Entitled to success



Herb Monroe moves through the halls of Lakeside Elementary School with a purposeful gait and a soft but direct demeanor.

Around every corner is a student waiting for a hug or a high-five or a teacher with a piece of information to impart. He makes a pit stop to address fourth-graders in the cafeteria, checks in with a teacher about a student who needs extra help, then flashes a smile to a volunteer before poking his head into a boys’ restroom to make sure order is in place.

For the most part, everything is very much in order here with Monroe, Lakeside’s energetic fourth-year principal, at the helm.

The school is a stirring success story, recognized earlier this month as Virginia’s representative in the category of “Closing the Achievement Gap Among Student Groups” at the National Title I Conference in Florida. Standardized test scores across every student demographic at the school – white, black, economically disadvantaged, English as a second language and students with individualized education programs (IEPs) – are nearly identical (ranging between 82 percent and 89 percent pass rates) just four years after those scores painted a much bleaker picture.

The process has not been an easy one, but for Monroe and his staff, its results are not surprising.

Promise kept
As Monroe, a former collegiate wrestler, makes his way to and from his office, he passes beneath a row of championship-esque banners hanging high above. But these banners tout achievement in academics, not sports. Monroe hung them soon after arriving in 2007 to the school, where morale was low but achievement – in certain pockets – was high: 62 students had earned perfect 600 scores on SOL tests during the previous school year.

Seeking a way to visibly promote excellence, he approached the Lakeside Business Association, whose members helped fund the purchase of the banners. The names of each student who achieved perfect scores on any component of the SOL test in the future would be added.

One Lakeside second-grader was so taken by the idea that he made an auspicious promise to his father, who was sick with cancer.

"He said, Dad, next year when I’m in third grade, I’m going to get a 600 on all four core SOL tests,’” Monroe recalled. “It breaks my heart, but his dad died over the summer.”

The boy, however, upheld his promise: four perfect 600 scores. “His name will hang forever here at Lakeside Elementary School,” Monroe said.

Traveling a rocky road
Lakeside is one of 19 Henrico elementaries that receive federal Title I funding and resources. One of the Title I instructional aides whose job exists because of the program, Heather Riddell, remembers feeling uncertain about Lakeside when she was transferred from Shady Grove Elementary in 2007.

“It was quite intimidating,” she said. “Student behavior was very disruptive.”

Monroe handed out 179 suspensions that year, also his first at the school. “It was a rocky road,” he conceded.

That year, test scores were mixed. The overall student pass rate for the reading portion of the SOL was 76 percent and just 71 percent for the math portion. The rates for blacks were disproportionately lower, and those among groups of students also were mostly skewed.

If the scores didn’t improve, Lakeside risked the possibility that parents would be permitted to pull their students and send them to other schools. That “school choice” option was not new to Monroe, who, as an assistant principal, had previously worked to pull Chesterfield’s Robious Middle School out of the same predicament.

“Lakeside was basically two years away from school choice when I arrived,” Monroe said. But he had a simple plan for improvement.

“We decided that at Lakeside Elementary School, we’re going to be about two things – teaching and learning,” he said, recalling initial meetings at the time with his newly assembled academic achievement team of staff members. “Anything that has nothing to do with those two things, we’re going to push out of the way.”

Nearly a dozen teachers left Lakeside during or following that year – Monroe’s first as principal. A handful of others have left in the years since.

“I don’t know if it was [because of] me – it could have been,” Monroe said.

But those who stayed and the new teachers who arrived quickly adapted to the new status quo.

“We had a build-up of newer teachers who were willing to try things different ways,” Riddell said. More teachers began using differentiated instruction, whereby classes are split into small groups so that students who learn similarly can work together with a teacher at their own pace.

The Title I funding allowed the school to purchase more supplies and helped it create a book room for students.

“Before, teachers were using old books or buying their own for students,” said kindergarten teacher Alyssa Hadd, who’s been at Lakeside since 2002. “That becomes difficult quickly.”

The funding also allowed teachers, including Hadd, to attend Title I conferences to learn from national experts. And it provided money for parent workshops and the refreshments that were served at each one – a seemingly insignificant amenity, but one that teachers said helped improve attendance and, ultimately, parent buy-in.

‘Let the horses run’
Today, Monroe looks around his school and sees teachers in every classroom who are excited about their jobs and anxious to exceed goals. Some have been so motivated that he had to institute a policy forbidding them from staying in the building beyond 7 p.m. Otherwise, he said, they might be there all night working on new concepts for students.

“Those [teachers] who bought into the program and bought into the vision are now unbelievably strong,” he said. “I brag now because I feel like I am a leader of leaders. I just feel like now I just hold the reins and let the horses run. I’m behind them now, supporting them, where when I got here I felt like I was in front leading them.”

Monroe made small but meaningful changes to the school’s daily bell schedule – for example, keeping early-arriving students in the cafeteria or auditorium until 7:50 a.m. to allow teachers 30 minutes at the start of the day to meet with parents or work one on one with students who need extra help. He also created an orderly process for dismissal, whereby parents who arrive to pick up their children proceed, one by one, to the front door, holding name placards as if in an airport greeting line.

Staff members use rewards such as the school’s ROAR (Responsibility, Outstanding behavior, Attitude, Respect) program to encourage prideful and appropriate behavior by awarding paw-print stickers to students.

It all adds up to a place where Monroe believes parents are now proud to send their students – and teachers are proud to work.

“We had to have a vested, focused strategic approach about how we were going to turn things around,” he said.

In 2010, the lowest SOL pass rate for any student demographic group at the school in math or reading subject was 82.4 percent (for English as a second language students). The overall pass rates were 87 percent in reading and 89.8 percent in math.

Riddell said she didn’t expect the turnaround to occur so soon.

“I am surprised that it only took a couple years,” she said. “This has just become such a wonderful place to work – it’s just so positive, and quite frankly, that wasn’t always the case.”

Said Hadd, who served as a student teacher, then substitute at Lakeside before becoming full time: “I’ve never taught anywhere else, and I don’t want to. I’ve been through tough times here and they’ve gotten better. I love the kids.”

For Monroe, these are signs that things have changed at Lakeside.

“They feel like the school has turned the corner for good,” he said.
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Regency Square Mall will host the arrival of the Easter Bunny with breakfast in the spring garden from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Ages 10 and under. Seating is limited. To register, call 740-1518. The Easter Bunny will remain until Apr. 15. Hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday (with half-hour breaks at 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.) and from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday (with a break from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.). Visits are free; photo packages vary in price. For details, visit http://www.shopregencysqmall.com. Full text

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