This struggling charter school saw big gains on test scores. Here’s how.

High-stakes standardized tests used to be a source of dread at Hope Charter Leadership Academy, but the high-poverty charter school near downtown Raleigh decided to take a different approach: Embrace the exams.

Mock tests, after-school tutorials, school competitions, parties, motivational videos and data-tracking to gauge performance has become the norm for Hope, which draws most of its 122 elementary school students from Southeast Raleigh.

The result, one year later, is that Hope saw major test gains that raised its state school performance letter grade from F to C.

Hope is now outperforming some similar nearby Raleigh elementary schools and other high-poverty schools around North Carolina.

“I was just so proud to hear how well we did because it was almost expected that we weren’t going to do as well because that’s what everyone else has done,” Clarissa Fleming, Hope’s principal, said in an interview.

Charter school advocates say Hope should be a role model for how other schools can try to improve performance. Representatives from Success Institute Charter School in Statesville plan to visit Hope next week, Fleming said.

“This is awesome growth, and I think other people should be taking notes,” Alex Quigley, chairman of the state Charter Schools Advisory Board, said at the October meeting after hearing the update on Hope.

Quigley’s colleagues were less positive a year ago when they were talking about shutting Hope down and warning that unless things dramatically improved they might try to find some other group to take over the school.

Cory Melvin a fourth grader at Hope Charter Leadership Academy raises his hand to answer a question during science class on Thursday, November 9, 2017 in Raleigh. Robert Willett

Fleming said those harsh words motivated school leaders to work even harder.

Hope has more challenges than many elementary schools in the state. About 93 percent of Hope’s students qualify for the federal free and reduced-price school lunch program. Fleming said some students come in and out of Hope multiple times during the school year as their housing situation changes.

“Most of our students come from some struggles with regard to their family background,” Fleming said. “Our students are very transient.”

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are exempt from some regulations that traditional public schools must follow, such as providing school transportation and participating in the federal school lunch program. But Hope provides both services to its students, all of whom are minorities.

Fleming said she had been surprised to see some of her students crying as they left school on Fridays until she realized that they knew they were going to go hungry for the weekend. Now 80 percent of the students participate in the Backpack Buddies program, in which community volunteers pack food for students to take home with them to eat during the weekend.

Low-income students are, on average, less likely to perform as well as affluent students. Before last year, Fleming said, the school was scared of looking at the data and sharing it with students because it was so bleak.

“We realized we have to show them where they’re starting from and where we’re trying to go,” she said. “We had to embrace data.”

The data was also shared with parents, Fleming said, to help get students to take the tests more seriously and to show how they relate to academic performance and how the school is perceived by the public.

Fleming said Hope’s leaders knew they had to change the culture of the school to embrace the state exams and not look at it as, “Ugh, that test.”

Hope also made it a focus to improve science instruction by providing it daily to all students. Students get tested by the state in science in fifth grade, but Lamonica C. Smith, Hope’s fourth-grade teacher, says the test is a culmination of all they’ve learned since kindergarten.

Smith, who was initially hired to be Hope’s science specialist, said the key has been to get students excited about doing science. As part of a lesson Thursday on earth and the universe, Smith had students scoop out cream from Oreo cookies to represent the different phases of the moon. Students also learned and memorized a rap song about the order of the different moon phases.

“If I can figure out a way to make it hands on, then it’s going to be hands on,” Smith said. “I believe if you do it, you remember it.”

After state charter school officials urged Hope leaders to visit and learn from other charter schools, Hope adopted the fifth-grade science curriculum used at Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham. They heard that students perform well when they know adults care about them, so they created “families” of three to four students in third- through fifth-grades who are partnered with a staff member for different activities.

Takarah Rowland samples the filling from a cookie during a science exercise on the phases of the moon during science class at Hope Charter Leadership Academy on Thursday, November 9, 2017 in Raleigh. N.C. Robert Willett

The results of the efforts were shown at the end of last school year when Hope surpassed its goals for improving reading, math and science performance on state exams.

▪ The passing rate on state end-of-grade reading exams increased 68 percent to 54 percent;

▪ The passing rate on state end-of-grade math exams increased 66 percent to 40 percent;

▪ The passing rate on the fifth-grade science end-of-grade exams increased 549 percent to 68.8 percent.

Fleming says there’s definitely room for more growth. But Hope’s proficiency rate of 50 percent on state exams was higher than the mark at 18 of Wake County’s 113 elementary schools last school year.

“Your team worked really hard when your backs were against the wall and you have a lot to be proud of,” Quigley, the head of the Charter Schools Advisory Board, told Hope’s leaders.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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