Oak Hill: Back from the Brink
It’s one of the comeback stories of the year among certain educators in North Carolina.
Three years ago, Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point had one of the lowest academic performance scores in the state. Two years ago, still floundering, Oak Hill became one of the lowest-performing schools in the nation, with only 24 percent of students scoring proficient on state reading exams and 39 percent testing proficient in math.
But a recent change in school leadership, some grant money, and a new team of teachers who actually chose to work at Oak Hill are helping to turn the school around and get off “worst school” lists.
This past school year, Oak Hill had the largest gain in Guilford County Schools, increasing its student performance score by almost 20 points to over 65 percent. The preliminary test results come from the 2010-11 End-of-Grade (EOG) and End-of-Course (EOC) tests in reading, math and science.
“The test scores are only a piece of it,” says Principal Patrice Faison. “You have to look at a school in its totality.”
After receiving a $2.9 million School Improvement Grant over three years, Oak Hill enforced drastic reforms under the turnaround model, which required the district to replace the principal and at least half of the school’s staff.
“We are digging deep, trying new strategies to determine what works best for each student,” says Faison. “We are working with parents and community volunteers to make them active partners with the school.”
While one indicator of a school’s progress is performance scores, research shows that teacher quality is the dominant factor driving student performance on standardized tests.
“I’m not surprised by the school’s success,” says Elizabeth Foster, president of the Guilford County Association of Educators (GCAE). “Pat brought in some fabulous teachers who have a common goal: excellence.”
Almost all of Oak Hill’s 25 teachers are GCAE members. GCAE has 3,000 members at 171 schools overseeing more than 71,000 students.
The infusion of talented, motivated teachers may be a contributing factor to another telltale signal of Oak Hill’s turnaround: an attendance rate of 95 percent. Like the school’s staff, its 450 students, grades preK—5, are also infused with a sense of urgency and commitment, says Faison.
“That’s the big thing really going on here,” she says. “We’re trying to instill in students a sense of purpose and the power of success. That’s what we want to give them.”
Oak Hill is located in a high poverty area where 98 percent of students receive a free breakfast and low-and-reduced lunch. Looming budget cuts in addition to the economic struggles of students and their families, many of them immigrants who speak a combined 17 languages, present even greater challenges for school staff.
“Oak Hill students are impacted in every way,” says Foster. “This makes the turnaround even more spectacular.”
The school is included in NEA’s Priority School Campaign, which is working with school officials and GCAE to provide staff training, such as C.A.R.E. (Strategies for Closing Achievement Gaps), which provides specialized training to enhance the skills of teachers to help minority and low-income students. The training focuses on “culture, ability, resilience and effort.”
“The staff training they did was phenomenal,” Faison says. “I have heard people say in the building that they have never worked anywhere where the standards are so high.”
When school resumes, the standards for success at Oak Hill may climb even higher.
“When we heard about the 20-point jump, we took a moment,” says Faison. “We’re celebrating, but until we have 100 percent of our students achieving at their fullest potential, there will always be work to do.”