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

In 2010, a year after Andrea Pastchal-Smith became principal of West Elementary School, formerly named West Oktibbeha County Elementary, the struggling school earned an “Academic Watch” rating from the state. At the time, that was equivalent to a D on the state’s A-F rating scale (which has been modified in recent years).

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Things are different now: Earlier this year the school received an A rating on the state’s new accountability scale. Teachers and students worked hard to raise achievement levels. “The culture has changed tremendously,” said Pastchal-Smith. “We set our goal and we did not make any excuses. We got the job done working together as a team.” Pastchal-Smith said the school’s success can be boiled down to a few key strategies that can be adopted by other struggling schools:

  • A focus on student and teacher attendance

Students at West Elementary School receive incentives like school-wide announcements, special signs on their classroom doors, and pizza parties when their entire class has perfect attendance. “Our teachers understood it is important for them to be at school as well,” Pastchal-Smith said.

  • Increasing time for remediation and tutoring

West Elementary rolled out “power hour” sessions in which teachers meet daily with small groups of struggling students for intense tutoring sessions. It also expanded its before-school, after-school, and in-school tutoring services.

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  • Helping students become invested in school-wide goals

Pastchal-Smith said a key part to the school’s improvement came from sharing the school’s goals with students and parents to help them become more invested in their school’s success, and especially in student attendance which is critical to securing funding under the state’s funding formula.

  • Praising and celebrating student success

Pastchal-Smith said she has seen the power of praise and it is a powerful motivator for students. “When students are praised they tend to do their best for school and themselves and also to please their teachers,” Pastchal-Smith said. West Elementary has frequent celebrations for students who meet academic goals. Students also receive prizes based on their achievements, and students who meet certain ambitious goals receive a write-up in the local newspaper.

Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared in the The Denver Post, the Sun Herald and...

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