Six girls and a boy gathered around a table in teacher Janice Tiffany’s colorful classroom, adorned with bright bold letters, numbers and inspirational messages. Each student was given a practice sheet with words listed in two columns. Their assignment: draw a line connecting a word from one column to a rhyming word on the other column.
“What sound stays the same, the beginning or the end?” the teacher asked.
“The ending sound stays the same,” a few students responded. “Very good,” the teacher said. Then together they did the first rhyming word, connecting ‘stand’ to ‘bland.’ Before moving on the teacher made sure they understood the meaning of ‘bland.’ “If food is not spicy or flavorful, it is bland,” she said. Afterward students were asked to complete the sheet individually.
“I messed up,” one student said, clearly feeling dejected after completing her sheet.
“No, you made a mistake on one. But the rest are correct. Let’s figure out why one is wrong, and then it’ll be perfect,” Tiffany said using a tone that encouraged rather than discouraged.
Pulling students who need extra help into small group settings to work on specific lessons so each child gets more individualized instruction is one of several strategies used to help students succeed at Bolen Elementary School, a modern brick building in the town of Tawas, MI., located along the shores of Lake Huron.
While the rural town may be known to most as a popular tourist attraction because of its small-town charm and pristine water views, the elementary school that serves 434 kindergarten through fourth grade students warrants its own attention, suggests research and interviews with staff and others associated with the school. More than 60 percent of its students come from economically disadvantaged households, yet the proficiency rates in math and reading for these students at Bolen surpassed statewide rates from 2017 to 2019, according to analyses by The Education Trust-Midwest. Regular assessments followed by targeted instruction, both in the classroom and in small groups as was demonstrated by Title I teacher Tiffany Justice, is a big part of what’s working there.
But that’s only part of the story, says former principal Sarah Danek, who in July took the helm of the upper school, a sprawling campus serving grades 5-12 located less than a mile away.
“It isn’t just one strategy or one thing…it’s that umbrella or that fully-encompassed piece that ties everything together,” says Danek, who also doubles as the soccer coach and along with her husband, David, also coaches hockey.
Other pieces of the puzzle include parent and community support driven by its small-town closeness, regular assessments that guide instruction aimed at helping all students do well, and a team approach to teaching buttressed by professional development that keeps instructional staff on top of their game. The first step, though, is striving to make all students feel valued and cared for.
It starts with the heart
“Clara Bolen, it’s extremely welcoming to all students,” says third grade teacher Kelli Rau. “We focus more on building as a family, and that carries out through my classroom and into the entire school.”
Receiving special services is not a stigma because everyone receives special attention. All students receive free breakfast and lunch. Each student has a Chromebook at school and at home—which is especially important since many students come from low-income homes where a computer for every child could be considered a luxury. All students—based on assessments—are pulled out or grouped into small groups for instruction daily either with their own teacher or Tiffany Justice, the Title 1 instructor, a position funded with federal money to assist students from low-income homes.
“Nobody sees that as like a negative,” Rau says. “They love going with our Title support teacher and (para professionals). They love the one-on-one and…that I can then do small groups while they’re pulled and give everybody the attention they need.” Those strategies are really positives for the students, she said.
Teachers then use the ongoing student assessments to tailor their instruction to student needs, whether it’s providing more focused guidance in the classroom or pulling the students into small groups for more intimate instruction.