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How Two Austin Principals Are Improving Test Scores at Low Income Schools

Shannan Muskopf/Texas Tribune

On the outside, Blackshear Elementary and Graham Elementary schools in Austin don’t have a lot in common. Blackshear has around 230 students, while Graham has nearly four times than that.  In East Austin, Blackshear’s building was built more than a hundred years ago. Graham Elementary—in the North Central part of the city—has a more 1970's architectural look.

But inside, the two schools -- with more than 90 percent economically disadvantaged students -- are run almost identically using a new philosophy called the New Three R's.

Since the late 1700’s, the Three R’s of learning have commonly been known as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Graham Elementary Principal Blaine Helwig says the "New Three R’s” stand for the "Right people," the "Right systems" and the "Right resources."

The right people refers to virtually everyone a student encounters. “We’re talking about teachers at school, custodians, mentors, community folks," Helwig says.

As for systems, Helwig says that includes anything from efficient arrival and dismissal procedures to the use of campus dollars and discipline procedures.

The right resources are academic programs that can help students get up to grade level.

One such program teaches students the most frequently used 800 words in the English language. Another program makes sure students can recognize and spell another 1,000 words by the time they go to middle school. The third program helps students with basic math skills, using a five-minute test taken before school starts.

Both principals monitor student progress in math, spelling and reading on a weekly basis using spreadsheets, which they say is a major part of the program's success.

“If I see student scoring 100, 100 and drop to 40 then I’ll go to individual student and I’ll say, 'I see that you’ve been doing really well. Do you need help?' That’s how I become involved," says Blackshear Principal Betty Jenkins.

More than 90 percent of students at Graham and Blackshear are economically disadvantaged and both schools have high mobility rates, which means many students are transferring in or out of those schools. That’s pretty common in low-income schools where students’ families are constantly moving. It also means many of those students need to be brought up to speed quickly.

Jenkins implemented the New Three R’s program two years ago  and has seen some improvement in the schools test scores.  Under the state’s new accountability standards, the school earned three distinctions in reading, math and student progress last year. Meanwhile, in 2012, Graham Elementary was considered a Blue Ribbon School by the Department of Education. Jenkins says the most important thing is to provide structure for students.

“Students needs to know exactly what to expect the moment they walk into classroom, so structure is very important because it helps feel they’re in control, they know what’s going to happen, they know what to expect during the day," she says.

While the program has been academically successful, the district did open an investigation into Blackshear Elementary earlier this school year after a complaint that the school was causing psychological harm to students. But neither the district nor Texas Child Protective Services found anything to support the complaint.

While both Jenkins and Helwig say there are no internal documents or written guidelines for the New Three R’s, they do plan to commercialize the philosophy in the future, once Helwig retires. Right now he says he’d like to write a book.

Last year, the two registered a company with the Secretary of State’s office as The New 3 R’s Educational Consulting and Resources LLC, but both say they are unsure what kind of consulting work they plan to do through the registered company.

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