In 1996, Cathy McCarthy was a brand new principal at the Armory Street School in Springfield, Massachusetts, when she received word that the elementary school’s test scores were among the lowest in the city. The staff was stunned, but McCarthy saw the bad news as an opportunity to spur widespread changes in the school. She just wasn’t sure where to begin.
That year, the Armory Street School joined the Schoolwide Network of the New England Comprehensive Assistance Center (NECAC), which is based at EDC. McCarthy and a team from the district attended NECAC’s Schoolwide Congress and began developing a schoolwide improvement plan.
With guidance from NECAC, McCarthy sought the data she would need to guide the improvement plan. “I told my teachers, ‘We’re only as strong as the weakest link,’” said McCarthy. “Data is the concrete connection between teaching and learning—the data show if the students learned something.”
That philosophy drove the School Improvement Self–Study, launched in the 1996–97 school year with participation from 35 teachers, administrators, support staff, and others. The study focused on four key areas: school environment, instruction and staff development, assessment, and community involvement. Study groups in all four areas spent the year gathering data and then came together to identify two key priorities: reading skill development, and implementation of standards–based curricula and assessment.
McCarthy says that the study groups came to see literacy “as an umbrella that covers everything…Our highest priority is to make literacy instruction more coherent, dynamic, and effective by establishing a consistent, research–based instructional model that is carefully benchmarked across all levels.” After considerable research and talks with consultants, the school decided to implement First Steps—an Australian literacy program that has achieved favorable results in numerous settings. The whole staff received training in the program, and they initiated block scheduling for literacy instruction.
As the Armory Street School moved from self–study to the implementation of the Schoolwide Improvement Plan, McCarthy met with the predictable mix of enthusiasm and resistance. “Some teachers were already hungry for change. They had been going out to learn new techniques, but their enthusiasm had not been encouraged. I saw them as leaders who embraced change, had credibility, and were respected by their peers.”
McCarthy takes a pragmatic view toward in–school politics, noting that one–third of the teachers are “cheerleaders” for the reforms, one–third will “wait and see,” and one-third will resist change. “I believe you work hard with the ‘wait and see’ people, keep checking in with the doers and believers, and let go of the resisters,” she says.
The results of the schoolwide plan have been impressive on several fronts. In 1998, The school received a Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration (CSRD) grant of $150,000 over three years. And the following year, it received a READ grant of $250,000 over 30 months. In 1999, a CSRD evaluation of all schools that had received grants placed the Armory Street School at “average to well above average” in all 11 categories of “conditions conducive to reform.”
The turnaround is evident in the school’s test scores:
- In 1996–97, 31 percent of third graders scored “medium” or “high” on citywide assessment. By 1998–99, 70 percent scored in those ranges.
- Fourth grade standardized test scores in a variety of language arts areas increased significantly—some by as much as 25 percent—between 1998 and 1999.
- Science scores also improved dramatically, which was attributed to a hands–on, inquiry-based curriculum aligned with state standards and introduced at the kindergarten level and writing improvement initiatives.
Looking back over NECAC’s four–year collaboration with the Armory Street School, NECAC Project Director Maria–Paz Beltran Avery traces a path from the initial self-study to the schoolwide improvement plan and its impact on student learning.
“Even a small change—establishing a literacy block schedule—became a vehicle to address the needs of both students and teachers,” says Avery. “The school’s professional development plan provided the resources for all teachers to become effective, and all students are given the support and time they need to learn well.”
Originally published on June 1, 2002