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Elementary school is on winning course, boosting achievement and creating a culture of care

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Ashley Furlong, principal of Davis Elementary School, is leading her staff in a big improvement at the school. She sits in the schools garden, which is an outdoor learning space. Davis Elementary School in the Reynolds School District had been one of the poorest performing elementary schools in the state. But hard work and some innovative education techniques have dramatically changed the school's trajectory.

The fledgling turnaround isn't based on drilling kids on the multiplication tables, extra spelling tests or piles of homework. The school has concentrated on the whole child and all their needs along with working on academic improvement.

"We have to focus on a culture of care, before we focus on academics," said Ashley Furlong, Davis' principal.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - The culture of care is flourishing at Davis. A boy tenderly helps his classmate after he got a bump on the playground.

The combination is working.

For example, in the 2017-18 school year only 14% of Davis third graders were proficient readers, yet in the 2018-19 year, almost a third, or 32%, hit the mark on standardized tests. Likewise, fifth graders went from 14% reading proficiently to 27%. Both remarkable turnarounds in one year.

In math, during the 2017-18 school year, school wide fewer than one-in-10 Davis students, or 6.2%, were doing math at grade level. The school doubled the number of students reaching that benchmark to 13% in the 2018-19 school year. That's strong improvement, but still well behind the state average of 43%.

Teachers at all Reynolds schools meet together in groups once per week when school starts late. At Davis, the teachers brainstorm on how to help each student having trouble in a subject.

Three years ago, Davis started a WIN (What I Need) session of extra help for every child who needs it. Teachers identify use data to suss out what each student needs. There are groups from two to 22 students and teachers drill down on specific problems students are having, usually in reading. But the extra help can be in math or social-emotional. The groups are reconstituted every six weeks based on the changing needs of each student.

Furlong also credits fairly new and consistent curriculum across the district for helping improve academic success. The new books, materials and teacher training are not only good quality, but with a lot of student movement in the district, materials are consistent.

"Kids can go to any school and get the same curriculum," she said.

Furlong has been at the school seven years, principal for four of those years and counts that consistency as a big plus in the school's improvement.

Davis has also added an assistant principal to the staff.

"That has allowed me more time so I can better look at instructionally what teachers need," Furlong said. COURTESY PHOTO: DAVIS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL - Some Davis Dragons pose with their mascot (secret: its really Mrs. Furlong inside that suit).

Culture of care

To create the culture of care, Davis strives to become a "trauma-informed space," said Furlong. The school, at 19501 N.E. Davis St., draws kids from Rockwood and other low-income areas.

Furlong noted that many Davis students live in difficult circumstances. Of the 448 Davis Dragons, 12% are unhoused and 17% come to or leave the school during the year.

She doesn't use students' challenging circumstances as an excuse for Davis' performance.

"Every kid is capable of learning," she said.

Davis tries to make that learning easier with smoother transitions during school.

At the beginning of the day and after recess, Davis classrooms have a "soft start" where kids can ease into their academic chores.

Each classroom has a cool down corner for students who need to take a bit of a break to regroup if they become frustrated or agitated. Near the counselor's office is the "Dragon Den" where students can go if they become overwhelmed.

Davis uses the techniques of nonprofit MindUp, which "teaches the skills and knowledge children need to regulate their stress and emotion."

The school also uses the Kimochi system, another tool to help kids and families "manage difficult feelings and challenging behaviors."

As part of the Kimochi system, baskets of soft, squeezable, fuzzy palm-sized Kimochi toys," marked with various feelings, are all over the school. If a student is having a tough time, they can dig through a basket until they find an emotion that helps them sort out their feelings. They can choose from dozens of feelings such as scared, shy, mad, sorry or others.

Furlong pointed out that schools focusing on social and emotional skills also see an 11% average increase in academic achievement as a result of working on these emotional matters.

Furlong said the school has extra adults, such as a special "restorative practices" teacher, where kids can go if they hit a rough spot emotionally, "so the classroom teacher can keep teaching."

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - These are some of the Kimochi feeling toys kids can chose from as a way to begin dsicussing their feelings.

Reaching out

Once per week in the summer, Furlong loads books and sack lunches in her car and goes to several apartment complexes and hands out lunch and free books for Davis students.

"It's one of my favorite things we do," she confided.

Davis staff works hard to get parents engaged in what their children are doing in school in other ways too.

School meetings are sometimes held at apartment complexes and English classes are offered to parents.

Kindergarten teachers visit every new student the first weeks of school and will switch to before school starts next fall. This gets kids and parents familiar with Davis and the expectations for attendance and other school routines.

If students are having behavior or attendance issues, staff will also visit the student's home.

Davis has a family coach from the Oregon Department of Human Services, to help families make sure their kids are successful in school.

Davis also employs social media and other technology to improve things at the school.

In an effort to boost attendance, a key to better academic achievement, Davis started a Facebook storytime.

Davis live streamed a guest reading a short kids' book on Facebook every school night during September. This was designed to signal that its time for bed, help students get a good night's sleep and get to school on time. They continue this the rest of the school year on Sunday nights and the Facebook bedtime story idea has been picked up by other schools.

Davis also gave out beanie hats to those who improved their attendance.

The school sends out colorful post cards if a child is missing too much school and congratulatory post cards to kids who have improved attendance. Getting real mail is a thrill for a lot of kids.

State help

Davis is just one of the nine of the 11 elementary schools in the Reynolds School District where students are underperforming and the school is tagged for extra help from the state.

The Oregon Department of Education has two categories for schools where students are not performing up to par. The schools are measured on regular attenders, academic achievement and growth and other measures.

Schools like Davis ranked as needing "comprehensive" support are low-income, so-called Title 1 schools, where students are performing at the lowest levels on standardized tests and are in the bottom 5% of all the schools in the state.

Once a school is classified as comprehensive, it stays in that group for three years, even if test scores, attendance and other measures improve enough that it would move out of the classification.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Some Davis Dragons work on math.

Furlong said that based on Davis' improved performance, the school would have been rated "targeted" last year. A targeted school is generally one that has a specific group or groups of students — such as disabled, English language learners, low-income or white students — that are not performing well in one or more areas. It could be a group not reading or writing proficiently based on standardized tests or one that is not coming to school regularly.

Davis also has big support from the community. Furlong credits volunteers and community groups for helping with the turnaround.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - AARP Experience Corps volunteer Robin Hayes works with a Davis student on reading and literacy.

Teams of volunteers from Kaiser Permanente painted the inside of the school and in 2018, folks from Good Shepherd Community Church in Boring painted the outside.

Furlong recalls after all the painting and work on the grounds, one little girl looked up at the principal wide-eyed and asked, "Am I still going to be able to go to school here?"

Volunteers spruced up the school's courtyard garden, work with kids on reading and provide help in myriad other ways.

Furlong is proud of the improvement at Davis, but the first to admit that it's not enough.

She said, "Our (test) scores are not where we want them to be, but they are growing."

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