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At Grabiarz School of Excellence in Buffalo, high expectations and rigor breed success

Principal Gregory D. Mott apologizes as he escorts a visitor through the Grabiarz School of Excellence. ¶ The students are a “little hyper” today. It’s Halloween, and a Friday to boot. To top it off, the school is wrapping up spirit week, with special activities throwing the students off their usual schedule. ¶ But what Mott considers disruption would be a good day at most schools. The hallways – all immaculately clean – are silent. Students pass by in neat, orderly lines. In classrooms, children seem focused on learning. ¶ Even a parade of kindergartners with Halloween masks moves through with little disruption, stealing only a few precious moments as it moves through the classrooms. ¶ “OK, back to work,” teacher Jessica Mandell tells her fourth-grade students after the last little one leaves her room. ¶ Following her cue, the students turn their attention back to their assignment. ¶ It’s the simplest thing, but Mott believes the pre-K through eighth grade school’s success starts with structure.

Every minute spent in transition between classes or getting settled in the morning could be spent learning.

Structure and routine are among the strategies from Mott’s playbook for turning one of Buffalo’s most struggling schools into one of its most successful. Except for the district’s Discovery School, which performed better in reading, the percentage of Grabiarz students deemed proficient in both reading and math lagged behind only a few charter schools and those with special admissions criteria.

The elementary school also fared well at individual grade levels, ranking 16th out of about 80 schools in Erie County for sixth-grade math, surpassing the Amherst, East Aurora and Hamburg school districts. It ranked in the top 30 out of about 110 schools for fourth-grade math, surpassing the same districts.

And that success comes at a school where 94 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and about 27 percent have disabilities. Its proportion of poor students is among the highest in the district.

Mott’s formula for success is straight forward: maximizing time for instruction, reinforcing math and reading skills across all subject areas and giving students an extra dose of those key subjects every day with a period devoted to individualized instruction.

The principal acknowledges his school still has a long way to go. Even with its top Buffalo rankings, the percentage of students proficient in reading and in math is just 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively, underscoring the difficulty schools all over the state have had adjusting to the tougher Common Core standards. Throughout all Erie County school districts, just 30 percent of students were deemed proficient in reading and just 34 percent in math.

Still, Grabiarz students overall are making substantial gains. At some grade levels, student proficiency increased by double-digit percentage points between 2013 and 2014.

The students’ success in these early grades sets them up to do well in the future. Research consistently reinforces the importance of student achievement in the early years, which lays the foundation for high school and beyond.

“Greg Mott talks about Grabiarz being a model for turning around schools, and the district should take that seriously,” Buffalo School Board President James Sampson said. “Why not look at what the district is already doing that can be replicated?”

Targeted approach

The students in Chandra Cheek’s fourth-grade math class are learning to convert kilograms into grams. Cheek first stands at the front of the room guiding her students through a problem on the smart board while students chant the steps in unison.

“Cross out the 3, make it a 2,” they say in a rhythmic melody. “Cross out the 5, make it a 15.”

Cheek posts a word problem and calls on three students to come to the front of the room to solve it. The rest of the class works on it individually.

As in most classrooms, Cheek walks around making sure the students working independently get the right answers. But what’s different here is that another teacher, Maria Pluchino, walks around the room, as well. As the school’s math coach, she spends time in classes giving struggling students extra assistance.

That targeted instruction starts at the beginning of the year, when teachers and staff assess students. It is typical for students to backslide during summer vacation, so the early testing allows teachers to see where students fell behind.

“You have to start Day 1,” Mott said.

That analysis continues throughout the year, as teachers work with math and reading coaches, including Pluchino, to evaluate students and target areas where they need assistance.

They constantly review graphs and charts that detail their students’ performance, down to the specific areas where students struggle with each lesson. They look for trends and come up with plans to ensure students progress. The performance trends can change by the day.

For example, last school year Grabiarz students struggled with assessment questions that involved writing. So this year teachers in all subject areas are incorporating more writing into their lessons.

Pluchino knows which students in Cheek’s room need help by the way the room is arranged: Struggling students are at tables in the middle, including one in the front of the room. As Pluchino walks around, she makes sure those students get extra attention.

The groups change as the year goes on and students master lessons at different rates. It’s so fluid the students aren’t even aware that table assignment has to do with their strengths and weaknesses.

Students also benefit from an extra 90-minute period dedicated to reading and math intervention. Teachers group their students based on the skills they need to learn and spend the time working with them in small groups to maximize individual attention.

All students participate. Those who struggle get extra remedial help, while more-advanced students such as Hannah Jones receive more difficult material to continue challenging them.

Hannah walks studiously through the hallways carrying a pile of textbooks, papers and notebooks. She might be an accountant when she grows up. Or her math skills might lead to a career in engineering. She and another boy in her seventh-grade class maintain a friendly competition for the top scores on tests and homework assignments.

For last year’s state math assessment, Hannah took the title. She earned a perfect score.

She credits her teachers and fellow classmates.

“They got me a lot of personal attention,” Hannah said. “It helps because I get more practice.”

Another math aficionado, fifth-grader Adam Galante, tends to be quiet. He loves art and enjoys activities that allow him to use his artistic talents to solve math problems, such as drawing diagrams or color-coding sets of numbers.

“Math is my favorite subject,” Adam said. “It’s almost like solving your own puzzle.”

Reading, however, is a different story. As state testing approached last school year, Adam worried he would fail the reading exam. He sets high expectations for himself and was anxious he would not meet them. With his parents’ permission, he wanted to opt out of the test.

But Mott had confidence.

The principal called Adam’s mother to talk about their concerns, and with her consent spoke with Adam.

“I was afraid,” Adam said. “Mr. Mott had faith in me, though. He said I’d do good and I trusted him. I knew he’d make the right decision.”

Adam took the test, and earned the fourth-highest score of all of his classmates.

Laying the groundwork

Principal Mott arrives a little later than usual today. He rarely takes time off from work because every minute here matters. But today is his daughter’s birthday. He decides to sneak away for 30 minutes to take her to breakfast.

Mott, who arrives at school looking polished in a suit coat and tie, glasses perched on his nose, can do that because he knows his staff will keep the school running, following the structure and routine he spent years developing.

What happens in the classrooms at Grabiarz today follows years of research, planning and refining.

The district recruited Mott, 43, to open the school four years ago, bringing him on after Grabiarz had consistently failed to meet state standards. District leaders merged what was then a middle school with the former Campus West – where students also struggled – for a combined pre-K-8 school that would debut in 2011.

The school building, which was built in 2000, sits on the corner of Lawn Avenue in North Buffalo. Students enter into a sweeping indoor courtyard dotted with trees. The tiled floors are spotless. Student artwork hangs from a second story breezeway. There is a case displaying a letter from local World War II hero Pfc. William J. Grabiarz, for whom the school is named.

School turnarounds are never easy. Mott knew he needed to set a clear plan for improving performance, and convince teachers, parents and students that – working together – they could do it.

He started team-building activities, tours of the school and a summer retreat for incoming students. He became not just the school’s principal, but its primary promoter. His enthusiasm was contagious. Soon, teachers were meeting at coffee shops on weekends to develop lesson plans and programs.

“I felt like I went back to school,” said Mandell, the fourth-grade teacher who is also a member of the school leadership team.

The new combined school started with roughly half the number of students and staff of the two old schools. That allowed Mott to be selective in hiring. He picked people who bought into his mission and were willing to collaborate well together across grade levels and subjects. Those teachers were also willing to get additional training that would enable them to be successful in the classroom.

Mott even embraced the Common Core, the tough set of learning standards that raised the bar for the skills students needed to master at each grade level. As many schools and districts delayed preparing for the Common Core, Mott traveled to Albany to learn about the new standards. Back in Buffalo, he studied hundreds of pages of materials, including the standards themselves, potential lesson plans and data on his students’ performance.

He used that information to organize professional development for teachers, several of whom volunteered to pilot an early roll-out so they could work out the kinks before their colleagues brought the new standards into their classrooms.

By the time the school opened its doors in September 2011, Mott and his team were ready.

Living the challenge

Mott knows the challenges growing up in the inner city.

Raised in a single-parent home on Buffalo’s East Side, he saw his mother work hard to help him and his four siblings succeed. He attended Buffalo Public Schools, and by the time he was a freshman at Kensington High School had made one key choice – he wanted better for himself and his family.

“A lot of the elements that inner-city kids may face, they were there,” the principal said of his own childhood. “You’re faced with some tough choices. You have to make decisions.”

“I can remember this as clear as I’m speaking to you right now,” he added. “Standing there on the street getting ready to enter Kensington, I knew right then I was going to college.”

Mott was accepted to seven different colleges and choose SUNY Buffalo State because staying close to home was comfortable. Toward the end of his undergraduate years, he took a few education classes.

“I was good at it,” he said. “I like information and learning. And you can have an impact on kids. It was rewarding for me to be able to reach back and help those who did not have the same opportunities as me.”

After graduation, he started as a sub in the Buffalo Public Schools. His first permanent job was part time as a social studies teacher. Years away from a more stable post, he left the classroom for a full-time job as a school attendance officer, working with some of the district’s most troubled students – those who were habitually truant.

Over the years, the district moved him from building to building, often times to put out fires or calm brewing troubles, including racial tensions.

His first principal job was at the district’s alternative high school.

Mott wanted to create more options for troubled students to finish high school through GED or job training programs. The idea never made it through the school bureaucracy. But Mott walked away with a determination: Get to kids before they get in trouble.

“How do you prevent a youngster from getting to that stage?” he said. “How do you create an environment in the school and provide the necessary support they may not have at home?”

“When you talk about students who were in the juvenile system and the criminal system, let’s reach them while they’re impressionable in their primary years,” he added. “I wanted to go back and put all my energy into reaching them earlier.”

Culture of expectations

Mott sets the same standards for his school and his students as he did for himself. “It starts with a culture of high expectations,” he said.

A lot of students will give excuses.

“But I have been there,” he said. “I know with self-motivation and high expectations, you can raise your status.”

Mott rattles off educational best practices when talking about Grabiarz’s success, his voice crisp and authoritative. He reads at least one article every day from education journals or newspapers to keep up with the latest research and trends.

When presented with a problem, he takes a few minutes to assess potential hurdles before presenting a solution. He carries on conversations about different education models while simultaneously researching additional information about them on his computer.

“A lot of it is really personal drive,” Mott said. “I wanted to be an African-American administrator who was always perceived as an intellectual. As studious in his practices.”

From the moment the buses arrive, Mott’s expectations are evident. The busloads of students are released one at a time, and the children know to head straight to the classroom. Teachers guide prekindergartners in the right direction so they aren’t aimlessly wandering the hallways.

“At 10:30 in the morning on opening day, kids were in their seats learning,” Sampson, the board president, said of a visit to the school. “There was no chaos.”

While structure maximizes learning time, teachers seize extra opportunities to reinforce skills. They use flash cards to review math problems as students wait in line for dismissal.

Teachers across all subject areas – from art and library to physical education – collaborate to reinforce key skills in their classrooms. The art teacher incorporates vocabulary words and mathematical measurements into lessons. During one recent lesson, students created their own artistic rendition of different scientific biomes.

“I’m always asking ‘What can I do?’ ” said art teacher Jan Dylewski. “Who can we work with?”

Many teachers, including Mandell, work the after-school program so they can build on skills they presented during the regular school day.

On Halloween, some teachers dressed as “word walls” – a strategy schools use that involves displaying vocabulary words to reinforce them to students. A sign that reads “disobedient” hung from a string around Pluchino’s neck. Simi lar words were attached to her appendages.

“I didn’t pick my word,” jokes Pluchino, a member of the school leadership team.

The payoff, however, makes it worthwhile.

“The more they see it, the more they’ll get it,” Pluchino said.

A potential model?

For Mott and his staff, school success is not rocket science. Which then begs the question: Why isn’t every school doing it?

Those on the outside point to another element of Grabiarz’s success: Mott’s leadership.

He is a regular presenter at School Board meetings, where he enthusiastically reports his students’ progress and strategies that could be replicated in other buildings.

He also shows up at meetings when he is not on the agenda, including one where the board recognized students who earned perfect scores on the New York State standardized assessments. He beamed from the back of the room, applauding Hannah.

He even made an impression on one first-grader, who showed up at school on “dress for success” day in a suit and tie. The young man told his teacher he wanted to be like Mr. Mott.

Mott has also caught the eye of state Education Department leaders, who recently visited the school to observe and meet with teachers.

He is the school’s main cheerleader, Pluchino says, rallying staff around his goals and his mission. Not every school has a leader who can do that, she said.

“He has higher standards,” she said. “But we’re all here because we want to get there.”

Even the students.

Mott sits at a conference room table meeting with a “focus group” of students. The group meets periodically throughout the year to discuss issues at the school. Today, he wants their feedback on how Grabiarz could be better.

One student wants French classes. Another more field trips. One boy actually suggests more homework. Some want Grabiarz to add grade levels so they can remain there for high school.

Mott looks pensive as he jots their ideas down in a notebook.

In many respects, this principal is at the top of his game.

But he does not take that for granted. The man who graduated in the top 10 percent of his college class quickly realized it would take hard work to stay there.

You can not be an educator who sits at your desk and say ‘I’ve arrived,’ ” he said. “I think that’s one of the biggest problems I see in the schools. Some principals, they have that sense that they’ve arrived, and they get to the point where they stop improving.”

Strategies for success

Mott believes many of the strategies he brought to the school – structure, data-driven instruction and collaboration among teachers across subject areas – could easily be replicated in other places.

Some of his ideas could also be taken a step further.

Although Mott was given some flexibility when he hired his staff, teachers are now subject to the same contractual guidelines and seniority rules that drive hiring and placement throughout the district. Because staffing is driven by seniority, Grabiarz teachers with fewer years in the system may get moved to other schools if the district shuffles positions. Already this year, the school lost a critical member of its leadership team through the transfer process.

Allowing principals hiring flexibility would require changes to the union contract.

Introducing best practices at other schools also will require additional training for teachers in areas such as using data to drive instruction and understanding the Common Core. Mott designed his own teachers’ professional development around what they would need to know to implement the Common Core standards in their classrooms, but that would need to be replicated districtwide.

District leaders also may want to use student performance data to hold principals accountable, and determine what areas they need improvement.

Sustainability is also important, which is why Mott has appointed and groomed a leadership team. Any one of them could easily step in if Mott ever moved into another position.

Mott also worries that as the school does better, it may lose funding targeted to help improve performance. That may force him to cut resources. Schools that are identified as needing improvement receive extra funding to assist with their turnaround efforts. If they improve enough to be removed from the state list, they lose that extra funding.

For now, though, the focus is to continue building on success. Mott even talks about expanding the school through the twelfth grade since quality high school choices in the city are limited. That would allow the staff at Grabiarz to build on the foundation they set in earlier grades.

But for now, he and his team won’t let that stop them.

After all, nothing else has.

“This is how we get the results,” Mott said. “You’ve got to allow schools to continue with what is working. And you’ve got to take some risks.”