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Extreme makeover

Just five years ago, Haverhill’s Silver Hill School was told to improve. Now, others seek to learn how it did so.

Eight-year-olds Ryan McCarthy, Naomi Diaz, and Isabella Rozzi use electronic response pads in a third grade class at Haverhill's Silver Hill Horace Mann Charter School. Eight-year-olds Ryan McCarthy, Naomi Diaz, and Isabella Rozzi use electronic response pads in a third grade class at Haverhill's Silver Hill Horace Mann Charter School. (Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
By Brenda J. Buote
Globe Correspondent / February 24, 2011

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The pint-sized pupils in Mrs. Hickey’s second-grade class are squealing. Arms high. Hands waving.

“Pick me, ooh, ooh, pick me,’’ pleads one boy.

The children are clamoring to count pennies. Not with pencil and paper, or even chalk. Traditional teaching tools would not elicit such gales of excitement from children obsessed with Mario Kart and other video games. In Sue Hickey’s class, the children are itching to write on Mobi interactive whiteboards, laptop tablets about the size of an iPad. At Silver Hill Horace Mann Charter School in Haverhill, digital instruction has made mastering even the most mundane math problems fun.

“In the past, when we did word problems, the students would say ‘ugh,’ ’’ said Hickey. “Now, with the Mobis, they’re on the edge of their seats. When I ask for a volunteer, all the hands go up.’’

Using technology to get kids excited about math is just one of many ways education at Silver Hill has changed since the school was transformed three years ago. In 2006, after being ordered by state and federal officials to take corrective action for failing to meet federal standards for student achievement for at least two consecutive years, educators embraced the idea of converting the school into a Horace Mann charter school, freeing teachers there from many typical classroom restrictions. By the fall of 2008, the proposal had evolved from concept to reality.

The new approach to class lessons, coupled with an influx of federal funding and a multi-year restructuring plan, has inspired student success. The state’s education commissioner, hoping innovative alternatives to traditional public schools will bolster student performance in districts with the lowest test scores on standardized tests, last week endorsed 17 of 23 pending charter school applications, including charters in Chelsea, Lawrence, and Salem.

At Silver Hill, students have made obvious gains on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assess ment System exam, particularly in the last year, following the introduction of the Mobi whiteboards and other interactive teaching tools. In English Language Arts, for example, 79 percent of students at the school are progressing toward proficiency, compared with 73 percent in 2009. In mathematics, 71 percent of the students are moving toward proficiency, compared with 64 percent in 2009.

“Before converting from a district elementary school to a Horace Mann charter, we were in imminent danger of being taken over by the state, and we had some of the worst MCAS scores in the city,’’ said principal Euthemia Gilman, who said many students were stumped by basic counting, addition, and subtraction problems. And although fifth-graders are still struggling to move toward proficiency in math, educators at Silver Hill are encouraged by the gains seen in the lower grades. The failure rate for third-graders fell from 16 to 11 percent between 2006 and 2010; for fourth-graders, it was more pronounced, from 25 to 16 percent.

Gilman credits the school’s gains to its conversion. “Now, we’re seeing steady improvement. As a charter, we have a great deal of flexibility. When we needed help teaching writing, we went and got professional development. When aspects of our math system weren’t working, we looked at how we could improve it. And when we needed technology, we went out and examined our options and got the devices we needed.’’

The improvements have made Silver Hill, one of seven Horace Mann charter schools in Massachusetts, a poster child for the Horace Mann model. The school will showcase its game plan at a professional development conference April 30. Sponsored by eInstruction, the company that manufactures the whiteboards and other interactive devices used at Silver Hill, the conference will show other educators how to integrate technology into their classrooms.

“Silver Hill is like a family that works,’’ said Dana Maher, a third-grade teacher who has worked at the school since 1998. “We’ve gone through ups and downs together, and emerged stronger. Kids want to be here. Parents are involved. I see more parents in the building now than ever before.’’

Under the Horace Mann model, Silver Hill remains a public school, operating under a charter approved by the School Committee and the local teachers union. However, management of the school now rests with the educators there, rather than the district’s central office. The new oversight structure puts the teachers firmly in charge, able to perform duties that had been prohibited by their union contract.

Students now receive more individual tutoring. Teachers have access to training programs that once were out of reach due to budget constraints, thanks to federal money not available to traditional public schools, including a $550,000 federal start-up grant. And every classroom is equipped with the eInstruction technology, including the Mobi whiteboards and CPS Pulse student response pads, handheld “clickers’’ that closely resemble television remotes.

“I love the clickers. They’re really easy to use and they make class a lot more fun,’’ said Eion Kenney, a 9-year-old student in Kim Perez’s third-grade class. “Now, I can see how many kids got the same answer as me.’’

The technology is giving every child at Silver Hill, no matter how shy, a voice in the classroom. From the comfort of their desks, students respond to in-class or exam questions; teachers receive response data immediately and can modify instruction as needed. No more waiting to grade worksheets or end-of-unit exams to gauge student comprehension.

“The kids have become like assistant professors,’’ said Maher. “One child might do the addition or subtraction example using the Mobi, then pass it to another child to correct. As an educator, to be able to step back and watch the kids go through the inquiry process, learn on their own, and take charge using the tools we have for them, it’s amazing. . . . We can’t compete with the [video] games they have at home, but the Mobis are very similar to Wii Draw, so the kids are bringing in the skills they have and teaching us.’’

The school’s transformation is all the more impressive because nearly half of the children educated at Silver Hill live in families below the government poverty line; 17 percent have special education needs, and 6 percent speak a language other than English as their primary language, Gilman said. The topics taught in the classroom have not changed, just the way they’re taught.

“We’re pleased to see the charter school succeed,’’ said Haverhill Superintendent Jim Scully, who has long supported the charter school model. “Mrs. Gilman has done a good job. Ideally, we would like to extrapolate from Silver Hill’s successful programs things that can be introduced for the rest of the city’s student population.’’

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.

Onward, upward
Student performance on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam has been on the rise since Haverhill’s Silver Hill School changed its teaching methods in 2008.
Percentage of students moving toward proficiency