Donald Spence, Dingess Elementary School’s principal, said other than the old railroad tunnel, the community has few landmarks: the local churches, the gas station/service garage and his school.
“There’s nothing here,” he said.
Of course, Dingess Elementary is nothing to be ashamed of: 76 percent of the school’s third-graders and 79 percent of fourth-graders ranked “proficient” on their WESTEST 2 reading test. On the mathematics test, 79 percent of third-graders and 75 percent of fourth-graders were proficient. Compare that to the statewide test data.
According to state Department of Education data, 68 percent of all tested third-graders ranked proficient -scoring at or above “mastery” - in reading and language arts, and 64 percent of fourth-graders ranked that high. On the math portion, 64 percent of West Virginia fourth-graders and 66 percent of third-graders had “proficient” scores. And even though last year’s WESTEST 2 was intentionally more rigorous than the previous year’s WESTEST, causing many schools’ scores to drop, Dingess Elementary’s scores improved.
In 2008, 72 percent of students were proficient in reading and 74 percent received proficient rankings in math. What makes those test scores even more astounding is the income levels of most of the families that send their children to the school. About 88 percent of Dingess’ students are in the free or reduced-price lunch program. Of the school’s 189 students, from preschool to fourth grade, 152 students get free lunch and 11 are on a reduced rate. Only 17 children at Dingess pay full price for their school lunch.
“And two of them are mine,” the principal said. Most test statistics show students with low socioeconomic status score lower on standardized tests than their wealthier peers. Statewide, only 57 percent of underprivileged third-graders and 55 percent of fourth-graders had proficient rankings on the WESTEST 2’s math test. On the reading test, 56 percent of third-graders on free or reduced-price lunch and 54 percent of fourth-graders scored that high. Spence said his school’s scores buck those trends.
“This totally blows that out of the water,” he said.
The school community has certainly struggled financially. Dingess’ biggest business, the Laurel Creek mine, shut down last year. Spence said the coal company usually gave the school between $5,000 and $6,000 every year. About a dozen of the school’s parents lost their jobs in the shutdown. The principal said those parents now have to travel great distances for work or are unemployed. Many of the other parents didn’t have jobs even before the mine closed, he said.
“We go into the school year knowing they’re not going to get a lot of help from parents,” Spence said. “We can’t change that. All we can change is when we’re here at school.”
Mingo County Superintendent Dwight Dials said the elementary school defies statistics because its staff has a different attitude about education than some teachers.
“Sometimes educators start making excuses for the difficulty or for the scores,” Dials said. “At Dingess, they expect their children to learn.”
“Poor children can learn. . .if we believe that they will and support them in that process,” he added. And that’s what the staff at Dingess is trying to do.
Every class has computers connected to the Internet and a digital “Smart Board.” Basically a high-tech overhead projector, the board allows teachers to project computer programs in front of their classes. Students then are able to interact with the programs using special pens. Every class in the school also gets 30 minutes in the lab every day, and third and fourth graders can request extra time for “acuity assessments.” Teachers tailor the computer-based tests to students’ individual learning needs, Spence said. If one child doesn’t understand fractions very well and another has trouble determining an author’s purpose in a short passage, each can work on what they need the most.
Sharon Lackey, a fourth-grade teacher who has taught at Dingess for 31 years, said many of the students don’t have computers at home, so the school provides Internet time at school. When they have science or social studies projects looming, Lackey said teachers even stay after school so parents and students can use the computer lab. The school also sends worksheets and other materials home for parents.
Lackey said when the school started teaching a new method of multiplication called “lattice math,” teachers instructed children on how to do the new method and told the children to go home and show their parents. That way, parents were able to help their children with future homework. But if parents find themselves stumped, Lackey tells them she’s just a phone call away.
“I tell them to call me anytime if you need help,” she said. “I’ve taught some of these kids’ mothers and uncles and aunts.”
Spence said that’s another key to his school’s WESTEST successes.
“There’s no magic bullet,” Spence said. “We’re a small school and the kids get that individual attention from the cooks to the janitors - everybody.”
Spence noted that at the beginning of every school year, he calls the new fourth-graders into his office one by one to discuss their performance on last year’s WESTEST. He calls it the “test talk.” He shows students their third grade score sheets and explains how the scoring works. Spence said he compares “mastery” to making a “C” on the test. The principal said he talks to students about the importance of working hard during the months leading up to the test.
“You should get mastery on this test. There’s no excuse for you not to,” he tells students. “You should at least get a ‘C.’ There’s no reason for you to not get a ‘C.’ “
Spence then sends those scores home with students along with two letters, one from him and one from State Superintendent Steven Paine. Students are told to show and explain their results to parents, have the letters signed and return them to school. The principal has another talk with students right before they take WESTEST and keeps tabs on them all year long to make sure they’re progressing toward meeting their goals.
“I call them Mr. Spence’s diamonds, because they’re valuable to me,” he said. The principal even had fancy pencils made, adorned with the slogan, “I Am a Mr. Spence Diamond!”
“It’s just gimmicky stuff, but it works with third and fourth graders,” Spence said. “You can get away with it.”
The school also hosts a party at the end of every school year with water balloons, watermelon and inflatable play stations to reward students’ hard work. The only requirement, Spence says, is that children give the WESTEST their best shot.
“The kids love it, but I make sure they understand what it’s for,” he said.
Celebrations are frequent at Dingess Elementary. Walking down the school’s one big hallway, it’s not uncommon to hear loud clapping and whooping cheers come from the computer lab. When students complete acuity assignments, the entire class congratulates them. During lunch, students take their assessment printouts to Spence during lunch for a “good job” and a high-five.
“We celebrate everything we can,” the principal said. And that approach seems to be working. In 2006, the year before Spence took the principal job, Dingess’ students had only 47 percent proficiency in math. After he took the helm in 2007, the school’s math scores jumped to 73 percent proficiency. But last year, there was one thing no amount of test preparation could have prepared Dingess students for. Just before students were to take the WESTEST in May, flooding rains swept through southern West Virginia. Mingo County was particularly hard hit.
“We actually missed a week of school right before the test,” Spence said. Although the Dingess community wasn’t flooded, plenty of students had family members displaced, some moving in with them.
“In Mingo County, it’s close knit,” Spence said. “It affected everybody.”
Dials eventually decided that students at Dingess, along with Gilbert, Matewan, and Burch Elementary schools, would take the test. None of Mingo’s high schools were tested.
“Before that, we were all in limbo. We thought we weren’t going to take it,” Spence said. But the principal said students and staff weren’t fazed by the announcement. He said they had prepared for the standardized test all year long and were ready.
“They were pretty good with it - ‘All right, let’s do this,’ “ Spence said.
When the results came back, students had some of the highest scores in years. Dials said that given the staff’s dedication to their students, those results aren’t all that surprising.
“When you go into that school, you sense that these folks are working together,” Dials said. “There’s harmony. A lot can be derived from that.”