CAIRO — Grady County's elementary schools laid out their plans Tuesday evening for how they intend to improve.

Principals from the three in-town elementary schools appeared before the county Board of Education to discuss their progress and state their goals for improvement.

Over the past two years, Eastside Elementary has been shifting toward a more evidence-based curriculum by using data to create more effective lessons. The shift is part of an overall effort to increase academic rigor.

Though the lessons students learn are becoming more difficult, the school is taking steps to become more consistent in their academic and behavioral expectations for each grade level.

"The content they get is harder, but the way the instruction is delivered will be the same," said Principal Chiquila Wright.

To do that, teachers at Eastside are encouraged to design more engaging, hands-on lessons to ensure their students' interest is kept high.

Staff members also are encouraged to build relationships with students, parents and colleagues.

"Kids don't learn from people they don't feel like them or understand them," Wright said. "That has been a big push for us."

In an effort to build a better school culture, Eastside names a "student of the week" for academic achievers who receive special privileges such as being able to chew gum, wear hats or remove their shoes in the classroom.

Efforts also have been made to increase the use of instructional technology and to get students accustomed to taking assessments online.

"We're preparing our students for their future, and it's going to be riddled in technology," Wright said.

As part of an effort to create a more positive atmosphere at Northside Elementary, students and teachers are being encouraged to think more positively about their academic progress. That affects how teachers approach students who may be struggling to grasp certain concepts.

"It's getting our kids to understand that you may not have it just yet, but just know that you're going to get it," said Principal Cheryl Larkins.

Now entering its third year under Larkins, Northside prioritizes data collection and analysis, which is used to drive classroom instruction.

"We make adjustments on our lessons based on what we find in our data each month," Larkins said.

Collecting data was a major priority in Larkins' first year, and she said teachers are now doing a better job of incorporating that data in their classrooms in year three.

Science and social studies scores were a concern at Northside entering this year, and the school is taking steps to integrate new learning styles for those subjects to help alleviate those anxieties.

For science classes, STEM-style learning is now being incorporated. Similarly, project-based learning is now a priority for social studies classes.

Students at Southside Elementary are showing "substantial" growth on assessments in various subjects, according to Principal Kevin Strickland, and the school is looking at the areas where they've been most effective to identify beneficial strategies.

For one, the school is focusing on improving writing skills by encouraging longer-form responses similar to what would be expected on state assessments. Across the curriculum, students are discouraged from writing one- or two-word answers or incomplete sentences.

"If we get them accustomed to having to do those types of answers then they will rise to the occasion and they will start to do it on every type of assignment that they have," Strickland said.

One of the most frequently discussed topics by parents at Southside has been its challenging new math curriculum.

Strickland said teachers are learning the new curriculum along with students, and sometimes have to deviate from the textbook when children aren't understanding the lesson.

"I have given them the freedom to not necessarily stick by what the book says, but to look and see what is working with those children," Strickland said. "If they're not getting it and we move forward, then we're leaving gaps in their education."

Maintaining a positive school climate has been a priority at Southside, Strickland said. Teacher retention was high over the summer, with only one instructor departing due to retirement.

"I think that speaks strongly of the school climate that we have people wanting to stay," Strickland said.

Among students, efforts have been made to reduce office referrals. A new disciplinary process encourages teachers to speak directly with students and their parents before sending children to the office.

Across the school, classrooms are using new technologies, including interactive monitors, with the goal of increasing student engagement and performance.

School board members had the opportunity to ask the principals questions about their progress. The board members were complimentary of the changes being made across the county.

"I heard some great things," said school board member Teresa Harris. "Some things I knew, some things I didn't."

Fellow board member John White said he was happy to see the principals turn toward data and technology, and he was particularly excited that the curriculum is becoming more rigorous.

"I think that's something that we've kind of gotten away from," he said. "For lack of a better term, we were not demanding enough of our children, so they weren't achieving what we were demanding."

Similar presentations will be made by Washington Middle School and Whigham and Shiver elementary schools in November. Cairo High School will have its own presentation in December.

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