Helping students, one school and one teacher at a time
On an early February morning at Stedman Elementary School, the pressure was high.
Two students vomited. A few cried at their desks. Another imagined goblins might get him if he failed.
It was the day the third-graders took their first Colorado Student Assessment Program exams, and the 8- and 9-year-olds were all nerves.
Students rubbed lucky “Zap CSAP” lapel pins. They repeated mantras of test-taking techniques and practiced positive self-talk taught to them by their teacher, Dawn Romero.
The reading test — given to third-graders weeks before exams in math and writing so results can be used to help struggling kids before the end of the school year — was a stop on the long road to get most Stedman students performing at grade level or better by summer.
Only six of Romero’s two dozen students began the school year reading at grade level.
Another four students were at least two grade levels behind.
“I will get them ready for the fourth grade,” Romero had promised. “I will get them up to fourth grade plus six months.”
But on that February morning, fourth grade was a long way away. Romero was focused on the CSAP, the annual proficiency exams given to Colorado’s third- through 10th-graders.
Stedman lately has done well on the assessment, and Romero is arguably the engine behind that success. After handing out the students’ first test, Romero issued her standard pep talk.
“Deep breath,” she told the class. “Think positive. I have total faith in you.
“Not a harder job in the country”
In the increasingly loud debate around reforming America’s public school system, most every change being discussed focuses on the teacher.
Reforms are calling for a link between teachers and student test scores, more thorough evaluations, changes to tenure laws and merit pay.
Teachers are in the spotlight because nearly every education expert agrees they are key to student success — a measurement that in most cases is based on how well students perform on the annual assessment.
Stedman Elementary last year posted some of the state’s highest academic growth on the CSAP.
The feat drew the governor, mayor and the district’s superintendent to Stedman’s doorstep for a news conference on the first day of school.
“This is an extraordinary elementary school,” said Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg. But after the dignitaries and TV crews left that day, the real work began again — teachers and students in this urban school battling against the inequities of poverty to raise student achievement above the norm.
“There is not a harder job in the country than being a teacher in an urban or rural school district with children who are living in poverty — there is just not a harder job,” said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, DPS’s former superintendent, at a recent Senate hearing.
From the moment students returned from winter break in January, Stedman’s third-grade teachers followed a schedule that led to CSAP.
The educators — Romero, Patty Suich and Guthrie Hardesty — met regularly before school to discuss strategy.
They figured out what was working, identified areas not being covered and shared tips on how to reach each student.
Carol Wilcox, the school’s literacy coach, often led the discussions.
To prepare for the reading test, they taught the students how to summarize readings, exposed them to material such as poetry and nonfiction and helped hone test-taking skills. Reading lessons often were given with a timer.
“Monitor your time, look for key words, read through your answers,” Romero would tell her class.
Before taking the CSAP, the third-graders took timed mock exams with questions teachers developed in the style of the official assessment. The school even threw a CSAP breakfast on the Saturday before the test, inviting parents to take a practice exam alongside their children.
Many parents walked away surprised at the difficulty.
“The questions try to confuse you,” said Robin Hill, whose son Royce is among the brightest in Romero’s class.
But Royce has a devious streak.
Romero homed in, crouched behind him and brought her head next to his.
“Come on,” Romero said, “you can do this. Don’t quit on you.”
Royce smiled at the attention, put down the book and picked up the No. 2 pencil.
“He is the only third-grader out of the whole school who is advanced, but he is refusing to take the test,” Romero said to an adult in the room, rolling her eyes.
“Little does he know, I will be calling his mother.”
Two-thirds of Romero’s students come from a single-parent home, five students’ primary language is not English, and all but six are on remedial learning plans.
One student’s dad is in the military and was deployed to Haiti to help with the recovery. Another girl had relatives in the disaster.
Just after the winter break, a shootout at a house across the street from two students’ home left one man dead.
These third-graders have been closely monitored for three years, since a difficult kindergarten year during which the group had a rotating cast of teachers.
About 70 percent of the students struggled when they were in first grade.
By second grade, principal Deb Graham had placed them in smaller classes of 16 pupils each. This summer Graham pulled $3,200 from a school improvement grant to allow 12 days of summer school before the official school year began.
More than 80 percent of Stedman’s students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under a federal program. And every Friday, volunteers pack about 150 backpacks full of groceries for Stedman students to take home for weekend meals. Romero has set up grocery drives for families and even paid the utility bill for one family whose power was shut off in the middle of the winter.
“She goes that extra, not mile, but continent,” Graham said. “She’s not the only one. We all do and try to teach that to our kids.”
More than 40 community organizations work with Stedman students every year.
Eighteen third- and fourth-graders are learning to play violin with symphony musicians. Older students are learning to play lacrosse.
The school reached its goal to raise more than $1,000 in a readathon that will buy at least 10 pigs for Haitian earthquake victims. (Hitting the goal means the principal now must make good on her promise to kiss a pig.)
At a recent round-table discussion about education innovation in Denver, Graham sat on a panel with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was stunned by what he heard about Stedman.
“It’s an unbelievable school,” Duncan said, adding that Stedman’s urban education model is one he would love to see replicated across the country.
In the heart of Park Hill, Stedman Elementary was part of a federal court case that brought forced busing to Denver — the result of a 1969 lawsuit filed by parents of black students in northeast Denver.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that DPS had carried out policies that intentionally segregated schools. The court forced the district to integrate, and about 23,000 of DPS’s 85,000 students were bused away from their neighborhood schools.
At the time, Stedman’s student population was 92 percent black.
Today, 15 years after busing ended, 81 percent of Stedman’s students are minorities, split evenly between Latinos and blacks.
Lifelong desire to be a teacher
Romero, 52, has taught in Denver for 25 years, since she graduated from Metropolitan State College of Denver. She has been at Stedman about 16 years.
Romero is a wife and has a son in college, and she says she hasn’t had a vacation in 17 years.
She does not belong to a teachers union and didn’t sign up for the district alternative pay system, ProComp, which gives teachers bonuses for working at high-poverty schools, taking on difficult assignments and improving student achievement.
“If my kids have great test scores, I don’t want (people) to say that was because of ProComp,” Romero said.
She says she wanted to be a teacher from the age of 5, when she was caught admiring the work of her kindergarten teacher.
“She noticed I wasn’t doing my work and was staring at her and asked what I was doing,” Romero said. “I told her that I was watching her because I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up.”
Her day begins at 4 a.m., reviewing student work at the kitchen table and using the information to guide what she’ll teach for the rest of the week.
By 6 a.m., Romero will be the first inside the school, turning on lights and firing up the copy machine and laminator.
She’ll be among the last to leave 12 hours later, after a full day of teaching and tutoring students after school. She’ll even drive home the students who can’t find a ride. On Friday nights she tutors the neighbors’ kids, and on Saturdays she is often leading Saturday school at Stedman.
“It’s what you do,” she said.
Over the years, Romero has seen successes and failures.
Once, while doing dishes, Romero heard the voice of one of her former students on a TV show about juvenile convicts.
She dropped the plate she was scrubbing, stunned at the thought of one of her students behind bars.
“I kept thinking, ‘How, why and where did we go wrong?’ ”
But the joys at Stedman are many and happen every day, Romero said.
Every other Friday, Romero sets up a store for her students who earn “scholar dollars” for turning in homework and doing good deeds.
The store is packed with items Romero has purchased out of her own pocket, goodies the students have told her they want: Nerf footballs, Barbies, digital watches.
“The kids love it, and it teaches them a lot,” she said. “I try to make everything real world for the students. School is their job.”
That is one of her guiding principles — that students need to be responsible for their actions and behavior.
She doesn’t lie to students about their performance and knows every one of them can succeed.
“You have to look at their faces and believe that every child in this classroom is a learner and a lifelong learner,” she says. “If you truly don’t believe they can learn, it’s not going to work.”
Molly Tobin is a student teacher from Regis University in Romero’s class. She has watched the master teacher for a year and says it has been an invaluable lesson.
“In school you sit around talking about all of these theories about teaching, then you go in and see the reality,” Tobin said. “Dawn knows children so well and really listens to their test results, listens to their words, actions and the data.”
Romero is best at modeling — explaining what she wants students to do and letting them work it out themselves, Tobin said.
Every day Romero sorts through data from tests and student work. She sits down with each pupil for one-on-one chats to tell them where they stand, learn about their interests and keep a line of communication open.
“She is really in tune with her students,” said Tobin, who got hired to work at Stedman next year. “It’s something that I am going to have to figure out.”
Communication is the key
If students get in trouble, Romero doesn’t send them to the office.
“I only do that when you draw blood,” Romero joked. “For other things, we hold court in the classroom. You have to learn how to solve problems. Yes, you will make mistakes, but you learn from your mistakes.”
Communication is the key to solving discipline problems and pushing academic growth, Romero said.
One boy started this year at Level 3 on the Developmental Reading Assessment chart — at about a kindergartner’s ability.
Romero followed him to the library, listened to him talk about his interests and discovered he loved low-rider cars.
She found entry-level books about cars that fascinated the child. Five months later, he is at Level 10, or about first grade.
“It’s triggering them to learn, finding out what is going to turn them on about math, reading and writing,” she said. “Once you find that, you can’t turn it off.”
Weeks before the CSAP tests, Romero had received the scores from the November benchmark writing and reading tests — interim exams that DPS students take three times a year.
She called each student to the front of the room to sit on the floor with her so they could go over the results.
One student, who rushed through the exam to be the first to finish, earned a “partially proficient” score.
“I told you that I was never going to lie to you about where you are,” she said, revealing the scores to the boy, who is usually among the best in the class.
Shocked, the boy tried to explain: “I wasn’t reading carefully.”
“By not going back and checking your work, what did that give you?” Romero asked.
“Partially proficient,” he said, sheepishly.
“Understand that I am not mad at you,” Romero said. “I’m just trying to get you to realize what you are doing to yourself. You have a brain that is amazing. This breaks my heart.”
Scores from this year’s CSAP will not be released for a while. Reading scores for third grade will come in May, the rest in late July or early August.
Romero will be restless for results, but she believes they will be OK.
The important thing is the students worked hard, Romero said. And she is proud of them.
“They came out of the tests smiling and highly motivated,” she said. “They had this incredible attitude like they can take on anything.”
Jeremy P. Meyer: 303-954-1367 or email@example.com