By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
United Teachers of Richmond member Melanie Perkins takes her students through a class at Nystrom Elementary School. Photo by Scott Buschman
“Keep your eyes on the magic wand,” Melanie Perkins tells her students as she points to the words on her oversized book. “Let’s read the title together. It’s One Hungry Monster. Let’s use our best monster voices.”
The students read and growl simultaneously, following the wand.
If there’s one thing Perkins knows how to do extremely well, it’s teaching young children. She is enthusiastic, nurturing and patient, and makes learning enjoyable for her 24 students at Nystrom Elementary School in Richmond.
Perkins did not always teach at Nystrom, a school in Program Improvement facing sanctions under No Child Left Behind. She began her teaching career in the affluent community of Walnut Creek. Switching to Nystrom was a matter of choice; she threw tenure to the wind because she wanted to go where she was most needed.
In Walnut Creek her students scored in the high 800s or low 900s on STAR tests. But after 18 years, she needed a challenge. At the urging of a friend, she visited Nystrom. The minute she walked in, she knew she was meant to teach there. And she’s remained at the low-income school for the past four years. It is the challenge she wanted and then some. Nearly all of her students are English learners who live in poverty. Many come to school hungry. They live in a community plagued by gang violence.
“On my first day of school, there was a drive-by shooting on the street behind the school,” recalls Perkins, a member of United Teachers of Richmond. “There were two bullets on the playground where the kids have recess. It happens here a lot. One family told me that they have spent the night in the bathtub because they are afraid of bullets coming into the house.”
Despite working harder than ever, the veteran teacher wasn’t the least bit surprised when students at her new school missed the 800 mark in STAR test results. They scored much lower, in fact, than her students in Walnut Creek. And despite what she is hearing from politicians, her teaching skills are not the reason, says Perkins.
“I’m absolutely the same teacher I was in Walnut Creek,” says Perkins. “But students here have a much harder time and come to school much less prepared. They are not proficient in English. Their first language may be Spanish, Chinese or Arabic. They have limited vocabulary and limited experiences. Most have not been beyond their neighborhood. They don’t even know that the San Francisco Bay is just a few blocks away. Compare that to my students in Walnut Creek who fly to Paris for spring break.”
If schools evaluate and pay teachers based on their students’ test scores, Perkins thinks, it will hurt rather than help low-income schools. Why on earth, she asks, would somebody volunteer to teach the most challenging students when they could teach in wealthy communities where students score higher? It would drive away qualified, hard-working, experienced teachers where they are most needed, she says.
“If teachers were evaluated based on their test scores, nobody would want to teach here at Nystrom,” she says. “How would they fill teaching positions? There is already a high turnover because it’s a tough place to teach. To me, the tests mostly measure how well a child understands English.”
And that’s precisely why it is so important that the federal Race to the Top regulations don’t mandate that teacher evaluations and salary be based solely on how their students perform on standardized tests, says Perkins.
This year, Perkins is teaching kindergartners. Even though they won’t be tested, there is intense pressure to get them ready for testing in the future. But she does not want to destroy a love of learning in her youngsters, so she incorporates play into learning activities whenever possible.
“I just wish the people making the rules would live in our school for a couple of weeks before they tell me how to do my job,” sighs Perkins. “It frustrates me to no end when they tell me how fast a child — fighting against the odds — should be achieving. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect my students to score high, but it’s unreasonable to expect them to score high under somebody else’s time table with no perception about what is going on in their lives.”
Correlation between travel and academic achievement
A study by the American Resort Development Association found that children who travel over summer break — whether to a beach, historic site or a national park — did better in reading, math and general knowledge than their peers who didn’t vacation.
The study used the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of the Kindergarten Class database from the U.S. Department of Education. The database contains information on 21,600 children followed from kindergarten through fifth grades. This year’s study examined children’s early school experiences as well as family and life experiences, such as summer activities. The parents of a subsample of 5,047 children were asked about summer travel. Academic achievement was measured with a series of standardized tests in the three areas of math, reading and general knowledge.
A series of analyses were conducted to determine the relationship between summer vacation travel and academic achievement in children entering first grade. Specifically, the study explored whether going on a vacation, the number of days spent on a vacation and places visited were linked to academic achievement in the areas of reading, mathematics and general knowledge. The results revealed a significant difference in academic achievement and taking a family summer vacation trip. Children that traveled with their family over summer vacation scored higher on academic achievement assessment tests than those who did not travel. Children who visited plays or concerts, art or science museums, historical sites, beaches or lakes, national or state parks, and zoos or aquariums had significantly higher academic achievement scores than those who did not.
“To date there has never been a study that plainly shows the correlation between travel and academic achievement,” says researcher Jessica Parker, Clemson University. It was interesting to see the impact on a child when they spend vacation time away with their family.
Although the results indicate that summer vacation travel and academic achievement are linked, other factors such as income level, parent’s educational level and language spoken at home may influence these findings.
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