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In this file photo, a student at a Mississippi elementary school reads during class.
In this file photo, a student at a Mississippi elementary school reads during class. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

Although Governor Phil Bryant is considering taking over Jackson Public Schools, which has struggled to improve student achievement and meet accreditation standards, there are bright spots in the district. Kathleen Grigsby principal of Davis Magnet World IB Elementary School, spoke to The Hechinger Report about student success at the school, particularly with early literacy. In 2017, Davis Magnet was one of the highest-performing schools in the state on the spring STAR Early Literacy exam, a kindergarten readiness assessment, which is given twice each school year, in the fall and then in the spring.

Grigsby says she knows her school is unique in that it has a screening process for admission and students tend to enter kindergarten with fairly strong skills as early readers. Despite this, Grigsby says her young students still have specific reading deficits, especially when it comes to phonics, and many are dealing with the effects of poverty. Grigsby said every student at the school receives free or reduced-price lunch.

So what are some of the school-based elements that Grigsby credits for the school’s success? Here are four practices she says make a big impact and could be replicated at other schools.

1. Flexible student grouping vs. student centers

Students at Davis IB are placed in groups with fellow students within their classrooms for part of the day and receive instruction in those groups based on the skills they need to master, rather than cycling through academic centers in the room. They receive instruction in targeted areas from a teacher or assistant and move in and out of the groups based on the skills with which they need help. That means a student may be in one group for a week, master a concept, and join a new group based on another skill they need help with.

2. Use all staff members at the school for instruction

Several days a week, Grigsby and fellow school staff members, including the music teacher, Spanish teacher, and librarian, spend time in classrooms working with small groups of students on academic skills. “I try to match [staff members and teachers to co-teach] based on their strengths and weaknesses,” Grigsby said. For example, the school’s computer lab assistant has a degree in math so she frequently leads small groups of students in need of math help. Grigsby spent time in a fourth grade classroom last year teaching poetry concepts. “Everybody’s going to do something here … to make sure we have given them absolutely everything we could during the school day.”

3. Expose kids to the outside world

Students at Davis IB participate in field trips in the Jackson-metro area and across state lines. Kindergarteners frequently spend time in the school’s garden, and all students participate in field trips to local museums and stores. In previous years, students have gone on trips to Memphis, Birmingham, and New Orleans. Grigsby says it is important to expose students to these experiences to further learning.

4. Teach units that make connections between subject areas

The IB model encourages a “transdisciplinary approach,” but Grigsby says the concept should not be limited to IB schools; she believes strongly in teaching units that are centered around a “broad central idea” that students explore in depth over several weeks across all subject areas. “As much as you can make connections across subject areas, it makes learning more purposeful,” Grigsby said.

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