Thursday, March 31, 2005

How one school beat the odds, reversed a poor academic record

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.03.31
EDITION: Final
SECTION: City
PAGE: B1 / Front
BYLINE: Kelly Roesler
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen

NOTE: Special Report: Schools Under Scrutiny

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How one school beat the odds, reversed a poor academic record

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When 12-year-old Kur Ngong first began attending Bayshore Catholic School, he was a teacher's nightmare. He was defiant, disruptive and refused to complete his work.

Kur was harbouring a secret he couldn't bring himself to share with his teachers -- he couldn't do the work because he didn't know how to read and could barely speak English, having recently moved to Canada from Sudan.

"I was so angry," he says. " I didn't want to tell anyone."

Teachers at the school soon figured out his problem.

A year later, Kur has become a model Grade 6 pupil at Bayshore Catholic. Every morning, before class begins, he sits down with a volunteer and reads, slowly developing his skills.

When Kur came to the school a year ago, he was barely reading at a Grade 1 level. Now he reads at a Grade 3 level, devours Magic Tree House books and speaks fluent English.

"I got a lot of help here," he says. "And I don't get into trouble anymore."

Bayshore Catholic, a school of about 150 children in a low-income, transient community with a high immigrant population, Bayshore Catholic has been beating the odds.

In a newly released report, Signposts of Success: Interpreting Ontario's Elementary School Test Scores, Bayshore is one of only nine "strong" schools.

The report analyses provincewide math and literacy test scores for Grades 3 and 6 students against their projected scores based on socio-economic factors such as income. "Strong" schools are those with scores that surpassed those of at least 75 per cent of comparable Ontario schools.

For the academic years 2001-2004, Bayshore Catholic came in the 89th percentile for Grade 3 and the 90th percentile for Grade 6. It was Ottawa's only "strong" Catholic school.

But it wasn't always that way, says principal designate Marc Brown. "We decided to scrap the old way of teaching and we'd go in a totally new direction."

Bayshore adopted new learning models to make math and literacy subjects interactive and engaging. School staff are also keenly aware of the multitude of struggles their students face, he says.

"It's hard to come in and learn something and work when you're wearing the same clothes you've been wearing all week, you haven't had breakfast, your lunch is a piece of bread with ketchup on it and you're going to bed at midnight," says Mr. Brown.

Teachers sacrifice their own time to address the special needs of the students. "They're part-time teacher, part-time social worker, part-time parent. They're everything," he says.

Like Bayshore Catholic, Katimavik Elementary School in Kanata also shone. Through the six-year academic period, Katimavik consistently excelled with a constant 90th percentile ranking for both Grades 3 and 6.

Katimavik was singled out for praise by study author David Johnson, who describes it as Ottawa's "only really spectacular school."

"It is, in the statistical sense, an amazing school, even relative to its high-income counterparts in the rest of the province," he says.

Katimavik's realities are different from Bayshore's. The school offers three levels of French immersion. Over the past six years, between 92 per cent and 100 per cent of Grade 3 students at Katimavik either met or exceeded the provincial standards in math testing.

"Any child can do well at their capacity if you motivate them," says learning resource teacher Francine D'Souza. "We keep them interested, so they are happy to be here, and challenged."

Katimavik strives to do better, says principal Maria Sarot. "We are never satisfied with what we're doing; we want more."

Both schools have one thing in common: Each student must perform to the best of his or her ability, with no room for excuses.

"There's no lazy children -- we don't allow it," says Ms. D'Souza.

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