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Levi Elementary principal explains her recipe for outsized reading test score gains

Students at Levi Elementary School won tickets to a Memphis Grizzlies game for posting the largest reading test score gains in the district.
Students at Levi Elementary School won tickets to a Memphis Grizzlies game for posting the largest reading test score gains in the district.
Shelby County Schools

When the Memphis Grizzlies tip off against New Orleans on Dec. 11, hundreds of students and teachers from Levi Elementary School will be in the arena.

The school won the tickets by posting the largest gains in Shelby County on Tennessee’s state reading test this year. At a time when scores across the district and state actually fell, Levi students saw their scores rise by 15 points, making them the winner of a challenge that Shelby County Schools chief Dorsey Hopson issued last year.

Principal Janice Tankson— who has led Levi since 2008 — knew that Levi had nabbed the most-improved slot months ago. But students and most teachers found out only on Thursday, when the Grizzlies mascot surprised them during a pep rally at the Southwest Memphis school.

“It was electric,” Tankson said of the mood in the school’s gym. “It’s nice to be appreciated and for someone to celebrate your accomplishment.”

Tankson said a number of changes at the school had driven its score increase, which brought the proportion of students meeting the state’s proficiency bar in reading to 40 percent, about 7 points above the district average. The gains came during a year when the school absorbed nearly 100 additional students from nearby Graves Elementary School, which the district closed in 2014.

They also came shortly after the school posted the lowest-possible score on the state’s measure of academic growth. “We were really devastated, and we had to have some reflection time,” Tankson said. “I went looking for teachers [and] I sold them on what you can do at a school like Levi if you just come.”

One important change, Tankson said, was the school’s participation in Shelby County’s blended learning initiative, which gave tablet computers to every student to use during the school day. (To avoid making students into targets for robberies, the school did not let them take the tablets home.) The school used the tablets to expose students to programs in various subjects, including ones that focused on vocabulary growth and another one made by the education company Pearson.

“We had access to education in your hands and we took advantage of that.” she said.

Tankson said it also helped that many teachers opted to tutor students before school, after school, and during lunch — without additional pay. “I would dare not say you have to,” she said. But “they felt like they wanted to get more bang for the buck.”

And she said the school worked to get students excited about succeeding on the state test, rewarding them for success in their classes and on practice tests along the way with prizes that included not wearing the uniforms on Fridays. As a result, Tankson said, “you had students who were changing their mindset about this test.”

This year, the school is taking its focused approach to test preparation even further, adopting a curriculum produced by McGraw-Hill, the company that is producing Tennessee’s new state exams.

“The test is changing,” Tankson said. “And we have to change the way we are teaching.”

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