Frontier Reaps Benefits As A 'Learning Community'

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Rankings of excellence and performing plus are part of the progress made at Frontier Elementary School in 2005.

The rankings have been doled out annually since former Governor Jane Hull signed the AZ LEARNS (Leading Education through the Accountability and Results Notification System) law in 2002.

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As part of the after-school Wolf Impressions program at Frontier Elementary School in 2005, students learned how to play African drums. The program offered students a variety of other activities, including some basics in film production.

AZ LEARNS' purpose is to tell administrators, parents and the public how a school has performed against recent statewide trends, precisely where a school needs help, and by how much it should progress in order to meet or exceed new growth benchmarks.

Arizona's system also measures school performance by student achievement on the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) test.

The evaluation of state schools is based on average percentage of students in the "exceeds the standard" category on AIMS over a three-year average as well as total points earned on adequate yearly progress reports mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

In ranking schools, the AZ LEARNS formula takes into consideration the percentage of students in the school passing AIMS, change in the percentage of students in the lowest AIMS performance category and Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) or the academic performance of individual students from year to year.

Following annual evaluations, all schools -- public and charter -- are ranked on a grade scale.

The possible grades are:

  • Under performing
  • Performing
  • Performing Plus
  • Highly performing
  • Excelling

Any school designated as "under performing" must notify residents they are under performing within 30 days. Schools then have 90 days to develop an improvement plan and must implement it with the help of residents in the school's attendance area and the Arizona Department of Education. Solution teams are then sent to help the school improve student performance.

The choir and orchestra brought home honors from the Northeast Regional Large Group Musical Festival, earning excellent ratings. While some of the orchestra members started learning music as kindergarten students and others have studied strings (instruments) since the third grade, the choir was only formed in the fall for the school's fifth grade students, said Gail Gorry, FES principal.

She also cited the school's participation in the Payson Unified School District's Professional Learning Community program as a hallmark of the year.

"We're creating grade level teams," she explained. The use of the teams allows the teachers to learn successful methods of instruction from their peers.

Working as a team, they are also developing common assessment techniques. For instance, the first-grade team is creating a math project to teach the students how to write a math story problem. The fifth-grade group is developing a common means to instruct the students in identifying the elements of fiction in reading.

"This is something the students will need for AIMS," Gorry said. AIMS is the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, a statewide testing system to determine if students are competent in different subjects.

"It's exciting to realize the resources we have available in our own backyards," Gorry said of the benefit educators see from the PLC program.

While teachers learning from other teachers is one of the year's highlights, another is the students learning about themselves, according to Gorry.

The fifth-grade students are once again participating in the CHAMPS (Champs Have and Model Positive Peer Skills), a program which teaches the youngsters leadership skills.

Participants had a camping trip at the R Bar C Boy Scout Ranch where they were joined by students from the high school and learned about leadership and good choices in a variety of areas, including the clothes they wear. They also learned about group dynamics.

The students were invited to come up with ideas for community service projects and how to raise funds for them. The projects selected were food for the food bank; collecting change for the victims of Hurricane Katrina; and participating in Heifer International, a charity where contributions may be assigned to purchase a specific farm animal for a family or community to improve the conditions in which they live.

The FES CHAMPS bought a cow for a village.

There were other special programs for other classes offered in 2005. The FES third grade participated in the Kiwanis K-Kids project and collected items for the Payson Humane Society animal shelter and materials to be sent to military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq through the Payson Supply Line, Gorry said.

The first- and fourth-grade classes are again taking part in the nine-week Black Stallion Literacy Program. The students receive several books in the popular "Black Stallion" series and participate in a variety of activities, such has getting to see and pet a horse brought to the school and going to the Arabian Horse Show in the Valley.

The FES student body is continuing to participate in the Character Counts program and is also taking part in the new Arizona Behavior Initiative (ABI) Pride Program. The students are still participating in the DARE program and have the benefit of a school resource officer on campus.

The school is reaping multiple rewards from the combined programs, with PLC focusing on academics and the student projects targeting good behavior and good choices.

"It's a wonderful combination," Gorry said.

With federal funds, the school has been able to offer free tutoring for students struggling with reading and writing skills. The program is offered Monday through Thursday and so far, during the 2005-2006 school year, 30 to 40 students have participated.

"We have a very supportive community," Gorry said, the Credit for Kids program and assorted fund-raisers were successful and allowed FES to continue its Wolf Impressions after-school program and it had about 80 participants.

The school brought in a new second-grade teacher and one-year substitutes for a first-grade class and a part-time kindergarten (the subs are for educators on sabbaticals). Four of the school's teachers earned master's degrees last spring. A half-dozen student teachers worked at the school in 2005.

"We're celebrating all types of improvement," Gorry said. "Studies have shown there is a direct correlation between teachers learning and students learning better. It all keeps us a learning community and keeps us focused."

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