Shaunda Lewis is a coordinator for Massachusetts 2020. Massachusetts 2020 is a state affiliate of NCTL.
The Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time (ELT) Initiative serves 10 districts throughout the Commonwealth, but none as small or remote than the city of Greenfield. Greenfield, which is situated in the northwestern section of the state, is defined by its scenic views. With a majority of the population residing in the “Boston Bubble” it is sometimes difficult to have that small-state sense of community come to life. But, even in the shadow of its resource-rich neighbors to the east, there seems to be no lack of positive energy emanating from the people that live and work in Greenfield; a positive energy that is especially felt amongst its smallest inhabitants and their teachers.
Greenfield, which serves about 2,000 students, has been implementing an expanded school day at its middle school and one of its four elementary schools for the past six years. Both schools were a part of the MA ELT Initiative’s third cohort and have been receiving technical assistance from Massachusetts 2020 since joining the ELT network. Greenfield’s ELT elementary school, Newton School, has responded extremely well to the support they have been receiving, and have made a number of considerable improvements. Newton established a strong instructional focus on comprehension across their expanded school day, and as a result, has increased the percentage of their students proficient or above on the MCAS by nineteen points in ELA and 16 points in Math since 2008. Greenfield being a city where the median household income is about $39,000 doesn’t make it much different from the other districts the MA ELT initiative supports, but what does set it apart is the limited amount of resources its schools are able to utilize. The combination of these two characteristics, plus the fact that about seventy-two percent of Newton’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch, makes it amazing to see the level of improvement the school has made over this short amount of time. While improvements in data and instructional practices at the schools our organization supports is great to see on paper, and hear of from others, nothing is as priceless as being able to see that improvement in action.
In between the full-day technical assistance workshops Massachusetts 2020 holds for its MA ELT schools, clusters of school teams gather together for cross-school sharing in their improvement efforts. I recently had a chance to visit Newton Elementary School, with the four other elementary schools that the ELT initiative supports, when they hosted the Elementary Cluster Meeting. We were there to witness first-hand why Newton has had such success in implementing their expanded school day. The first thing I noticed when walking through the front doors is that there are no shortage of warm greetings and smiling faces from both faculty and students. Even with a high level of structure in place, students’ spirits are high. Walking through the classrooms, from kindergarten through third grade, common comprehension strategies tied to their school-wide focus are implemented by the faculty and visually displayed. Students know routines, are respectful of each other and their teachers, and are able to explain their work.
For example, one common strategy I saw in a number of classrooms used to help students explain their work is “TTQA”. In all classrooms, a teacher says “TTQA” and the students “Turn the Question Around”, responding to questions in complete sentences. Another common comprehension strategy used in all classrooms is Question and Answer Relationships (QAR). In Ms. Warren's first grade class, a beautiful visual display of QAR is what helps guide students through the reading comprehension portion of the day. The Problem of the Day is the number one common practice used during math time and its rubric is always displayed and consistent throughout all classrooms. When I visited Mr. Stone's third grade class, students checked their work to the problem of the day by using the rubric and taking turns writing down their answer to each piece of the question.
At Newton Elementary, seamless systems are consistent throughout each classroom, which in turn creates an environment where time is hardly wasted and learning is constantly occurring. Common practices are implemented consistently, school-wide, in large part due to the expanded time that teachers have to collaborate. Yes, these systems have led the school to great achievements, but even with all these systems in place, it is evident that a large part of the success at Newton Elementary in due to the fact that the faculty, and in turn the students, remain positive and are willing to learn. The high morale and warm and intimate setting of the school is reflective of the community of Greenfield. Even amidst a secluded location, and challenging economic conditions, there is never a lack of again, warm greetings and smiling faces. Visiting Newton reminded me that while our urban schools need support, schools in rural communities need it as well. Newton Elementary School in Greenfield, Massachusetts is an example of how commitment to instructional coherence, and a positive attitude, can go a long way.