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An injection of additional teachers headed for Brown International Academy will boost attention paid to academically stunted students, a move school officials hope will markedly improve test scores this spring.
Each third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classroom will receive an extra teacher to co-teach math and reading lessons for about three hours a day. An after-school program also is being added.
There are some schools where test scores are low across the board. But at schools like Brown, scores vary. Impoverished kids perform alarmingly worse than wealthier kids. The state is targeting these performance gaps and those involving racial minorities, disabled and nondisabled and non-English speakers and English speakers.
Closing those gaps has been a major focus of the Tennessee Department of Education since it opted out of No Child Left Behind's Yearly Progress testing goals and launched its own accountability system in 2012. The state will pump nearly $20 million into closing gaps by awarding grants to some of the 167 focus schools -- the 10 percent of schools with the widest performance gaps.
In Hamilton County, Brown, Falling Water Elementary, Lakeside Academy and Tyner High Academy were all included in the focus school category.
Brown and Tyner each received $200,000 grants this year to start new programs targeted at closing their gaps.
With an extra teacher in each classroom, Brown instantly will cut its student-teacher ratio in half for math and reading classes.
The extra bodies will allow teachers to target struggling students early on. Usually, teachers wait to intervene until after students fall behind. Many schools use small groups or interventionists to work with struggling students. But Brown officials say their "front loading" strategy is a new approach.
"It's really just reaching more students and using our time more wisely," said third-grade teacher Ashley Latham, who helped create Brown's grant application. "We know that once children get behind, it's very hard for them to catch up."
About 190 students are already participating in the after-school program, which teachers insist is not day care.
Students work in small rotating groups, spending a week at each station. Last week in the gym, kids acted out adjectives in a charades-style game. A small group of first- and second-graders received scripts to "Little Red Riding Hood," which they later acted out.
And in a class called "Socratic Seminar," students participated in deep discussions and debates on topical events.
Teachers say the variety of hands-on activities keeps students engaged and enrolled in the free voluntary program.
Those working after school and the new part-time hires receive $20 an hour for their time. Aside from salaries, Brown Principal Jennifer Spates said the school also has or will put grant money toward one-time purchases such as iPads, classroom libraries and leveled reading books. The hope is to show immediate growth on 2013 tests to requalify for grant money next year.
"If we don't show gains this year, we won't get the $200,000 next year," Spates said.
At Tyner High Academy, another $200,000 grant is funding iPads, teacher training and consultants. Principal Carol Goss has also hired a part-time statistician, evaluator, reading interventionist and soon will hire someone to work on ACT preparation.
In attacking an achievement gap, Goss said, the school is focusing its efforts on all students, not just individual groups like poor students. And while this kind of work can seem entirely focused on standardized tests, Goss says the push will help students across the board.
"I think that because we are holistically focusing on reading, reading comprehension and mathematics gaps, that's not focusing on a test," she said. "That's reinforcing what kids need in all their classes. While it will help with the test, it's not our main focus."