Change is Never Easy: Brewer Elementary, GA

Special thanks to Carol Ann Wood, Brewer Elementary Academic Coach, for her contribution.

Change is never easy and sustained change is particularly difficult. So says the staff at the Brewer Elementary School. The Columbus, Georgia school has been in the process of change for several years. Brewer is a school-wide Title I site with approximately 96% of students on free and/or reduced lunch. The mobility rate is 20% but has fluctuated to as high as 40% in the past. The children live in low-rent housing, subsidized apartments, trailer parks, and small single-family homes. Parents, for the most part, are single, and they are employed in unskilled labor or unemployed.

Since its opening, Brewer Elementary has struggled with low test scores and student underachievement. The school had failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind and had been on the Needs Improvement list for the past several years primarily because of its performance on the Georgia Criterion Referenced Math Test.

It's not that teachers weren't trying. When a new program dealing with reading and math achievement was introduced, teachers implemented it. But, success remained illusive and frustration grew with successive programs. Morale was low for teachers, parents and students. What was at the root of the problem? Essentially teachers were "independent contractors," working in isolation using a number of different approaches and strategies.

This pattern continued until Brewer Elementary embarked on a School Reform Design. Among other things, this reform model gave the faculty a common direction for aligning teaching strategies and efforts into a united approach. They established a data/war room. Teachers met and reflected on areas of concern that they identified using the data. Then they acted.

Exemplars Math emerged as a resource teachers used to bridge the gap in learning that the data had uncovered. It provided opportunities to talk together, examine problems and student work and support math instruction. Holleigh Davis, a second-grade teacher, reported, "It is easy to use, teacher friendly, age appropriate and presents material in a varied and interesting way." Allowing for differentiated instruction to meet the needs of all the students in her class, Mrs. Longstreet, a second-grade teacher, uses Exemplars for her Problem of the Week. Two first-grade teachers, Ann Marie Wiley and Karen Grohman, appreciate Exemplars differing versions of the same problem or concept from simple to more complex, as well as its everyday situations and a "kid friendly" approach students can identify with.

The bottom line is that teachers are on the same page, often on the same problem, talking and analyzing student work together. Exemplars is a tool for teachers to use to teach mathematical concepts. "As a school, we can't claim that Exemplars was the only thing that made a difference in test scores, but it was definitely a benefit for our students and our longitudinal data shows it," reports Jan Grogan, Principal.

Test scores have improved. Brewer Elementary has moved from being a school on the Needs Improvement List to a school named to the Distinguished Schools List.