When our D.C. Reads coordinator tries to secure the attention of his tutors and our tutees, he calls out:
“Raise the bar!”
We all clap twice and respond:
When I first walked through the doors of John Carroll Nalle Elementary School, I saw dozens of colorful certificates plastered to the wall that read, “Super Speller,” “Mathematician of the Week” and even the coveted “Nallestar of the Month.” When I looked to the left, there was a “Georgetown University” banner with an arrow that read “Nine miles.” Around the corner, I saw a banner and an arrow for “Temple University — 137 miles.” Looking behind me, I saw another banner and arrow for “Harvard University — 432 miles.” While walking past the classrooms toward the library, I observed students eagerly solving math problems or participating in reading games on the school’s new computers and tablets.
Through the Center for Social Justice’s D.C. Reads program, I got the opportunity to meet a third-grade student from J.C. Nalle Elementary School and to help her improve her reading proficiency. On the first day, teachers gave us different levelled short stories to help determine each student’s reading level. When I first tested my tutee’s reading level, her reading proficiency aligned with the hardest passage in our books. She surpassed her projected level.
After a few weeks of being surrounded by third-graders who are exceptionally well-behaved and inquisitive, I got the sense that students wanted to be there and wanted to learn and succeed in school. Nalle teachers and administrators worked to motivate these kids and make them want to go to college. J.C. Nalle Elementary School supported its students and encouraged learning.
But that wasn’t always the case. In 2011, Nalle faced possible closure because of low academic performance and declining enrollment, mainly because of the lack of active academic support for students from low-income households. Since 75 percent of Nalle students come from low-income households and 40 percent of their surrounding Marshall Heights community lives in poverty, college is not seen as a possibility or an imaginable opportunity for these scholars. Young students’ academic careers and motivation suffer when, from a young age, college is not considered a feasible option.
However, in 2010, D.C. Public Schools adopted the Common Core system, an educational initiative that outlines what K–12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade, and fully implemented it in the 2012-2013 school year. When initial results came back from the first year of Common Core, Nalle achieved the highest increase in its student’s math proficiency rates on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System and the fifth-highest increase in reading proficiency rates among all DCPS.
In addition to the implementation of Common Core and the increase in academic standards for its students, the school underwent several other interventions that contributed to the rise in proficiency rates. The school received $6.8 million toward building renovations and increased the length of the school day through a $275,000 grant from DCPS. Furthermore, funding from the Freddie Mac Foundation not only provided Nalle with electronic white boards and in-class laptops and tablets, but also funded the creation of a Saturday School program for Nalle Elementary students that focuses on encouraging underperforming students to work together with their parents to strengthen their academic skills. Nalle created an adequate system that would internally and externally support low-income students’ educational success.
When DCPS tested its 10th-graders in a Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, the results, released in October, were not promising and indicated that few college-and-career-ready minority students came from low-income households. Only 25 percent of the 10th-graders that took the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers in English and 10 percent of students who took the test in geometry demonstrated proficiency in each subject. However, a study released in April 2015 by Child Trends, a Bethesda-based research center, showed that students from low-income households in elementary school are more likely to benefit from academic interventions and support systems than older students. Thus, it makes sense that DCPS 10th graders did not show immediate positive results from the implementation of Common Core. It will take time. The real results of Common Core will be revealed when young students in elementary schools learn and grow up in this new system.
While the positive outcomes of Common Core will take time to appear, the rigorous Common Core goals fail to address and solve some of the key issues with DCPS. Setting higher standards for students through Common Core is an attainable goal, but it is just a waste for low-income areas with little to no academic support for young students. Nalle is one of the few full-service community schools in D.C. that actively supports and motivates students. Without active academic support for these low-income students, they will not even have the chance to rise up to meet the Common Core’s high standards.
The implementation of Common Core’s rigorous standards combined with the increase in the community’s support for education has truly allowed young students at Nalle to “raise the bar,” and be the “Nallestars” we call them.
Kesiah Clement is a freshman in the SFS.
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