The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Schools lauded for extra efforts
Students from poor families often come to school straining under the weight of extra burdens: Hunger, stress and a lack of words.
And educators find they have to first ease those burdens before tackling the primary task of teaching.
“If your stomach is growling and you don’t know where you’re getting your next meal, then you’re not going to be as interested in the isosceles triangle,” said Scott Elchenko, principal of Hartwood Elementary School, where more than 200 students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.
Hartwood and three other area elementary schools have been named Title I Distinguished schools. The 55 schools named yesterday by the Virginia Department of Education were lauded for having high standardized test scores despite also having high rates of children living in impoverished families.
Two of those schools—Hartwood and Kate Waller Barrett Elementary—are part of Stafford County Public Schools. Farmington Elementary School in Culpeper County and King George Elementary School also achieved the distinguished status.
To be a Title I Distinguished school, at least 60 percent of the student body must pass the reading and math Standards of Learning tests.
It’s a hurdle that’s often harder to clear for schools with more students in low-income families, Elchenko said. A 1995 study found that a child in a low-income family could hear 42 million fewer words by the age of 4 than a child in a middle-class family.
That vocabulary gap provides a challenge to elementary school teachers. Elchenko said that his staff uses a variety of techniques, including individualized education and hands-on learning opportunities. They also try to schedule more field trips, to make sure that each student gets a variety of new experiences.
At Kate Waller Barrett, teachers learned that they first had to meet basic needs before they could get down to the business of reading, writing and arithmetic.
Teachers were often scrambling to find a winter coat or a snack for students. So the school partnered with the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank to start an in-school food pantry.
“That gave us more time to focus on instruction,” principal Kim Austin said. “And it allows the children to focus on what’s important that day, instead of worrying about their next meal.”
The two Stafford schools both started new programs in the past school year. Hartwood began an engineering lab and Kate Waller Barrett launched Barrett Academy, a program focusing on skills such as public speaking, manners and responsibility.
Those won’t show up on a standardized test, but both Austin and Elchenko said their schools’ success in test scores came from keeping standardized tests in perspective.
“We’re building children and making them smarter,” Austin said. “If the result is higher test scores, that’s validation but that’s not why we do what we do. The tests are just a snapshot of a few days in May. That doesn’t define who we really are. We’re much bigger than our test scores.”
Amy Umble: 540/735-1973