School Talk

There’s Something Special Happening Here

“I’d send my own children to this school. I’d send my grandchildren to this school.”
— Louise Denham, Thorton Elementary Principal (RI)
Principal Louise Denham bestows the greatest of compliments on the school she has led in Johnston, Rhode Island since 2008. She is unequivocal in her confidence and love for Thornton Elementary School, a full Title 1 school where over 70 percent of students are classified as low income. And while Principal Denham will be the first one tell you there is always more work to do and that she wishes she could do more for her teachers and her students, something exciting has happened under her watch this past year that deserves our attention, praise and efforts to replicate.
A bit of digging into RIDE-provided 4th grade PARCC data* reveals that they are the only public district elementary school in the state with a low-income population above 40 percent who saw their low-income 4th graders beat state averages in both math and reading. And if we add charter schools to the mix, they are one of only two schools with a low-income population greater than 40 percent–Blackstone Valley Prep is the other–to have had their low-income fourth graders exceed state averages in both math and reading.
During a recent sit down with Principal Denham and a few of the teachers on her fourth-grade team, we learned, as we always do, that there is no silver bullet. But there were themes that continued to emerge during the hour-long discussion.
The principal and her teachers talked about trying new things as part and parcel of what happens in a school. “Let’s try it” seemed to be a motto, and they were under no illusions that everything they tried would ultimately work. But these principals and teachers created a school culture of trust and communication–and have staff who have proven their “staying power” in the community–that allows for that experimentation.
There was specific mention of Carol Dweck’s book on growth mindset. Denham and the teachers worked to ensure students understand how to set their own goals, read their own data, and track their own progress–a huge example of honoring and empowering kids.
But it’s not just about empowering students. They’ve started a Parent Academy to teach parents  about online resources, curricula, and ways to support their children in their academics. They’ve tweaked the academy, seeing if perhaps meeting with parents by grade level would allow for parents to ask more specific questions and teachers to go more in depth with their answers. And they serve a light supper to parents to ensure that they don’t feel compelled to skip the event because it’s dinner time.
Not surprisingly, parent engagement is up and turn out at Parent Academy is strong.
As we sat with these teachers who have as many as twenty nine students in their classes, I was most struck that during a sixty minute conversation, there was no complaining. Even when we asked about the exhaustion, frustration, and even the burden of data collection and tracking, not a single teacher went there. They also admitted that they had no idea that they were such an outlier with their 4th grade PARCC scores.
They joked about wanting a gymnasium when we talked about what they need (that’s right, they don’t have one), and they talked about how being a full Title 1 school presents challenges but also allows for more flexibility with allocation of funds, including sending students home for the summer with a backpack full of books and creating their Parent Academy.
They used words like brainstorm, talked about strong RTI (Response To Intervention) programs, and said they’ve been especially focused on attendance and writing. They laughed as they talked about Principal Denham having a literal “open door policy” and said that she always tries to get them what they need.
It’s important to acknowledge that Rhode Island’s state averages are not a high bar; on the contrary, they are far too low. But Thornton Elementary’s 4th graders have done something that no other low-income district school has done and while the need to improve student outcomes is acute, it is also a process that doesn’t start and end overnight.
So, Bravo Thornton Elementary! You should be proud.
* School data are all available on RIDE’s Infoworks page. The dataset we used to compare school data was provided by RIDE and is a compilation of information available through Infoworks.

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