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Petree Elementary: Growing an “F school”

Thanks to Petree Elementary School staff, parent Tia Shore now has a bus pass to get around Winston-Salem — to go to the grocery store, to take her kids to appointments, and to get to work.

Evelyn Boone, a home school coordinator at Petree, connects families like Shore and her daughters to services they need. When Boone heard Shore was struggling with homelessness, she passed Shore’s name off to organizations that are helping her find stable transportation and housing.

“Basically, they want you to have a success story at the end of it,” Shore said. “They don’t want you to basically be still where you are now or worse. They want you to be able to truly stand on your feet, don’t have to worry about asking anyone or depending on anyone else for help outside of your household.”

Shore’s daughters are two of the 490 students at Petree Elementary in Winston-Salem where 100 percent of the student population receives free or reduced-priced lunch.

She thanked Boone and second-year Petree principal Heather Horton.

“Those two ladies are wonderful people to be at Petree,” she said. “I take my hat off to them.”

While Shore commends the school’s support, its performance continues to struggle. Since opening in 1999, the school has been under-capacity and under-performing. For the last four school years, Petree has received failing grades from the state’s A-F grading system.

The grades are calculated with a formula of 80 percent test scores and 20 percent student growth.

Evelyn Boone explains pamphlets she hands out to parents of Petree Elementary students in Winston-Salem. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Petree is one of 561 schools — or 22.7 percent of all schools in the state — that received failing grades in the 2016-17 school year. At 521 of those low-performing schools — or about 93 percent of them — 50 percent or more of the student population lives in poverty. 

Petree’s performance scores have consistently been lower than both the district and statewide median grades.

Graphic by Lindsay Carbonell

While its performance scores lagged, Petree simultaneously met or exceeded its expected EVAAS growth standard set by the state. The EVAAS growth score is determined by examining aggregate test results from a student population and projecting how those students should perform after a year of school. For a deep dive on the measure, go here. About 55 percent of the schools (308 schools) receiving failing grades statewide met or exceeded growth. 

In 2016-17, Petree went from meeting its growth expectation to exceeding it while falling from a D to an F in performance. 

School Year Petree Elementary SPG grade Petree Elementary EVAAS Growth Status
2013-14 F Met
2014-15 D Exceeded
2015-16 D Met 
2016-17 F Exceeded


Principal Horton said the letter grades are not surprising. She noted that failing grades directly correlate with poverty, and the performance and growth measures are calculated looking at different students. The test scores come from End of Grade (EOG) tests administered from third to fifth grade. The growth score comes from K-5 students.

Horton believes the formula should be at least 50 percent achievement, 50 percent growth. She is not alone. Multiple Charter School Advisory Board members, during their November meeting, criticized the missing link between the two measures. 

“Isn’t the goal of growth to increase proficiency?” said board member Joseph Maimone when asking why jumps in proficiency do not always translate to schools meeting or exceeding their growth standards.

Tammy Howard, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s director of accountability services, described the relationship between the EVAAS growth score and the performance grade as “apples and oranges.” 

“We want to see a relationship between them,” Howard said to the board. “The statisticians would say, ‘Let’s not.'”

Performance grades and growth scores are the state’s way of holding public schools accountable. If a school receives a failing grade and any growth status other than “exceeded,” the school is considered low-performing and must create a school improvement plan laying out how they will raise their scores. The plan is shared with parents, school staff, the state, and the public. If a school has received the designation for two of the last three years, the school has four options under state law: transformation, restart, turnaround, or closure.

Petree has jumped on and off the list, but is not currently considered low-performing because of its most recent growth status. Last year, Horton said the designation meant more observations for teachers, mid-year teacher evaluations, and the possibility of improvement plans for individual teachers. 

“It does put a lot of pressure on teachers,” Horton said.

Horton said she believes, with the right strategies, Petree’s students can catch up. She expects the school to see a drastic difference in proficiency levels by 2020.

“If you continue to exceed growth and do more than what’s expected, the proficiency should come along,” she said. 

In the last two years, Horton made big changes. For this school year, Horton filled 15 out of 22 core K-5 teaching positions, and said she was strategic in creating a new, driven team.

A tutoring program piloted last year is being expanded this year. New classroom management techniques, school culture goals, formative assessment tools, and community support programs are underway.

“We do focus on the positive things that are out there,” Horton said. “There are a lot of things going on at Petree.”

Playing catch-up

Horton said rapid growth is necessary because students are often multiple grade levels behind in knowledge and skills. Research shows socioeconomic factors affect students’ social and emotional capacities and their academic performance.

“The proficiency is the same bar for everyone yet we don’t all come to school at the same level of being prepared to come to school,” she said. 

iReady is an online program used in all Petree classrooms that helps teachers understand students’ reading and math abilities, both broadly and in terms of specific skills. Students spend about 45 minutes a week on the program with lessons and material designed for their learning level. 

Teacher Catherine Scott helps a student during English class. Liz Bell/EducationNC

“So if you’ve got scholars that are in the third grade, but they’ve got some holes in their background knowledge in those subjects, then having that time on the device helps them pick up some of those first grade standards and second grade standards that they may have missed and it provides a ton of data for us to show us what those holes are so that teachers can also address it face to face, not just on the device,” Horton said.

Catherine Scott, a fourth grade English teacher who started her first year of teaching last year at Petree, said the assessment helps because it is very consistent with standards and end-of-grade testing. She said meeting students on their own instructional level is one of her priorities. 

“We try to do over a year worth of growth,” Scott said. “They come to us a year or so behind. So we’re using resources … and we’re starting to level our students with that, so that’s really exciting.”

In reading, Petree also began using a literacy program this year from the American Reading Company for second to fifth graders. Similarly to iReady, the program gauges each student’s reading level and assigns him or her a color. Books with high-interest topics are labeled with the colors that correspond to the level. The program, Horton said, balances meeting students where they are with raising students’ reading abilities.

Scott said it is obvious when students are making gains — they are using new vocabulary, their confidence rises, and there is better and more fluid conversation in class discussions.

“They’ll even tell you, ‘I feel good about it,'” Scott said. “You can tell they understand when learning makes sense to them. It’s a process, so getting them to reflect on it every day, making sure that the growth is happening and it’s something that we meet, we talk about, and it’s just got to be continuous.”

Students use mobile furniture in a Petree Elementary classroom. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Multiple Petree teachers said they considered meeting each students’s individual needs their biggest challenge as a teacher.

Ledra Welch-Walker, a first grade teacher, keeps a growth-centered data wall in her classroom above where students access iReady and the literacy program. She has taught in multiple counties across the state, as well as in Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Maryland. Every school where Welch-Walker has taught has been Title I school.

“You have to go where they’re at,” she said. 

Horton said the assessments track students’ performance and growth so the state’s results at the end of the year are not surprising. At the beginning of this school year, she said students were about where they were at the beginning of last year because of a loss of learning during the summer. This “summer learning loss” is not exclusive to Petree and has been widely studied and fueled debates around the school calendar. 

She said iReady showed Petree would exceed the state’s growth expectations, but that students still were not where they needed to be. 

“The program was also saying, ‘Kids are on track to make more than a year’s worth of growth,’ but then you would look and see how many are on grade level, and it would be zero percent,” she said. “So that also is in alignment with our proficiency. So we know that they’re behind and not on grade level, but we are making progress. It’s just not something that happens overnight.”

Horton said some of the catch-up starts in kindergarten, since students enter and are already performing below grade-level. Petree Elementary hosts an N.C. Pre-K program, the statewide preschool for at-risk fourth graders. Some of the students go on to kindergarten at Petree and some go to other schools in the district. 

She said she would love to have additional pre-K classes. “That is a way we can get them ready faster.”

Horton said one of Petree’s core values is equity. A big piece of that, she said, is the community relationships and support Boone coordinates. 

On a Wednesday, Boone was meeting with a United Way representative to discuss grant money that will help students and their families. The money will be used in emergency situations — if a car breaks down or the power is about to be shut off. Little mishaps, Boone said, can cause missed work, missed instructional time for students, and a string of unexpected consequences.

Boone has worked at the Forsyth County school for eight years. She said she advocates for families with all types of backgrounds to come to Petree rather than a “downtown,” more affluent school. Exposing children to the reality of their communities is important, she said. Horton is begging her not to retire.   

“We try to empower (families), not enable them,” Boone said. “We believe in hand-ups and not hand-outs.”

She was passing out packets for volunteers — usually community members or faith-based partners — to read with students. 

“See, it’s all right here,” Boone said as she pulled out activities volunteers can do with students as they read. Petree also runs the largest backpack program in Forsyth County. Two-hundred students go home with backpacks full of food on Fridays. On the week before Thanksgiving, volunteers were working overtime so students could bring extra home for the holiday. 

Volunteers fill backpacks for students to take home over the Thanksgiving break. Liz Bell/EducationNC


Smart boards are at the front of most classrooms at Petree. There are more devices than there are students. Integrating technology, Horton said, has been one of the school’s strengths.

Teachers receive weekly professional development on how to effectively incorporate technology into their teaching. Christon Anderson, Petree’s instructional facilitator, said she came to Petree because of the innovative things she saw. She said lots of educators use technology inappropriately, “for example, just as a screen, just as a board, not really using it instructionally.”


A Petree Elementary student uses an interactive board in math class. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Anderson reviews teachers’ lesson plans and creates plans to model for teachers. She said she finds technology is most useful when students are creating something or expressing themselves. 

Horton said Petree will eventually send Chromebooks home in backpacks for children to use. Last year, the school gave away 100 desktop computers to Petree families. All lesson plans can be accessed through an online system outside of school. Though students have the devices and online access at school, Horton said online connectivity at home is still an issue. 

Nearly every school in North Carolina has broadband access but residents across the state lack at-home connectivity. According to the Department of Information and Technology, there were more than 324,000 North Carolina households without Internet access in 2016. The following map came from a presentation the department gave to the State Board of Education in October about the “homework gap,” or “when students are assigned homework requiring access to the Internet, but don’t have home access.”

At Petree, Horton said the work starts with surveying parents to see who has online access at home. 

“We’ve looked at some creative ways to give access,” Horton said. Since most students live within walking distance from the school, Horton said they are thinking about putting access points throughout the neighborhood or in a stationary school bus.

“Kids engage with technology,” she said. “So that’s definitely a strong point for us.”

Behavior Management

During her first couple weeks at Petree, second grade teacher Jessica Benton said she felt in over her head.

Benton came from three years of teaching at a charter school in the area. She said she moved to Petree this year because she felt she would receive more support and resources in a public school. 

At the beginning of the year, Benton began to implement a program Horton supports called No Nonsense Nurture from CT3, a professional development company that focuses on turning around high-needs schools. All teachers had a full-day of training on the strategy in August, but Benton said she did not expect how hard it would be to keep everyone engaged. 

“It’s a whole new ballgame when those students actually get here … and you’re trying to do that ‘no nonsense’ but then there’s a whirlwind going on behind you,” she said.

Horton said, before addressing instruction or results, students’ behavior at school must change. She identified classroom management as one of Petree’s greatest challenges. Petree is also implementing a school culture plan from CT3. Horton said she hopes that plan along with the behavior management tools will decrease teacher turnover.

The No Nonsense Nurture strategy is four-fold: directions, narration, consequences/incentives, and relationship-building. First, the teacher sets a clear expectation for the students. Horton said directions should include specifics on motion, voice, and participation. There are defined voice levels for different activities. 

A classroom door at Petree displays different possible responses to students’ mistakes. Liz Bell/EducationNC

“When they give a direction, they would say, ‘We’re getting ready to go to lunch. I need scholars to line up. We’re going to be at voice level zero, hands by your side, facing forward,'” she said.

For the next step, narration, the teacher picks three examples of students who are meeting the set expectation and points the appropriate behavior out to the class. Horton said this gives students a chance to hear the instructions again. 

“So you say, ‘Liz’s eyes are on me. Katie’s at voice level zero,'” Horton said. 

If students are not meeting the expectation, the teacher is trained to similarly point it out.

“So if Jamarion is not following the expectation, then it’s, ‘Jamarion, the expectation is eyes on me, voice level zero. That’s your warning,'” she said. “And they mark it. And then all classrooms have the same consequence ladder that they follow.”

If the entire class is meeting the expectation, the teacher announces it, and they get a point. Each class is working towards a certain number of points and class-defined incentives. 

A student answers a question during math class at Petree. Liz Bell/EducationNC

The fourth component is relationship-building, which Horton said makes the technique “supportive and positive.” However, it is a lot to remember and get in the habit of consistently using, she said.

To help teachers acclimate, Horton is having CT3 train two staff members and herself to be real-time coaches. The coach sits in the back of the classroom with a walkie-talkie while the teacher wears an earpiece and receives reminders from the coach, like making sure narration happens three times, or that the entire class is engaged and deserves a point.

Benton is one of the first teachers to receive real-time coaching. She said a CT3 employee first asked her where she needed the most help and observed her students to test classroom engagement. On that particular day, Benton said only 38 percent of her students were on-task and engaged. She said the training has helped her so far.

“It’s hard to completely command a room as a teacher,” Benton said. “… I think I’m only going to need three or four more sessions, you know, they said I was pretty good with my classroom management skills, but even just having somebody going through that training, even as a fourth-year teacher … I would tell all teachers that it’s something beneficial to them.”

The earlier students can learn appropriate classroom behavior, the better, Horton said. 

“That’s a challenge — when they come and don’t have the social skills and they’ve not been to a daycare, or been around a structured environment, so they have to learn that.” 

After being diagnosed with autism, Laura Willard’s daughter, Miracle, came into EC pre-K at Petree around three years old only speaking about 15 words. Willard said she was not meeting normal milestones and had regular seizures. The gains Miracle has made at Petree, she said, are unbelievable. Miracle knows the alphabet, has expanded her vocabulary, and has reached her IEP (individualized education program) goals. 

“I couldn’t have asked for or prayed for anything better for my child… ” Willard said. “It leaves me speechless to see how far she’s come in two years.”

In lower grades at Petree, teachers are using the N.C. Kindergarten Entry Assessment (KEA) to gauge where students are and utilize play-based learning. Horton said it helps students learn social skills while also learning academically.

“When you look at it, it looks like play,” Horton said. “But the teacher’s real intentional about introducing vocabulary, and the kids are having to share with each other.”

Horton is optimistic about the future. In interviews with her mostly new staff, she said she was clear about the nature of putting Petree on a path for success, calling the work “rewarding but difficult.”

“Nine out of ten schools you walk into are going to be easier than this one,” she said. “So you have to want to be here.”

She said time is the needed ingredient that is hardest for her to accept. Making the necessary growth will not happen immediately. That does not mean the goal of student progress is not urgent, she said.

“We know (the grade) is low,” Horton said. “We own it. We are taking steps to figure out what to do about that, whether that grade is there or not. It’s already important to us.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.