Not many schools can boast about 100% scores in state math testing two years in a row.
Liberty Elementary in Clovis Unified can, and teachers there credit a game for their success with the school's fourth-graders.
"The kids love it," teacher Lori Curtis said. "They are doing the work and they don't realize it."
Liberty is one of only two Valley elementary schools to get 100% scores in consecutive years. Clovis Unified also had several junior high and high school classes achieve consecutive years of proficiency. But those students were academically selected for the seventh-grade algebra, eighth-grade geometry or ninth-grade chemistry and algebra II classes.
Liberty, on the other hand, is a neighborhood school where the fourth-graders have achieved in math what the federal No Child Left Behind law expects of every school, every subject and every student by 2014 – 100% proficiency.
That typically happens in only a handful of classes each year.
"That's the goal for everybody and it's fun to see someone achieve it," said Larry Powell, Fresno County schools superintendent.
He said Liberty's staff seems to have found a blend of teaching practices and collaboration that works.
"When you have a district, school and faculty that work together and parents that are involved, you can make it a reality," Powell said.
Liberty's math success is drawing observers from elsewhere in the district who want to emulate it, said Principal George Petersen.
He is working with Liberty's teachers to put similarly effective methods in place for fifth- and sixth-grade math classes.
It's challenging, he said, because students must learn a larger number of processes after fourth grade. But if other schools start employing some of Liberty's methods, such as mnemonic devices, they may uncover new ways to improve student performance.
One hundred percent proficiency is more common at schools for academically gifted students, such as Fresno Unified's Manchester GATE, which draws from all over the district.
For four straight years, all of Manchester's second-graders have tested as proficient or advanced in math. Before 2011's tests, the second grade also had three straight years of 100% proficient or advanced in English-language arts tests.
"The teachers have good kids to work with who are identified as gifted," said Principal Russ Painter, who credits Manchester's teachers and parents. "It looks like most of the second-graders we get have some brain power."
By comparison, Liberty students come from the surrounding neighborhood, which makes the consecutive years of math achievement even more noteworthy, Petersen said.
The school, a block away from the upscale Champlain and Perrin avenues shopping centers, is in an affluent, tree-lined neighborhood in northeast Fresno. The student body is diverse racially and economically: half are white, 25% are Hispanic and 10% Asian, closely mirroring Clovis Unified. About 24% are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, state records show, the highest percentage among the seven Clovis Unified schools that had Academic Performance Index scores above 940 – Liberty was fourth with a 950. Four years ago, Liberty was tied for 12th with an API of 885. The top API score is 1,000.
Transiency also is an issue. Of its 550 students, Liberty had 65 new students last year – 45 this year – and the school's boundaries have apartments to the south and rental homes nearby. Some students stay for only a year before moving again, Petersen said.
Still, most people who see the neighborhood think of Liberty as a high-end Clovis Unified school.
"When they see that we got '100% proficient and advanced' two years in a row, they kind of brush it off," Petersen said. "But we cater to all types of families. ... We get families that are struggling financially and students who are struggling academically."
Math made easier
It's not just fun and games that led to Liberty's top scores. The staff takes student achievement personally, Petersen said.
"The teacher takes ownership of student failure," he said. "The teachers have to ask themselves what they did wrong and what they need to do to get the child to pass."
If a child doesn't understand a lesson, the teaching methods are adjusted.
"We will reteach the lesson," Petersen said. "We will change how we teach it to meet the child's need."
Teachers on the same grade levels regularly talk with each other – as well as with teachers above and below their grade levels – to make sure they know students, their strengths and their challenges.
Math performance, Petersen said, improves by enforcing students' knowledge of steps to solve a problem, not just finding the correct answer.
That's where the "Math Around the World" game comes in. The game uses a step-by-step process to teach equations. Groups of students vie for team points or blue cards that they can redeem for snacks, a homework pass or items in the classroom store.
Each student works a math problem on a white board. Students pass the boards as their group works through an equation. Each student must get a step of a math equation correct before moving to the next step. If a student does a step incorrectly, the neighbor is expected to note the error, or a teacher walking around the class will point to it.
The final step is checking the answer.
For more help, students can look at wall posters that show the steps – underlining and circling numbers that are being rounded up or down, for example.
"We find that in math, they make a mistake when they skip a step," said fourth-grade teacher Jose Cantu. "Sometimes it could even be writing the equation down wrong."
Students say that repetition keeps them on task, but they also get to have fun.
Emerson Mitchell, a fifth-grader in Melissa Campama's fourth-fifth combination class, said, "After a while she doesn't have to teach it anymore and it seems like a game."
The steps become automatic, said Maya King, Emerson's classmate, "so it stays stuck in our brain."