Soul Searching at a Struggling School Where Teachers See Progress

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The fifth graders at Public School 277 in the Bronx spent late September preparing to write their first assignment of the year, personal memoirs. To get them ready, the school created an "inquiry room" where students explore their ideas in a thoughtful, creative setting.

Janelle Wilson, 10, was there writing a play. She told a teacher about her idea, based on an experience with bullying.

"The mean girls in the school come over and start teasing me that I tried out for the soccer team. And instead of teasing them back, I give them a compliment," she explained.

Stacy Schellhaas, a fifth-grade teacher, asked her a few questions. "What do you think that does for you?"

"Makes me a positive person," Janelle responded, after a small pause. "Because instead of fighting them or cursing at them, I just give them a compliment."

Ms. Schellhaas praised her attitude and encouraged her to sketch out her plot on a story board.

"It will help her when she can act out these feelings and these thoughts, and these emotions that she’s having," she explained of the inquiry work. "It will come out on the paper a lot easier for her. And I’ve definitely seen a difference with her writing so far."

The inquiry room at P.S. 277, an elementary school in the South Bronx, is just one of several creative methods embraced by the teachers and the school principal, Cheryl Tyler.

Ms. Tyler keeps the class sizes down, with fewer than 20 students per room. She makes sure every classroom has hundreds of reading books. Parents give the school of 540 students high marks in their annual surveys. And it has a dedicated group of teachers.

Still, the students are not performing well on the tests that determine the school’s grade on the annual progress reports. This year fewer than a quarter of the students at P.S. 277 passed their state exams in math and English and the city gave the school an F, a steady drop from a C last year and an A the year before.

The low grade put the school on a Department of Education list of 20 struggling schools, which makes it the focus of improvement efforts — or could lead to its closing.

Ms. Tyler said she was shocked by the failing grade.

"We see kids engaged," she said. "We see kids doing some — honestly — some really extraordinarily deep thinking and talking."

That is not just anecdotal. Ms. Tyler said at least three quarters of her students — excluding those with special needs — were performing on grade level based on monthly teacher assessments.

So why are the children at P.S. 277 testing so poorly? One theory is that the school population has high-risk factors like a poverty rate of almost 90 percent. It also has a high percentage of English-language learners and students with special needs.

But the city knows that. Its report cards deliberately reward schools where these students show improvements on state exams.

Gabriel Feldberg is an official with a network in the Department of Education that supports P.S. 277. He explained why 60 percent of a school's report card is based on how much progress its students make on state math and reading tests.

"It’s a little bit wise," Mr. Feldberg said, "because what we’re saying is it doesn’t matter where you begin. You want kids in schools to keep moving forward."

The report card for P.S. 277 reveals how the school did not show nearly as much growth as others when compared with 40 elementary schools with very similar demographics. Five of them even got A’s. In other words, as the city would argue, poverty is not destiny.

Ms. Tyler, the principal, said the school did not do a lot of test preparation, compared with some other schools. She said she always thought the best preparation for any test was a good curriculum and good teaching.

"However, it’s not transferring over to standardized tests," she said in mulling over her school's predicament.

She wondered if her well-meaning teachers gave their students too much support.

"One of the things we’ll look at is how to get our kids to sweat more," she added. "We don’t want them to be uncomfortable, but we want them to know learning is something you have to work at."

City officials will be meeting with P.S. 277 and 19 other schools this fall to go over its data and see if it has the potential to improve. Last year, about 50 schools were originally considered for closing. Half of them were spared.