Commissioner of education Armando Vilaseca tours the Wardsboro Elementary School, Friday morning. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Commissioner of education Armando Vilaseca tours the Wardsboro Elementary School, Friday morning. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Saturday September 15, 2012

WARDSBORO -- A four-year push to improve behavior, social skills and academic achievement is paying off in a big way at Wardsboro Elementary School, administrators say.

Principal Rosemary FitzSimons believes there's a "direct link" between a program called ROARS and dramatically improved test scores at the small school off Route 100.

On Friday, she got a chance to make that case to Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca, who visited Wardsboro and interacted with students and staff for several hours.

"The tests, for us, really serve as a barometer," FitzSimons told Vilaseca during a lunchtime session in the school's library. "Five years ago, when we failed to make A.Y.P., it really sent a message to us."

A.Y.P. -- adequate yearly progress -- is the measuring stick of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Those federal standards -- and the accompanying standardized tests -- are a touchy subject for Vermont education officials.

Vilaseca made it clear that he believes the federal law is "one-dimensional" in its emphasis on testing.

"Test scores are not the measure of our students' success or challenges," he said. "It's one snapshot."

He added that officials envision a state educational system that is "proficiency-based -- what the kids know and can do, as opposed to answering questions on a test."

Nonetheless, Wardsboro officials believe their standardized-test scores are a strong indicator that something good is happening.

For instance, the number of students deemed "proficient" in math has risen from 31 percent in 2007 to 64 percent in 2011, while those scoring "substantially below proficient" declined from 29 percent to just 5 percent during that time.

The school has seen similar improvement in reading: The number of proficient students rose from 51 percent to 73 percent from 2007 to 2011, and the number considered substantially below proficient decreased to zero.

This year, just 27 percent of Vermont's schools made adequate yearly progress by federal standards. Wardsboro Elementary was one of them.

FitzSimons said Wardsboro's staff has made a point of approaching the tests in a new way and "making the kids part of the picture."

For instance, she meets with kids individually to talk about testing and ways to improve. And Wardsboro students help each other, too: On test days, younger students make "goody bags" for third-through-sixth graders who are taking the exams.

"It's a way to celebrate it and to get them to look at it differently," FitzSimons said.

Such behavior is part of the school's "ROARS" initiative. The idea is to "think about the whole child in an effort to improve learning," FitzSimons said, and the acronym stands for five concepts:

-- Responsibility.

-- Own it: "That means ownership when you've done something well and also when you've made a mistake," FitzSimons said.

-- Achieve.

-- Respect.

-- Safety.

"Behavior is a big part of it," FitzSimons said. "Not just misbehavior, but (positive) behavior that assists in their education."

The emphasis is on positive reinforcement. FitzSimons distributes yellow "own it" stickers to back up her point.

"We really work hard to ensure that kids are active participants in their learning," she said, adding that teachers take time out of each day to collaborate.

"There really is a sense of community and teamwork here," FitzSimons said.

Vilaseca said he could tell from his brief time at Wardsboro that staff members were not just "teaching to the test." He also said he appreciates the flexibility allowed by a small student body where pupils from different grades learn together.

"These teachers are doing a fabulous job," Vilaseca said.

The commissioner talked about a variety of topics over lunch with FitzSimons and Wardsboro teachers. They were joined by John Moran, a state representative and Wardsboro School Board member, and Steven John, Windham Central Supervisory Union superintendent.

Vilaseca discussed a stubborn connection between students from lower-income families and lower academic achievement.

"How do we close that achievement gap?" he said. "We're not dealing with the root issue of supporting families and kids who may not have had the same opportunities mine had."

He also said education administrators need to find ways of "keeping kids engaged after school and in the summer" so that they don't stop learning when formal classroom work ends.

John pointed out that the central supervisory union has "vibrant" after-school programs in seven of its eight schools. And he noted the July introduction of a new summer program called SEEK for Leland & Gray Middle School students.

"We have a lot of positive things going," John said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.