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Published in Print: October 4, 2000, as Put to the Test

Put to the Test

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Every six weeks, a thundering roar goes up from the gym of Freeport Intermediate School, where 580 rowdy middle schoolers let loose with cheers, chants, and songs. The storm of noise just grows louder as the students, clad in T-shirts bearing the school's colors of black, red, and white, compete to outdo one another for highly coveted honors.

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What's at stake isn't a winning football or basketball team: It's academics that sends Freeport students into a frenzy. Each of the school's four "houses" vies intensely for the honor of having the fewest discipline referrals, the highest attendance, and the best spirit.

The 7th and 8th graders here take turns planning the academic pep rallies, with such themes as the Flintstones or a circus. They never quite know what the adults have in store, though: Principal Clara Sale-Davis once rode in on a horse during a Wild West rally.

Students at the Freeport Intermediate School know they are expected to pass the Texas state assessment. With the support of the entire staff, they do.

Each year, it seems, there's more to celebrate at Freeport Intermediate. The school has succeeded both in raising achievement to impressive heights on Texas' state tests and in creating a welcoming environment that makes students want to give their all.

As 8th grade graduate Vanessa Silva puts it: "It's hard, but you learn it. In the beginning, they start out mild on homework, but then it gets harder and harder. The teachers are like, 'We know you can do it,' and they are there to help us along the way."

'No Excuses'

A national network of middle school reformers this year named Freeport Intermediate a School To Watch—one of four in the nation to receive the honor for their commitment to academic excellence, responsiveness to the needs of young adolescents, and high expectations for all students.

The award was a feat for a school that still struggles to burnish its image in its own community. Freeport Intermediate serves a predominantly poor part of the Brazosport Independent School District, located 60 miles south of Houston. More than 65 percent of the school's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches; 46 percent are Hispanic, 13 percent are black, and 41 percent are white.

But Freeport Intermediate's achievements would be noteworthy anywhere: This past school year, 94.3 percent of its students passed the state reading test, 95.7 percent passed the 8th grade writing test, and 99.1 percent passed the math exam. The results make it a "recognized" school under the Texas accountability system—just shy of the "exemplary" status for which it strives. The entire 13,500-student Brazosport district produces similarly impressive results.

The landscape here, along Texas' "chemical coast," is dominated by the tangled silver and gray pipes of the sprawling Dow polymer and BASF plants. The factories provide jobs, a fat tax base, and inspiration for names like Chlorine and Glycol streets.

The district, where educators' motto seems to be "no excuses," has made a name for itself for using Total Quality Management techniques to hone its students' skills and prepare them to master the tests.

Teachers at Freeport Intermediate conduct "plan-do- check" cycles to make sure their instructional strategies are paying off. If not, they change them. And Freeport's teachers are masters at breaking down and teaching the skills and knowledge required for the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS.

"The thing that impressed us most was the academic results they were showing, particularly with low-income students, over the last five years," says Teri West, the project director for the National Forum To Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, a network of educators, foundation officers, and state leaders interested in improving middle-grades education.

"The sound in the gym was deafening," she adds of her visit to a pep rally. "They were screaming and chanting and shaking their signs."

Rigorous Curriculum for All

Freeport Intermediate School occupies a brand-new building, opened last year, with shining white hallways punctuated with red doors. An enormous airbrushed painting of an American Indian astride a horse—Freeport students are known as the "Rowdy Redskins"—dominates one wall of the gym.

Students and teachers have strong affinities for their houses: the Karankawas and the Apaches in 7th grade and the Mayans and Cherokees in 8th. Each occupies a distinct wing of the building; students aren't permitted to enter other houses' territory.

Seven years ago, just 38.6 percent of the students passed the state math exam. Last year, 99.1 percent passed.

Secure in their own domains, Freeport students buckle down to work at 7:45 a.m. and don't let up until 3:25 p.m. Classes are 90 minutes long, with math and English language arts every day and science and social studies rotating with art, music, physical education, and electives. The curriculum here is the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, "integrated with the words 'fun' and 'connectivity,'" Sale-Davis says.

For the last hour of the day, students attend "team time," a flexible period for watching the Channel One television news program, reading silently to earn their required "book points," and brushing up on academic skills. The hour also allows time for outside speakers and planning pep rallies—"so we don't steal any instructional time with all that frou-frou stuff," as Sale-Davis puts it.

In the months leading up to TAAS time, the school day stretches another hour for students who need extra help. Heather Melass, an 8th grade language arts teacher, has students practice composing a how-to paper by putting a Mr. Potato Head together the wrong way—eyes in the ear holes—and then writing directions for replicating the creature.

Teachers here share the view that to succeed with middle schoolers, they must act a bit like them—or at least relish the same energy and spirit.

Just as students are expected to produce, so are teachers. Each "tribe" has six teachers, who have common planning time every other day. On off days, teachers meet with others in their academic departments. Sale-Davis requires them to prepare agendas for their meetings, complete with information about who will carry out tasks, which she reviews at the close of each school day.

Teachers who are willing to go the extra mile are welcome, while those who put down Freeport or think minority and poor children can't learn are not. In her five years as principal, Sale-Davis has seen about half the staff members leave for various reasons.

"My staff makes it miserable for people who just want to draw paychecks," she says bluntly. "If they're dead weight, they get the message that they don't belong here, and they get the heck out. This is missionary work."

In keeping with the district's philosophy of allowing schools to manage their own affairs, Sale-Davis and her staff have latitude to tailor their own professional-development programs. The agenda is driven by the school's need, as identified by data, the principal notes, although teachers take part in some districtwide workshops. In contrast to schools that tack on program after program for targeted students, Freeport Intermediate teaches a rigorous core curriculum to all. The only students singled out are those identified as academically gifted, who by state law must be provided with higher-level classes. The vast majority of the school's 120 special education students are included in regular classrooms—a major focus of professional-development activities three years ago.

Teachers bend over backwards for students, whether that means accompanying them to academic competitions at their own expense on weekends or dressing up in wacky costumes to cheer them on academically.

The science teachers made a video of themselves as "The Bubbas," complete with overalls, hats, and freckles, to teach a unit on measurement and estimation while throwing cow chips. The Cherokee teachers shot a video of themselves in red T-shirts astride horses at one teacher's home, chanting a song to the tune of pop star Will Smith's "Wild Wild West," the theme to the movie of the same name.

"The key is the relationships with the students," says Kristi Traylor, an 8th grade math teacher. "We're not afraid to make fools of ourselves and show them we're human, too."

The mathematics department formed the Totally Awesome Arithmetic Singers (or TAAS) to sing popular songs with instructional lyrics. And teachers feed their charges, encouraging them to "Double Stuff the TAAS" with cookies during test-prep sessions and baking pigs-in-a-blanket at home to serve on the big day. The school raises about $1,000 a year to provide such snacks.

Teachers share the view that to succeed with middle schoolers, they must act a bit like them—or at least relish their distinctive energy and spirit.

For 8th grade graduate Amber Randon, the projects in history and science class are the best part of school. "It's better for you to learn when you are going and researching it yourself," she says. "We have a lot of young teachers, and they understand that we don't want to just sit there and listen to them talk on and on."

Teaching to TAAS

In the school's multipurpose room— where Sale-Davis has pizza with students monthly as a way to find out their concerns—is a bulletin board detailing the eight strategies used by teachers here. First comes breaking down TAAS scores to identify students' strengths and weaknesses, followed by an "instructional timeline," assessment, tutorial time for "nonmastered items," and the like.

The payoffs that teachers have seen from their intense focus on instruction are noteworthy: Five years ago, Freeport Intermediate bore the label "low performing" for its students' miserable TAAS scores. In 1992-93, just 38.6 percent of the students passed the math exam, and 62.7 percent passed reading. In addition to the gains in test scores, discipline referrals over the past four years have dropped 76 percent, down from nearly 3,000 a year.

In recognition of its progress, the Texas Education Agency has named Freeport Intermediate a "mentor school." A "campus advisory team," made up of representatives of six school committees—curriculum and instruction, staff development, planning, communication, technology, and school climate—helps govern the school, using the plan-do-check routines.

While Texas' high-profile accountability system is controversial, Freeport educators appear to view it as a welcome professional challenge.

While Texas' high-profile accountability system is controversial, educators at Freeport appear to view it as a welcome professional challenge.

In addition to having a clear idea of their goals, teachers here know what their colleagues at the elementary level are teaching and what will be required of their students in high school. This teamwork, teachers say, means less remedial work, less review, and fewer low-level math classes in high school.

For Linda Dominguez, an African-American math teacher who recently left the school recently after 21 years to teach at an alternative school in the district, the state's message that all children be taught and tested is good news. Before the advent of TAAS and the state's requirement that scores be reported by race, ethnicity, and income, she says, "you had schools that thought, 'These kids will grow up to be maids, so it doesn't matter.' With TAAS, we are saying to schools that your children will learn material appropriate to the 7th grade."

Joan Lipsitz, a longtime middle school champion who heads the National Forum's Schools To Watch subcommittee, says Freeport Intermediate is "completely driven by the TAAS in probably the best way—they are breaking predictions about who achieves and consistently improving. They feel when they are teaching to the test they are teaching to standards."

Vol. 20, Issue 5, Pages 24-26

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