Hugs, handshakes and fist bumps are part of the daily ritual for students arriving at Fox Road Elementary School in North Raleigh.
Fox Road’s “Gauntlet of Love” has teachers and staff line the entrance and hallways to greet the 420 students as they arrive for another day of classes. It’s part of a culture of caring that principal Bob Lewis credits for helping the high-poverty school double its passing rate on state tests over the past seven years.
“We strongly feel that the relationship piece is central to what we do,” Lewis said in an interview. “As a staff we greet our kids in a way that’s affirming the one-to-one piece, that they have real meaning in our lives and that we’re there for them.
“It’s a way of saying to them that school is a safe place, school is a good place.”
Recently released statewide results for the 2018-19 school year show that Fox Road’s passing rate on state exams was 59.1%, up from 28.6% in the 2012-13 school year. Students at Fox Road are also exceeding expectations for how much their scores have grown on state exams.
(The state lowered the scores needed to pass tests in 2014, but Fox Road’s passing rate has continued to rise since then.)
Fox Road’s passing rate isn’t as high as some schools where more than 90% of students are proficient. But Fox Road’s demographics are also significantly different from those higher scoring and typically more affluent schools.
Last school year, 79% of Fox Road’s students qualified as being economically disadvantaged and 25% were identified as limited English proficient. Located near Triangle Town Center, Fox Road has families from more than 50 different countries who speak about 35 different native languages.
School builds relationships with students
Lewis said he knows that many of Fox Road’s families don’t have the finances to provide the opportunities and experiences available to affluent families, putting their children behind when they start school. But he said Fox Road sets high expectations for the students and encourages them to set goals in their learning.
“It’s not just the academic performance that we’ve improved,” Lewis said. “We’re sending out kids more confident, ready for middle school and having access to opportunities in middle school that they would not have had.”
Sheila Street credits the support for helping her daughter Shakira, 11, a fifth-grader, make the transition last school year after having previously attended a school in Wendell.
“The teachers here have been really supportive, really helpful and I’ve seen a big change in her since I’ve been here,” Street said. “I love the school and the teachers here.”
Lewis said that Fox Road has benefited from having lower staff turnover compared to other high-poverty schools.
A key to the school’s improvement, Lewis said, is the strong and detailed use of data to identify how students are performing. He credits Amplify Education’s mClass program, in which students read aloud to their teachers to help assess their reading skills, with improving performance.
State Superintendent Mark Johnson picked the Istation program, in which students will be tested on a computer, to replace mClass in North Carolina elementary schools. The state Department of Information Technology is reviewing an appeal of the contract filed by Amplify.
Even at their young age, Lewis said students are encouraged to work collaboratively in class to help each other. He said students are expected to take ownership in their learning.
“Fox Road is really amazing because everybody here is nice and nobody’s judging you,” said Lesley Tran, 10, a fifth-grade student. “People will usually help you if you need help with anything or if someone needs help you can help them.”
Addressing bias in identifying gifted students
The deep dive into the data has led to changes in how Fox Road students are selected for the Academically and Intellectually Gifted program, which provides additional resources to bright students.
Lewis said the traditional method of identifying gifted students by using a cognitive abilities test is biased against some high-achieving students, particularly children where English is not their first language.
The 2017 News & Observer and Charlotte Observer “Counted Out” series showed that thousands of bright, low-income North Carolina students were being excluded from advanced classes.
Fox Road is also doing more to “nurture” students by working with children as young as kindergarten to help prepare them to be officially identified as gifted when they get older.
Due to its past performance, Fox Road was allowed by the state to use the “restart model,” which gives schools the kind of flexibility from state rules allowed at charter schools. Fox Road is sharing the changes it has made identifying and serving gifted students with the other restart schools in Wake County.
Over the past seven years, Fox Road doubled its passing rate on state reading tests, quadrupled it on the science test and saw a 65% increase in math tests.
The improvement is not a surprise to Chris Toller, whose daughter Ana, 8, attends the school. He said the school has helped build up the third-grade student’s self-esteem to try new things.
“They have skilled educators and so much of it comes down to building relationships and looking at the whole child,” Toller said. “When children’s needs are met, they tend to do better. When children have positive relationships with adults, they tend to do better.”
Under North Carolina’s school performance grading system, Fox Road has a “C” grade. The grade is heavily based on passing rates on state exams as opposed to growth on the tests.
Lewis takes more stock though in Fox Road’s national accolades, including Magnet Schools of America giving it a Magnet School of Excellence award this year and naming it a certified national demonstration magnet school
“We haven’t worried much about the grade,” Lewis said. “It doesn’t hold the same importance to us as the other recognitions.”