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Portsmouth’s New Franklin Elementary School gets results by eliminating the distractions and concentrating on learning

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I’m with George Shea, New Franklin’s principal since 2005, and we have just dropped into a classroom where a half dozen 4th graders are sitting at a low table with their teacher, learning that if you multiply a number by a fraction, the resulting number is smaller.  Back in the hallway, we steer around Jeremy and his reading specialist sitting against the wall with a book of historical fiction in which Jeremy’s copy has yellow stickies in every direction to indicate words he didn’t know or anything else important, like key points in the story or his thoughts about what was coming next.

We pass a 5th grade boy going with his teacher to toss a ball for five minutes. Then one of the smaller kids is purposefully carrying out his assignment to lug this heavy backpack down to Ms. Roberts at the other end of the hall.  They’re both on  “motor breaks,” and then return ready to sit down and concentrate again.

writing about the revolution

Writing about the Revolutionary War

We drop in on a classroom filled with 5th graders on computers writing “persuasive” essays about the Revolutionary War. The teacher checks in over their shoulders commenting and helping them sharpen their conclusions.

Then two teachers appear, each with an arm under one of a little boy’s shoulders.  They are holding Peter, a kindergartener, just off the ground as they walk calmly but quickly down the hall.  He’s calm too.  George, the principal, is concerned but says that a dozen of his teachers are trained in what’s called “Therapeutic Crisis Intervention,” a method of de-escalating and heading off behavioral issues before they get out of hand.  It gets to this level maybe several times each school year.  Half an hour later when we walk by his classroom, Peter is reading happily on the floor with his teacher and a classmate.

New Franklin is a “Title I school,” meaning that it gets extra federal support to reach children at risk of failing.  About 36% of New Franklin students are qualified for the federal free and reduced lunch program.  In years past, New Franklin’s scores in state-wide tests did indeed reflect the challenges faced by the low income neighborhoods they serve. But recently, the improvements have been dramatic.

Eighty six percent of New Franklin students are now proficient in math and 91% are proficient in reading. Those are amazing numbers. And the school has done it the hard way. While high achievers’ scores have improved, New Franklin has at the same time been closing the gap between low income students and the best performers. Seventy six percent of low income kids are now proficient in math and 78% are proficient in reading.

The accomplishments of New Franklin and many New Hampshire public schools are taking place in the midst of an acrimonious national debate about the future of American public education.  Broadly stated, proponents of “education reform” say something like this:

“Our public schools are underperforming compared to our own expectations and our international competitors.  To improve our schools’ performance, as measured by their scores on standardized tests, we will hold teachers and schools accountable for their students’ performance.  We will fire low performing teachers and close low performing schools.  We will promote charter schools both to foster competition that will lead to improved public education and as an alternative  in failing school districts.”

That paragraph would also serve as a basic summary of the Obama administration education policy.  “School choice” advocates, led by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and others, accept that framework as well, but extend it by asserting that public schools cost too much, that teachers’ unions are a fundamental obstacle to high performance and that private school vouchers, often funded by state tax credits, must be part of the solution.  In states like Louisiana and Indiana where this vision has been most fully implemented, the result have been a shift of resources out of the public schools and into private schools and privately managed charter schools.

In addition, the administration supports adoption of the Common Core State Standards, developed by the National Governors’ Association, as a national guide for curriculum development and assessment of student achievement. Support for Common Core is New Hampshire state policy as well.

There is heated debate over every element of the education reform proposition but there is one point of agreement just under the surface: While the United States does a good job of educating high income children, we do not do well with low and middle income kids.  The problem is described well by Stanford’s Sean Reardon in this New York Times OpEd and a recent Nashua Telegraph story addresses the same issue.

New Franklin is a classic example of a school that should be struggling.  Most of its students are from low and moderate income families.   Its teachers are represented by the largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association.  And it  is overhauling its curriculum to align with New Hampshire’s version of the Common Core standards.  

But, as the test scores show, New Franklin must be reaching most every child in the school.  What strikes you right away is that this is not a school where one size fits all. Each child looks to be engaged in her own way.  There are 16 classroom teachers, 4 specialists, 3 special ed teachers for 275 students in grades K-5.  Most classrooms have about 17 students (20 per class in the 3rd grade).  As you go from classroom to classroom, you see learning happening in every corner of every room. In fact, I never did see a teacher standing up front talking at her students.

Many other New Hampshire schools are on the same path and getting good results.  So the question is, “How is that happening?”  There seem to be several factors that lead to the enveloping atmosphere at New Franklin.

Remove the obstacles

When you ask George Shea what’s going on, he does not have a pat answer.  He says he came to a good school with good, dedicated teachers and he sees it as his task to eliminate as many obstacles to learning as he can.

For instance, there are very few committees.  He holds a monthly staff meeting, but has replaced most other administrative meetings with emails.  Teachers have almost no meetings that are not focused on the kids.

He tries to organize the school day so that every possible minute is focused on learning, “Whisk them in in the morning.  Teach through all the nooks and crannies.  Avoid the weird down times,” he says.

They try to remove hunger as an issue.  Kids come early for breakfast.  Bowls of cherry tomatoes were out waiting for the lucky fourth graders who get to take them around to all the other kids as a mid-morning snack.  A church brings 40 bags of food every Friday to go home with the kids for the weekend.

They try to make school a safe place.  As George Shea says, “Children bring in a lot of backstory every day.”  He and the staff try to make coming to school like crossing a line into an orderly realm where the kids understand the rules and expectations.  There might be trouble and uncertainty at home – and the guidance counselor, teachers and social service agencies will look for ways to help – but they are trying to make school a place where the kids know to leave all that behind and focus on learning.

Connect with the families.

The goal is for parents – and grandparents and at least one great-grandmother – to feel that the school is on their child’s side and to have a sense of how they can help the school help their child.

New Franklin staff uses any excuse to get out to the neighborhoods.  They hold parent teacher conferences in the community center rather than the school.  There might be math or literacy nights that engage the kids with their parents in games.  They’ll usually bring snacks or pizzas along.

A parent who’s hard to reach might find a teacher dropping by to discuss her child’s progress or suggest reading to the kindergartener in the evening.

Transportation is a hurdle for many New Franklin families.  Maybe there’s no car in the family, or it’s not reliable, or it costs too much to run.  Public transportation turns a 10 minute trip into an hour each way, making attendance at school events a challenge.  But if a parent can’t afford to drive her child to practice on a field across town,  someone will get her a gas card.

If there are parents who haven’t been able to connect with the school, the staff figures out why and tries to wrap them in.

Support the teachers

As you drop into classrooms, you see confident teachers watching the kids’ reactions and responding. These are not quiet orderly classrooms.  Kids are in a circle on the floor, now at the tables, now doing an exercise, teacher helping here and then there.

was my estimate right

Determining whether my estimate was right

But a pattern emerges. The work is divided into units that each teacher has designed, perhaps like the one on how to write a persuasive essay.  At each grade level there are 9-10 big units of study in which the teacher explains a concept, the kids practice it.  Frequent short tests allow the teacher to assess how well the concepts are taking hold and where the weak points are. The kids who are ready for the next step, take it. Those who need more practice do that.

This takes a lot of planning, much of which teachers must do at home.  But they come in early, at 7:30, one day a week, to meet for an hour about specific children or more generally about “What do we want kids to know and are they learning it?  If not, what are we going to do about it?”

Planning time is set aside during the day as well.  Each teacher has a daily 45 minute block to plan, or replan, these lesson units, sometimes in collaboration with other teachers in the same grade.

Evaluations and accountability come from George Shea’s frequent classroom visits and feedback based on periodic observations.  And the teachers are accountable to each other for their roles on the team.

But what about testing?  Over the past 10 years, the annual assessment tests have taken on a pivotal role in evaluating not only student progress but their educators’ effectiveness as well.  Tests have come to be used in a punitive fashion, serving as the basis for firing teachers and closing schools.   As a result, in many schools with low scores, usually because they have a lot of poor kids,  teachers have started to take the shortcut and teach to the test.  At minute 7:00 of this video, for instance, the teacher is not talking about how exciting the upcoming math and literature lessons will be, but is trying to get the students’ buy-in to test performance and teacher job security.

 New Franklin teachers do use the annual New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests as a management tool, a measure of their students’ progress.  They said they take the annual NECAP test seriously as one measure of their teaching but,  in these lively classrooms, it is clear that teachers are teaching, not drilling students for a test.

Converting to Common Core Standards

New Hampshire adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010, adapting the standards to New Hampshire’s needs (here).  New Franklin and schools throughout New Hampshire are planning more of their lesson units to meet these new standards, which may be more explicit and detailed than they have ever had before.  

Although most industrial countries have national curriculum standards, this is the first such effort in the United States and it’s become controversial, criticized as inflexible, top-down, one-size-fits-all and wrong.  However, the controversy seems less relevant when you see the New Franklin teachers integrate the new standards into their teaching.

The  5th grade writing standard is one example.  While developing the national standards was a complex process, the result is a straightforward statement that a fifth grade student should be able to do three kinds of writing by the end of the year: write a persuasive opinion essay, write an essay that explains and write a narrative about a real or imagined experience.  He will have been working on more elementary forms of this since the first grade.  (You can see how the writing challenge progresses from grade to grade on pages 19 and 20, here)

The standards are “competencies” – statements about what the student should be able to do.  There are measurable goals but the actual teaching strategy is left to the schools and teachers.  Future tests should be able to determine how well students have done in reaching that goal (though the testing approach is controversial too).

You can see all this taking root as New Franklin implements the 5th grade writing standard.  When I dropped in, both Ian Fleischer’s and Angela Manning–Welch’s classes were working on their persuasive essays.  Here is the Common Core writing standard for the fifth grade opinion pieces:

5th grade writing standard 1

Common Core State Standard, Fifth Grade Writing, #1

Teacher Angela Manning –Welch’s lesson plan is reflected in a flip chart in one of the rooms:

  • Intro:
    • Stated claim
    • Hook – Question, connection to audience, facts, humor
    • Vocabulary – hints about your 3 focus para’s.
  • Focus Para’s
    • clear facts
    • vocabulary
    • evidence
    • flow
    • addresses opponents’ arguments
  • Conclusion
    • reminds of claim
    • sums it all up
    • connects
    • emotion

I asked the Angela how it feels to be moving toward Common Core standards.  

“It’s overwhelming, of course, because it’s a big shift” she said matter-of-factly.  “It’s been interesting, though, to watch the kids step up to the level of deeper thinking that we’re asking them to do.  We’ve done persuasive writing in the past but this is the first time it’s been research based.  

“In this particular project, we started with debating, on two different teams.  After that it just progressed.  I didn’t have to say, ‘Now let’s do a research-based writing project.’  The kids said, ‘Let’s research something,’ and decided on ‘Do fast food restaurants cause obesity?’  They’re writing this essay together as teams.  The next one they’ll do alone.”

Later, she says to the kids:

“Let’s meet back here at 11:00 – how long is that? [ discussion, looking at the clock….Consensus: 22 minutes] And what I’d like you to do is, finish your conclusion if you haven’t.  Read over your piece – you’re really editing now – you’re going to look for good mechanics. Think about the paragraph activity we did at the end of the day yesterday, where you changed some of your sentence beginnings to be more interesting…Most importantly, I want you to dig out that rubric that we wrote at the beginning and give yourself a score.”

New Franklin teachers are clearly making good progress implementing the Common Core standards and are invested in the material they are developing.  Angela summed it up:

“Our teachers are saying, “Ok. This is a standard that we have to teach and we’re going to make it applicable to our students so it’s meaningful. How can we make it best for kids’ learning? The bigger things that are coming out of Common Core are that the thinking required will benefit these kids.

When it comes to testing, that will take care of itself.”

A note about the role of money
Money is central to the debate about privatizing public education.  The opener is, “Our schools cost much more than 40 years ago, but get no better results.”  The punchline is, “Charters and vouchers for private schools are cheaper and get better results.”  None of that is actually true.  What is true is that poor kids are graduating at higher rates today because the federal government has made a large investment in them through the Title I program.
You see that investment at work in New Franklin. Five teachers are paid with Title I funds – reading and math specialists who work with kids at risk of failure in school and help them escape their fate. Recently, Title I has been overlaid with bad education policy, first No Child Left Behind and, now, Race to the Top.  But you can see that, fundamentally, the effort to balance the scales – give poor kids a better chance – plays an important role in New Franklin’s success.
Nationally, education reformers push to replace community schools in low income neighborhoods with privately run schools and individual choice.   In New Hampshire, this every-family-for-itself approach has not taken hold, partly because community schools like New Franklin are demonstrating how they can reach the hardest to reach kids.  New Franklin is a particularly important community institution in its low income neighborhoods because it can pull in parents, social service agencies, volunteers and anyone who can help the kids learn.
But it’s hard to do.  When it works, it’s because teachers and principals approach education as a mission – and because the union local and administrators have established a collaborative atmosphere where teachers feel supported.
That appears to be working at New Franklin.  As one kindergarten teacher explained her approach to me between questions from 20 little people, one wanting to know whether he could have a second apple and another whether she could go on to the next book, she gave me a look and said,

“I love what I do.”


  1. Scott Marion says:

    Nice, inspirational story. It’s clear that the school is guided by a real instructional leader!

  2. Jeanne Moynahan says:

    Great story about the elementary school that two of my grandchild attend!

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