By Susan Riddell

Jessica McPherson helps 4th-grade students Keaton Emmert and Morgan Comer with an assignment on equivalent fractions at Gamaliel Elementary School (Monroe County). Photo by Amy Wallot, Feb. 2, 2012

Jessica McPherson helps 4th-grade students Keaton Emmert and Morgan Comer with an assignment on equivalent fractions at Gamaliel Elementary School (Monroe County). Photo by Amy Wallot, Feb. 2, 2012

Gamaliel Elementary School (Monroe County) earned its 2011 National Blue Ribbon School honor for helping students achieve at high levels and for making significant progress in closing achievement gaps.

Despite the recognition and being on the right track, administrators were willing to gamble with a big change in the school’s grading system, not wanting to be complacent with recent success.

Gamaliel Elementary wiped out grades for the 2011-12 school year for grades K-5. Instead, the school has opted for standards-based report cards.

“Our focus is strictly on student mastery of the Kentucky Core Academic Standards,” Principal Christie Biggerstaff said. “Teachers are delivering content and are constantly assessing to ensure student mastery.”

Student- and parent-friendly report cards  focus on learning targets. Mastery of learning targets is reported as mastery, partial mastery or non-mastery.

“Instead of getting a grade in math, all math learning targets are listed to show parents which targets their child has mastered, which are partially mastered and which are  not mastered,” said teacher Felisa Brooks.

“By using this type of standard-based system, teachers also continuously use formative assessments in their classrooms to guide instruction and monitor student progress,” Brooks added. “Students who are not meeting standards are pulled for Response to Intervention (RTI) to help them with specific targets. Students are often placed in ability groups so that their needs can be met at the level they are currently.”

Biggerstaff said this approach makes learning easier on students and more focused for teachers.

“It is changing mindsets,” Biggerstaff said. “We’ve had very positive feedback. Parents seem to love it, and our students have completely bought into our new system of grading.”

Teachers at the school have practiced different forms of assessment, all with success, Biggerstaff said.

Jessica McPherson teaches 4th- and 5th-grade mathematics at Gamaliel Elementary. She uses a balanced assessment system in her classroom that includes mastery folders.

“Mastery folders are used to collect evidence that students have achieved mastery,” she said. “The teachers in our school use formative and/or summative assessments daily. A variety of these assessments are kept and placed in each student’s individual mastery folder to determine if the student has mastered, partially mastered or not mastered the given learning target.”

Biggerstaff, who also praised her school’s leadership team and participation in districtwide professional learning communities, said that Gamaliel Elementary excels using a collaborative special education program.

“The special education department works side by side with our teachers in their classrooms,” Biggerstaff said.

Brooks, the special education teacher, said she works closely with every teacher at Gamaliel Elementary.

“Many times in the classroom I am just a part of the lesson and am involved in teaching that lesson to the whole group as the classroom teachers are,” Brooks said. “We collaborate in planning, delivery of the lesson, RTI and assessments.

“Both teachers have to see themselves as part of a team,” she added. “Both hold an equal amount as a stakeholder in that child’s education. We have always believed that two heads are better than one, and the more people you can add to that equation, the more ideas you come up with.”

Brooks said her special education students benefit from this collaboration, too.

“The special needs students are mainstreamed into the regular classroom setting as much as possible,” Brooks said. “For students who need additional one-on-one assistance, I ensure that it is provided in addition to the regular setting.

“Students feel confident and enjoy being in the (traditional) classroom with their friends,” Brooks added.

A family environment fosters the school’s philosophy on teacher collaboration, McPherson said.

“If a teacher does something in their classroom that works, they share,” she said. “We are constantly sharing ideas with one another every chance we get. We never hesitate to ask for help or assistance from our administrators or fellow teachers.

“Each grade level has common planning time so that teachers can collaborate together on a daily basis if needed,” McPherson added. “We also have a literacy block each day in which all special area teachers collaborate to provide small group reading instruction.”

Biggerstaff agreed.

“We do have a very special school culture,” she said. “Gamaliel Elementary has a family-like atmosphere. We have a student body with a very low socio-economic status, so teachers and staff members must remove many barriers before we even begin to teach them.”

That includes helping students outside of school as well.

“We have a backpack program that sends home food to students over the weekend. We have a family resource center that gives students clothes daily, and works with students to ensure all of their needs are met before they even start learning. Teachers use (the family resource center) to give students anything from clothes, to furniture, beds and health care items. Our teachers know and love our community, so they are aware of the hardships our students face. Since our organization is very much built like a family, our staff members depend and support one another inside and outside of school.”

Christie Biggerstaff,, (270) 457-2341