.

When asked to compare GRAD’s Success For All reading program with Literacy Collaborative, Creekmore says, “I think people have this idea that SFA is really scripted, but it’s really not. The two programs are really more similar than you would think. We both use strategies, it’s just ‘best practices.’   We both have our gimmicks.” To illustrate, she holds up “Alfie” and “Bette”—two cuddly puppets used by many GRAD schools for the purpose of sounding out words. “Best practices” is a catch phrase in educational circles meaning a method that’s been researched and is widely accepted as successful.

Despite sharing the same basic goal, there are obvious differences to an outside observer in the way the classrooms are set up. At the Success For All school, there is a lot of physical activity, lots of memorization by way of engaging mnemonic devices, and it seems to be more of an exercise in routine. At the Literacy Collaborative school, the focus is on independence and harnessing the kids’ attention by letting them read and write and express their ideas.

In terms of TCAP scores, but Green hovers below Sarah Moore Greene, experienced a more impressive jump in the last school year than did SMG. The percentage of students achieving proficiency at SMG went from 55.4 to 70.7 percent in reading and 59.0 to 70.4 percent in math, while Green’s proficiency rates went from 37.7 to 56.9 percent in reading and 37.7 to 58.6 percent in math.

The movement to increase support for inner-city schools relates in theory, but not directly, to Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which was implemented in 2001. It designates “Target Schools” in each county that are below national standards and sets yearly progress goals, termed AYP, or Adequate Yearly Progress. The 12 Knox County schools on that list are among the 14 GRAD schools. But NCLB doesn’t fund GRAD, and some would criticize it as an underfunded and unrealistic mandate. Even so, these schools are hoping to rise to the challenge. “GRAD is providing the tools for us to meet the NCLB mandates in those inner-city schools,” says Russ Oaks, school system spokesperson.

Swept up in the movement to aid inner-city schools, Mayor Haslam became involved in Project GRAD even before he became mayor as a member of the GRAD task force, and he still supports it. “As pre-mayor, I thought the reality is that as a community, we can’t have all the schools in the doughnut around downtown doing well and all the ones in the center not doing well,” he says. “As mayor I’ve realized that it’s also important in getting people to live downtown. People’s first question is always, ‘Are my kids gonna have a good school?’ So it has dovetailed nicely with what the city is trying to do.”

Though Project GRAD seems to work when it comes to test scores, GRAD executive director Jerry Hodges says there’s still a long way to go. The ultimate goal is to increase the number of high school graduates as well as the number of college enrollees. “We’re in a marathon reform movement, and we don’t expect to reach those goals in a few years,” says Hodges. “There is an attitudinal change in our high school kids in that they actually have a belief that college is possible.”

Incentive is key here. Students must have a cumulative GPA of 2.5 to receive the GRAD scholarship of $1,000 a year. “Then if they get a 3.0, they can go ahead and pocket the lottery scholarship [$3,000 a year] as well,” says Hodges. “It’s an enhancement of ours.”

Costs begin to add up when taking into account these scholarships, teacher training and the bulk of materials that teachers are provided through GRAD. “Just in general terms, the program is funded by a combination of public and private funds,” says Oaks. “At first it’s heavily private, and then there’s a transition where it becomes more publicly funded. But there is no federal funding; this is all local.”

There are several specific challenges that plague schools with the low socio-economic status that Project GRAD attempts to address, such as low parental involvement. “With these schools, there’s a lot higher likelihood that both parents work,” says Haslam. “Also, you have a lot of parents who may not have had a good school experience themselves and don’t want to get involved.” Creekmore says GRAD’s family programs have met with some success in helping parents understand how to get involved in their kids’ education.

Another problem at those schools is a high transience rate. The theory is that the structure of Project GRAD, being the same from school to school, makes that transition easier. “Our Project GRAD schools do have higher transience than our suburban schools,” says Haslam. “But you do often see them moving to another Project GRAD school.”

Elizabeth Toth, District Literacy Coordinator at Sarah Moore Greene, says that the turnover rate has actually decreased since they implemented Literacy Collaborative. Still, they do have a problem with transportation, especially in summer school. “We did have 10 in each class but that has dwindled because a lot of parents don’t have transportation. That’s our biggest problem,” she says.

While the focus on problems like these and the conditions of lower socio-economic schools in general are much needed, Project GRAD has some inherent flaws. One teacher at Dogwood Elementary, who wished to remain anonymous for reasons of job protection, says, “As an experienced teacher, the pitfall is that there is no room for doing anything besides their prescripted way. There’s no time to have any fun. It’s very regimented, and I think the kids get tired of the same thing every day.” Because Dogwood doesn’t feed into a Project GRAD middle school, she says, “The kids get used to the different way of teaching, then when they get to middle school, everything is going to be different, and they’re going to be confused.”

Glen Noah, a former teacher at Dogwood Elementary, says, “I didn’t know one co-worker at Dogwood that liked the program. Many people transferred out, so they’ve lost a lot of experienced teachers.” Noah himself was fired just 14 days before he was scheduled for retirement, mainly due to a prank that involved writing “Project CRAP” on a memo and taping it to his classroom door. 

Noah detests GRAD’s regimented nature. “You’re not given any liberty to do anything innovative on your own,” he says. “People were coming from Houston to check up on us all the time.”

Of course, the case could be made that teachers’ real beef with the program is the more frequent and invasive monitoring rather than an issue with the structure of the program itself. “Any time you have a program that sets structure, you’re going to have people complaining that it’s lacking in creativity,” says Haslam.

Also, Project GRAD is designed with the intent that its structure loosens with time. “When you first implement a system, especially one that’s more scripted, you start out with pure implementation and there’s not a lot of leeway,” says Winstead. “So teachers are not gonna be happy with it. But as they get used to it, they will have more flexibility.”

Standing in the teacher supplies room at Green School, surrounded by shelves piled with stacks of thick Project GRAD instructional manuals, Creekmore says, “I think a lot of people have this big misconception about Success For All, because there are these manuals that say, ‘Teacher says…’ But the teacher doesn’t read straight from that. For a new teacher, that guideline is helpful, while a veteran will make it more their own. The teachers are by no means robots.”

Project GRAD and Literacy Collaborative aren’t the only educational reform movements out there at present. The only Title I school in Knox County that doesn’t use some component of GRAD is Inskip Elementary. “Our kids aren’t feeding into Fulton or Austin-East High Schools [Project GRAD schools] so it just didn’t make sense for us,” says Inskip principal, Elisa Luna. Luna says that Inskip receives more than $50,000 a year in federal and state grants, such as the No Child Left Behind Reading First grant and the Comprehensive School Reform grant, which utilizes a model formulated at Vanderbilt University. “I saw more improvement with this model than I did when I’ve worked with Project GRAD in the past,” says Luna. “With these grants at Inskip, I can give stipends to teachers for extra training and as far as the classroom. It’s not a cookie-cutter approach. We can tailor our materials to each student.”

To some extent, Project GRAD does tailor its program to each student. Every eight weeks, students are reassessed and may move into a new reading group with kids who have similar strengths and weaknesses. Even the teachers’ manuals detail how to teach in ways that specifically cater to students from low socio-economic families, such as those who perhaps haven’t had any reading experiences at home. “For a new teacher who has never taught in this kind of community, it steps it out for them, that is what’s so wonderful about this program,” says TJ Williams, a teacher at Green Magnet School.

Like any new program, Project GRAD has met with some grumbling and some cheerleading. Time will tell whether Sarah Moore Greene’s Literacy Collaborative indeed caters to kids’ needs more than GRAD does. Perhaps one program isn’t better than the other, and each school just needs to find its own fit. For now, most Knox County Schools administrators seem satisfied that scores are on the rise across the board, and even those who have had reservations about GRAD are getting used to it. “We, as a staff, made the decision to embrace Project GRAD,” says Lonsdale principal Lisa White. “Even if everybody has complaints, we do acknowledge that it is making a difference for our kids.”

As for increase in average TCAP proficiency in GRAD schools, most people are ecstatic. “Honestly, I didn’t even expect them to go up that much,” says Haslam. “A lot of us have stuck our necks out for the program, so it’s very encouraging.”

Perhaps Project GRAD’s and Literacy Collaborative’s greatest achievement is not test scores, but something more intangible. Amidst the boisterous air of the classrooms at Green School and Sarah Moore Greene, one forgets about being at an “under-privileged” school, but is drawn into the excitement that accents the games and storytimes and exercises. “I think it’s instilled pride and given students a sense of identity,” says White. “Kids in elementary school are already talking about going to college.”

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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