Marvellous: Marvell-Elaine Elementary Earns an "A"


The following post is a condensed, edited version of an article written by Melissa Brawner and originally published September 2015 in the Arkansas School Board Association's (ASBA) publication Report Card: The Journal of the Arkansas School Boards Association. We are grateful to ASBA for allowing us to share this incredible story. We encourage you to click here to read it in full.

Teachers and administrators in Marvell-Elaine Elementary are hyped after receiving an “A” on the state’s report card last year and becoming an achieving school. Prior to that, it had spent six years on the state’s school improvement list and then became a focus school when the state changed its accountability system.

Marvell-Elaine is not a wealthy district. Of its 200 students, 98 percent come from low-income families. The ethnic breakdown is 80.7 percent African-American, 12.9 percent Caucasian, and 6 percent Hispanic or other. With determination, creativity, and an amazingly dedicated teaching staff and administration, the school is succeeding.

A quick glance at test scores on the Arkansas Department of Education’s website shows fifth grade literacy results rose from 59.5 percent proficient/advanced in 2009-10 to 80 percent proficient/advanced in 2013-14. Third grade math scores moved from 64.9 percent to 93.8 percent proficient/advanced over that time period. Fifth graders’ math scores soared from 51.6 percent to 97.2 percent proficient/advanced.

How is Marvell-Elaine Elementary doing it? It’s a culmination of several factors, including its summer school efforts. This summer between 70-80 students attended – almost half the school’s enrollment. “The biggest thing is that there’s no slide in their reading levels,” said teacher Karen Sefers. “If their literacy level was at a 20 at the end of the year, it may have fallen back to 16 by the time school starts in August. But the ones who have been in the summer school program, they will have maintained or gained where they were. They seem more motivated.”

“And eager,” added Brenda Woodyard, a teacher for 34 years.

After being served breakfast every morning, students stand in a circle to dance, clap, sing and chant encouraging words to build motivation and confidence. “Superintendent Joyce Cottoms gets right in the circle, and she claps with them and gets down on her knees with them, and does all of it, so the kids can see that she’s in there with them. It’s very encouraging,” said math teacher Delores Thrower. Students take turns leading from inside the circle, which Thrower said helps shy ones gain confidence before the school year begins. “Students will say, ‘Mrs. Thrower, we learned this in Freedom School. And this is how we did it,’” she said. The summer learning program owes much of its success to the fact that parents are actively engaged, the program is literacy focused, and there are plenty of field trip opportunities to explore how what students are learning is part of the world they live in.  

The summer program occurs in two phases. The morning program, funded by a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, is more like traditional summer school. Teachers conduct sessions where students focus on math, language, and extra projects involving Spanish, music, physics, and botany lessons.

The second phase, which begins after lunch, is the more relaxed Freedom School, a national program run by the Children’s Defense Fund that is focused entirely on literacy. Students participate in question-and-answer sessions, write poems about what they’ve read, perform skits, or write songs, but there are no paper exams. Classes are taught by college interns and not teachers, and almost all interns graduated from the Marvell-Elaine district themselves.

Student Nitillya Johnson likes summer school better than regular school, “Because it’s fun!” Allyson Nelson, on the other hand, likes both. They enjoy breaking into small groups to do science projects. The two of them excitedly described in great depth a recent experiment involving a tornado.

Eight-year old Joshua Caffey’s favorite part of Freedom School is recess, of course, but he said that the most important thing he’s learned this summer is his multiplication tables. “They explained it to us; then it got fun when I learned more,” he explained.

“I love math!” Ledarius Wilson interrupted, with a voice that’s contagiously enthusiastic. “It’s really good, because we have all the greater than, lesser (than), equal, addition, subtraction, and multiply and division, and there is one more ... um ... there’s like that ‘o’ on the top and that line and that ‘o’ on the bottom ...”

“He’s talking about the percent sign,” said Joshua.