Lessons in success
New Emerson at top of the class in state testing, learning environment
Erin Cook had always heard good things about New Emerson School — that test scores were high, class sizes were small, and teachers individualized instruction to get all kids excited about learning.
“Everything we heard was true,” she said before school one morning last week while taking a break from reading with her daughter, New Emerson first-grader Madison Cook, during one of the school’s daily early bird reading sessions with parents and teachers 15 minutes before the bell rings at 8 a.m. Her son, Connor Cook, is in third grade at the school.
Transitional Colorado Assessment Program results attest to at least one of those points. Every New Emerson third-grader scored at or above grade level on TCAP reading and math tests last spring, and all fourth-graders scored at or above grade level in math.
Scores like that qualified New Emerson for the John Irwin Schools of Excellence Award in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The award goes to Colorado schools where students scored in the 90th percentile on TCAP tests. Less than one percent of all Colorado schools got the award this year.
New Emerson was the only District 51 school to get the award in any of those three years. The question is how it got so far ahead of other schools in the district on TCAP achievement.
A popular rumor is that the school only accepts gifted and talented students. That’s not true. Parents with kids of all ability levels apply for a slot in the school and either get one through a lottery system or have to try again later.
Gifted or not, students have a few advantages in their education, New Emerson teachers say, including full-day kindergarten, supportive parents, and a school small enough for all teachers to know all students and their needs. Each grade has just one class and one teacher and paraprofessional with an average class size of two dozen students. Some students “loop” grades so they combine grade levels, keep the same teacher for several years or both.
Teachers tackle music, art and physical education in their classrooms and weave science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — lessons into all subjects. This is the school’s fourth year as a STEM magnet school, a distinction that means weekly hourlong student visits to the John McConnell Math and Science Center of Western Colorado, which is within the school building, at 2660 Unaweep Ave., and having teachers work with the center to plan STEM-related lessons and units for the classroom.
The school’s Parent-Teacher Organization donated $1,000 to the Math and Science Center in each of the last two years to support the partnership. The PTO also paid Jennifer Daniels, Colorado Mesa University assistant professor of teacher education, a stipend last year to help teachers fine-tune curriculum. District 51 does not contribute any money to the school for STEM education.
Eric Rinaldo, the Math and Science Center’s education director, worked with teachers and New Emerson Principal Terry Schmalz last summer to brainstorm more ways to incorporate engineering into lessons at the center. He also works with students on experiments and activities that match STEM lessons currently being taught in the classroom. Projects have included first-graders building a bed for Goldilocks that can support a bag of pennies and fifth-graders keeping a daily log of pH and ammonia levels in a fish tank filled with young trout.
“A lot of kids here have done this (STEM) program for years so they know more things now than I did in college about science. It’s impressive,” Rinaldo said. “They’re just naturally curious. A lot of times the kids will come up with the next steps for an experiment. They’re discovering things as they play.”
While students may say their favorite part of New Emerson is Fridays off (class is 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday), their eyes light up when talking about their favorite in-school moments. Liam Price, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at the school, remembers getting to build a simulation of a roller coaster to learn physics.
“I get to do a lot more than I could at other schools,” he said, referring to the school’s link to the Math and Science Center.
New Emerson fifth-grader Isabelle Martinez, 10, went elsewhere for kindergarten and needed to do some catching up when she arrived at New Emerson in fifth grade. That’s because her classmates often are asked to aim for skills a year ahead of schedule, she said.
“It may seem hard at first but it gets easier and easier and it feels like you’re doing regular stuff, but really it’s a year above your grade level,” Martinez said.
Ten-year-old Carolina Robinson, also a fifth-grader at New Emerson, said she likes that her teacher gives her class sixth-grade rubrics as examples of the work they should try to achieve.
“At my other schools they gave you a rubric for your grade and you’re good if you could do that. But it’s kind of cool to try to push yourself,” she said.
TEACHING TO EACH STUDENT
Not all students start out advanced, but the school works to get them there, fourth-grade teacher Aubrey Hoffman said. Often that means appealing to a student’s various interests and using a variety of teaching methods to appeal to the visual, auditory or hands-on learner.
“Every child has a different learning style. You’re bound to hit on it with one of those” methods, she said.
A student interested in music, for example, is likely to gain interest in a science lesson if it’s incorporated into a music lesson, said first-grade teacher Molly Moyer.
“They’re all engaged because the way things are presented is a way that makes them engaged in everything they do,” Moyer said.
Teachers also work with students during lunch and after school if they need extra practice. Kids are split by ability, not grade level, once a week to work on literacy and spelling. The school occasionally hosts math nights to teach parents math games to play at home with their kids.
Parents and teachers alike volunteer for twice-a-year “explorations” classes, where students pick among a dozen or so activities and spend time running, knitting, wood-working, gardening or exploring other options for an hour once a week for four weeks. Students work on character-building exercises with their school counselor and older students partner with younger students to mentor them.
This blend of teacher and parental involvement is key to New Emerson’s learning environment, kindergarten teacher Shannon Koppenhafer said. Parents take the first step in showing they want to be involved at the school by applying, she said. Teachers take the next step by tailoring instruction to fit each child’s learning style.
“Every child has a different way of learning. Hopefully we’re finding a way they learn best through a variety of activities so they come to a real understanding rather than going through the motions,” she said.
NOT JUST ABOUT THE TEST
New Emerson has a low mobility rate, with just 11 students leaving or coming to the school in 2012-13. That makes for an “extensive” wait list, according to Schmalz.
Once a parent squeezes into the school population, which typically averages around 150 students, all siblings are welcome to enroll as well. It’s a privilege parent Jami Davis said few families take lightly.
“Parents here don’t just expect teachers to do everything. They let us help and parents want to help,” Davis said.
Davis said she asked numerous parents where she should enroll her children, second-grader Cache and fifth-grader Reece, when the family moved here from Maine. Every person she asked suggested New Emerson. Davis said the school’s TCAP record may contribute to the school’s reputation but she has stayed at New Emerson because of small class sizes and character-building activities like Kids Caring Day, a once-a-month program where students work on a community-service project like raking leaves for the elderly or visiting a soup kitchen.
“It’s not all about getting the highest test scores, it’s about being the best person,” Davis said.