NORWALK, Conn. – Poverty is an important factor in the educational success of school children, but it’s not a game changer, according to Kendall Elementary School Principal Tony Ditrio.
“You don’t have to write schools off or kids off just because you have a high poverty rate,” Ditrio told the Board of Education last week in an enthusiastic presentation of new teaching techniques that Norwalk Superintendent Manny Rivera said are part of the “major plan to fundamentally rebuild our public school system.”
Ditrio shared ideas that will spread next fall from Kendall to four other Title 1 Norwalk schools, ideas he said he first learned about a year ago at a national elementary schools principals’ conference in Baltimore. They’ve been tried at Kendall with good results, he said.
Ditrio said he chose to go to a seminar titled “Teaching with Poverty in Mind,” where Eric Jensen was the speaker.
“Being from my very high level of poverty in a Title 1 School, I said this might be something good. It turned out to be a life-changer for me,” Ditrio said. “… It really was like he was talking about the kids I have in my building and the kids that I know that we have in many other buildings in Norwalk. Why are we missing them? We have been working so hard on our math, so hard on our reading. Those things that we have been working on took us just so far and we have kind of hit a plateau. We’re just making that next level. We are not getting every kid.
Ditrio said he came back from Baltimore with the enthusiasm he had as a rookie teacher because Jensen had put it in a way that “made so much sense and seemed so doable.”
It’s “brain-based teaching,” he said, which builds on 10 years of “amazing” research about the brain. He shared a list ranking 12 things that impact student achievement. From highest to lowest, those are:
- Student self-assessment
- Ongoing formative evaluations
- Reciprocal teaching
- Classroom climate
- Teacher clarity
- Feedback (in both directions)
- Teacher-student relationships
- Spaced vs. massed content
- Cognitive skill building
- Not labeling students
- Socioeconomic status
- Parental involvement
His favorite on that list is cognitive skill building, although he didn’t know what it meant before learning from Jensen, he said.
“We can have the best math lesson in the world, but if they are trying to put 5 pounds of something into a 2-pound bag, you can’t do it. You have to make the bag bigger. That’s what building cognitive capacity does. It gives them the ability to learn what we’re doing when we teach them the reading, teach them the math,” Ditrio said.
Working memory is the best predictor of the success 5-year-olds will achieve at age 11, he said. So Kendall used BrainWare Safari, a set of computer games that use the same principals as Lumosity does for adults, for the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, he said. It’s only designed to be used for 12 weeks by third-graders, but the kids liked it so much they used it for the rest of the year, he said. They also used Lumosity, thanks to a grant.
BrainWare Safari produces assessments for the kids, he said.
“A lot of kids improved,” Ditrio said. “It was really what I had for third, fourth, and fifth grade since we don’t have Common Core yet. We don’t have CMT’s (Connecticut Mastery Tests). To judge kind of how this year played out for third, fourth and fifth, mostly it was out of this BrainWare Safari that gave me some good data on how kids improved on a lot of these important skills.”
Research shows that if children take a math test after exercising, their scores are better, he said.
“I send my kids out for extra recess,” Ditrio said. “My teachers thought I was a little bit off my game starting this year off, because I was the kind of principal who always said you can’t go anywhere, you can’t have an assembly, you can’t take a trip unless you can tell me how it ties into CMT’s. You have to tie everything into that and we’re going to spend an hour on math every day. We’re going to spend God knows how long on reading every day. I didn’t talk about reading or math at all last year. I hate to say it, but I didn’t.”
The only thing that takes a little bit of extra time is the cognitive skill-building and the recess, he said.
“We actually think less is more,” Ditrio said. “If you’re talking to kids and they don’t understand what you’re talking about because they don’t have the cognitive capacity or they don’t have the level in the way that they’re feeling in it, you’re not going to get anywhere anyway. Time is not the answer. Like I said, I was the most time-on-task person you’re ever going to meet. But that just took us so far. So this is a way of giving up a little bit to get a lot more.”
During his presention, Ditrio said A survey question asked, “How would your staff rank the strength of each of these 3 effects on student achievement?” The three things were student home life, teacher quality and school quality.
No. 1 in the survey is teacher quality.
“That’s not how much they know, the social studies or the history, the language arts, it’s how well they know how to work with people and relate to kids,” Ditrio said.
Rivera reminded board members that when they authorized the purchase of a K-5 English Language curriculum, he said they weren’t just buying books; there would be an effort to help teachers understand how to reach children.
These techniques are spreading to Brookside, Marvin, Jefferson and Tracey elementary schools, Rivera said. Middle and high school teachers are going to be reading Jensen’s “Turnaround Tools for the Teenaged Brain.” Brien McMahon Principal Suzanne Koroshetz and West Rocks Middle School Principal Lynne Moore have been trained in the techniques and will be training teachers, he said.
Ditrio said that of 138 factors affecting student achievement, poverty ranks 32nd in importance.
“It’s important, but it’s not the excuse,” Ditrio told the Board of Education last week. “Just because kids are poor – there are a lot of things we can do to have them achieve, a lot of things that are much more important and much more of an effect on their life. Sure poverty effects your life, it effects education, it effects what happens, but it can be overcome.”
He said that the Kendall program, which included nutritional training, resulted in the best results ever in K-3 literacy, although the class sizes in first and second grades were the biggest ever.
“I had teachers coming in actually showing off the kids, kids that before they might have written off,” Ditrio said.