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Test data show improvement trend continues

When Andre Whitfield took over as principal in July 2018, Southeast Elementary School had for years been labeled as one of the state’s lowest performing public schools, had not separated itself from the pejorative image of its low-income neighborhood and, just the year before, had endured a double-digit slump in state test scores.

None of that lowered Whitfield’s expectations.

 Principal Andre Whitfield interacts with kindergarten students while teacher conducts reading lesson in background “I came in with the philosophy that, at the end of the day, everything we do is about loving the kids,” the principal said, “not just saying you love them but doing the action that goes with it, that you’re prepared to teach them every day, that you’re prepared to do more than just be the teacher in the classroom. These kids come in dealing with all kinds of things and we have to be able to meet those basic needs.”

Teachers responded to Whitfield’s approach and students responded to the teachers. The result: an increase of nearly 14 points in overall academic proficiency on end-of-grade testing, the greatest increase in the school district and one bright spot among several for Lenoir County Public Schools in 2019 state accountability results reported recently for more than 2,500 public and charter schools across the state.

Southeast was one of three LCPS schools to raise its school performance grade and among the 11 schools that met or exceeded academic growth expectations. The data also showed other schools and the district itself made real gains for the third consecutive year.

Lenoir County Early College High School repeated as the district’s best academic performer, with a 91.9 proficiency rating and an “A” letter grade. Two schools – South Lenoir High and Moss Hill Elementary – logged B’s and eight made C’s, including North Lenoir High, which – like Southeast and Moss Hill – clicked up a grade from 2018.

Other indications of the district’s improvement effort taking root include:

--  The highest proficiency rating in seven years at Rochelle Middle School.

--  The fourth consecutive year of exceeding growth for La Grange Elementary School.

--  Increases in proficiency at 80 percent of the district’s high schools and 80 percent of middle schools. Student proficiency at Kinston High has more than doubled in four years and at North Lenoir High the proficiency score has almost doubled in that time.

--  Growth trends district-wide since the 2015-2016 school year in test scores for Grade 3-8 English language arts, Grade 5-8 science, Grade 3-8 math, and high school biology, English II and ACT WorkKeys, a measure of career readiness for high school students.

--  A four-year graduation rate that continues its upward trend – to the district’s highest graduation rate ever. The 2019 graduation rate of 84.7 percent is 5 points higher than in 2016. The state average is 86.5 percent.

For elementary and middle schools, letter grades are based on end-of-grade test scores (80 percent) and academic growth (20 percent). In high schools, the state uses a formula that weights test scores, growth and several other factors, including graduation rate and the percentage of students who pass a rigorous math course. Growth is measured by a statistical model that compares each student’s predicted test score, based on past performance, against his or her actual result.

“Overall I’m pleased with our results,” Superintendent Brent Williams said. “Data show a continuation of a three-year trend of school system improvements.”

Instead of the dramatic gains reflected in 2018 testing, when 15 of 17 schools met or exceeded growth expectations and six schools increased their letter grade, the 2019 results showed solid, if more incremental, progress. The data also showed the difficulty of building on each year’s improvement, since rising proficiency and growth rates automatically raise the standard for success.

Anticipating this dilemma, LCPS launched the new school year with an initiative it’s calling Leveling Up: Taking Teaching and Learning to the Next Level. Combining a call to action with focused professional development, Leveling Up intends to keep teachers and administrators pushing for improvement by doubling down on what’s worked well the past three years and emphasizing what still needs to be done.

Whitfield would be the first to tell you Southeast has a way to go. Despite its big jump in proficiency, it’s still labeled by the state as low performing because of its D grade and the fact it met rather than exceeded growth. That won’t do for 2020, the principal says. “We’re shooting for 10 points (proficiency improvement); then we’d be a C school.”

LCPS continues to provides Southeast, as with other schools where scores are lagging, with additional resources like highly skilled curriculum coaches in reading and math. For Whitfield’s part, the back-to-basics approach he brought to the school in 2018 is getting some upgrades this school year, with increased planning time and more instructional resources for teachers, a commitment to personalized learning and – what he calls “the key piece” – building relationships with students.

“The teachers have done a phenomenal job of creating classroom cultures that build relationships. It’s evident in the hallways,” he said. “Everybody feels it. I talk to parents who say they feel like their child is loved at Southeast. And the kids feel like they’re loved at Southeast. It’s the family-type environment I’m trying to create, as relates to staff being a family and being willing to collaborate and work together.”

Test scores in 2018 in third-grade reading, fourth-grade math, fifth-grade reading and fifth-grade science were at or near new highs for Southeast. Without overlooking the challenges, Whitfield and his staff have cause to celebrate the successes.

“I can actually see the fruits of our labors now,” the principal said. “The smiles on teachers’ faces are just unbelievable, for them to see that we can actually do this. We said we’re going to move the mountain and now we’re actually lifting it up and starting to move it.”

Inside LCPS, the educators call that momentum.

Photo caption:

Southeast Elementary principal Andre Whitifled visits with kindergarten students in Autaumn Gilbert's class while she works with a reading group in the background. Southeast's gain of nearly 14 points in student proficiency in 2019 state accountability tests was the largest by any school in the district, a gain Whitfield attributes to his faculty building relationships with the students.

bar graph showing improvement graduation rate bar graph showing improvement on reading tests