Through a streamlined day and additional technology, Pioneer Elementary School in Gilbert is achieving some of the best test scores in the state.
“The first thing I’ve noticed is this is a community, family-oriented place,” principal Mike Davis said. “Everyone cares about everyone. It’s a real welcoming place.”
The school first opened in 1984 and all classrooms open into a courtyard. When it first opened, the area was rural, and neighboring livestock, including meandering cows have been known to munch on the grassy fields.
But it’s the heavy community support and parent involvement that helps the school be so successful, Davis said. And when Davis asked teachers, staff and parents to try a few changes, they jumped right in.
His first year as principal focused on asking teachers to look at the test scores of their students.
“We really asked them to go above and beyond,” he said. “They said, ‘We’d love to, but we don’t have the time.’”
So instead of forcing a bunch of changes right away, Davis asked the teachers to look at the data each test provided.
“That first year, it was themed CSI, and we looked at every test we gave,” he said.
Another change came in the last few years with the introduction of Gold Rush, a half-hour block each day when students would be grouped with their ability level to reinforce learning.
Students who struggled were given intervention instruction and those that excelled were given extension projects to further and deepen learning, Davis said.
A student who may have only gotten a 20 percent on the first test at the beginning of the week, might be up to 50 or 60 by the end, Davis said.
“And that’s growth,” he said.
That growth placed Pioneer in the top 20 public schools in the state from their AIMS testing. In 2012, 90 percent of students passed reading, 84 percent passed math, 76 percent passed writing and 79 percent passed science on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards.
“We knew that we were doing good, but we care more about the learning,” he said.
Some of the changes also come from the way subjects are taught, Davis said.
Through the work of the Pioneer Parent Teacher Student Organization (PTSO), nearly every classroom has upgraded technology.
“With technology, I can really do so much more,” said Maria Williams, a second-grade teacher.
Nearly every classroom in the school has a SMART Board, a type of whiteboard that utilizes touch technology, and a SMART document camera, a successor to the overhead projector.
“It’s very hands-on,” Williams said of the improved technology. “They like to be moving around.”
Students can come up to the board and do more than just write on the board; SMART boards can be as interactive as a computer. Williams said she uses that type of engagement to teach the phonetics reading program.
“Having both has made teaching so much more lively,” said Jenny Hagen, a fourth-grade teacher. “There are so many tools on the Web for free. If you have kids who are struggling with math, you can look for it, and — boom — it pops up.”
A mobile computer lab allows students to learn interactively while also learning responsibility, Williams said.
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