When the state named W.S. Hornsby K-8 School one of the worst performing schools in the state, Principal Tonethia Beasley decided to make T-shirts for the occasion.
She took their new label as a “priority school” and turned it into something with a positive ring to it.
“Hornsby, our PRIORITY is the students,” read the shirts, which all staff wore on the first day this year.
For the 2012-13 school year, Hornsby is one of 78 schools in Georgia given a “priority” label, the most severe designation for low achievement under the state’s new accountability system. The school has three years to improve in order to shake the status, and Beasley said reform is possible with the right attitude.
“This summer we came together as a team and created the ideal school,” she said. “I had to create a warm and nurturing atmosphere for the staff. People need to want to come to work. Now I can’t get them out of the building. We dismiss at 4:15 and at 5:30, more than half of the cars are still sitting in the parking lot.”
Hornsby received the label based on Criterion-Referenced Competency Test scores from the 2010-11 school year. Beasley took over as principal in 2011-12.
Before she arrived, the school struggled in almost all subjects and grades. In eighth-grade social studies, about 90 percent of students failed the CRCT. About 74 percent of fourth-graders failed math that same year.
Attendance was also an issue, with about 20 percent of students missing six to 15 days. The low-income school in east Augusta had all of its students on free or reduced lunch.
When Beasley arrived the next year, she said her goal was to make the school a place where students and teachers felt valued.
Special education teacher Sharhonda Cofer said that shift in mentality worked. She said past leadership at the school wasn’t necessarily harmful, but it had more of a managerial feel than the instruction-driven energy teachers found in Beasley.
Teachers began to feel energized when they became part of Beasley’s improvement plan, and morale shot up, Cofer said. Two years ago, Cofer said, dozens of teachers would have high absences on Mondays and Fridays, but now everyone wants to be in the classrooms.
“The pressure that’s put on you by labels such as ‘priority’ makes us take it a step further to get better,” said Cofer, the school’s 2012-13 teacher of the year. “If you have islands existing in schools, you drift apart. We’re not an island here.”
IN THE FIRST YEAR of Beasley’s leadership, Hornsby’s academic achievement increased sharply. Out of 30 subject and grade-level areas on the 2012 CRCT, students improved in all but seven.
Some areas had drastic improvements, including the 34 percentage point jump in fourth-grade social studies to 47.2 percent passing. The amount of students passing fourth-grade science increased 31 points to 50.9 percent, while seventh grade reading increased 17 points to 83.2 percent.
“We’re going to show people we can get it done,” Beasley said. “We already have done so much.”
In order to be removed from the “priority” list, Hornsby must show a 25 percent decrease in the number of students failing by 2015. The school also has a 25-item to-do list, including tasks such as analyzing student attendance, identifying weak students, training teachers and implementing instructional coaches.
Many of the things required by the “priority” status are changes Beasley implemented last year.
All students now receive 30-minute intervention sessions during the school day, where they get extra help with their most challenging subjects. Teachers regularly participate in professional learning, where they get intense training on strategy and teaching methods.
Later this month, Hornsby will launch after-school and Saturday tutoring for struggling students. Beasley has tried to enhance her students’ exposure to the world outside Augusta by planning more field trips and science lab activities.
VIRGINIA BRADSHAW, Richmond County’s executive director of middle schools, said the progress made in Beasley’s first year as principal gives her confidence Hornsby can shake the “priority” status.
She said Hornsby had growing pains in the mid-2000s when separate elementary and middle schools merged because of low enrollment. The move was an adjustment period for teachers and administrators, which could have contributed to some of the academic issues, Bradshaw said.
The school also is dealing with a delicate population of children living in poverty, which is not an excuse, but a challenging factor, educators say.
“Families who are struggling economically often have struggles that go along with that,” Bradshaw said. “Health care, child care, having the time to engage and improve on early literacy in the home – it can just compound. Students who come to school from that environment come to school with those stressors. It’s a balancing act of being aware and supportive of students without letting that become an excuse.”
Bernard Milligan Jr., a sixth-grade writing teacher at Hornsby, said he has seen the school transform in the past few years. He said there is more enthusiasm from teachers and a sense of urgency to improve.
He said the professional learning given to teachers has helped him improve his strategy to attend to individual students’ needs, which is reflected in the higher test scores.
Hornsby has three years to show a reasonable amount of improvement, but Milligan said he sees teachers and students going far beyond that.
“We’re moving forward,” he said. “I truly look at the school as what’s going to save the community. The crime rate is going to drop because these kids are learning, they’re learning to be productive citizens. This is an investment in the future.”