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Rhode Island’s Top Elementary School and its Secret Weapon

By September 6, 2012April 14th, 2022No Comments

Published by — How an Institute helped a regular district public school  overcome obstacles and become the best in the state.

In second grade, Henri could only read 7 words a minute accurately.  You’re hoping for about 60 words.

As such, Henri was about to slam into the critical 3rd grade reading milestone.  That’s when students switch from learning to read, to reading to learn.  Reading is the key to school success.  Remediation is certainly possible, but gets progressively harder to accomplish.  Statistically, students who blow that 3rd-grade benchmark face a bleak academic future.

When Henri first entered kindergarten at Fort Barton School in Tiverton, he spoke no English.  Rhode Island considers this K-4 school “rural,” though North Dakotans would laugh.  Still, English Language learners are not common in that neck of the woods.  Poverty is more so, as 19 percent of the school’s students are eligible for subsidized lunch.

Furthermore, Henri was two weeks late coming back to enter the third grade.  And he’d spent the summer with his family in their native Colombia, speaking only Spanish.

But — huge big deal — by the end of 3rd grade, Henri was only just shy of reading at grade-level.  His mother was thrilled.  She gushed at the school’s staff because he was avidly reading street signs to her.

And Henri was by no means the only child snatched from the jaws of failure.  This past year, 98 percent of Fort Barton’s 3rd graders were deemed proficient in reading.

But get this: fully 53 percent achieved “proficiency with distinction,” over half.  Both of these rates far exceed those of the wealthiest and highest-performing districts in the state.

The new Report Cards deem Fort Barton Rhode Island’s best elementary school:

Okay, how’d they manage that?

In 2008 the school’s teachers were seriously frustrated that they couldn’t seem to help roughly 30 percent of their kids to “proficiency.”  About 70 percent of their students regularly passed the state assessments, but with the others, they’d flat-lined.  They asked Principal Suzette Wordell to please find them some help with teaching “diverse learners,” which is to say those kids whom no amount of effort seemed to touch.

Wordell found The Highlander Institute, which invited the school to be part of their new grant-funded literacy project.

As a suburban school not swimming in poverty, Wordell says, “We rarely qualify for grants.  So our kids have minimal resources, minimal staff.  But they still have needs.”  So, sure, they’d be game.

The Highlander Institute used to specialize in special-needs kids — aka “diverse learners” — but now it has developed a process that helps all students get whatever it is they specially need.  Their process drives questions and provides answers to how schools and teachers can get the exact-right challenge or skill remediation in front of each student — whether they’re struggling, academically gifted, or somewhere in between.  The Institute has beta-tested their process and their academic materials at their lab school, Highlander Charter.

So, the process starts with teaching teachers how to collect and use data.

Project director Dawn August says, “We find that in most schools there’s very little data.  Everyone’s been saying use data, use data.  But really, no one’s ever shown them how to drive the data bus.”

The project schools commit to assessing each child’s mastery 3 times a year, with th eDIBELS assessment.  And using the PET-R survey, teachers gauge which of their school’s programs and systems are effective and firmly in place.

August shared the crunched results with the staff.  On the survey, teachers were clear that, remarkably little was solidly “in place.”  Even great teachers can’t get great results with ill-designed, uncoordinated strategies.

The kids’ results were painful.  See the Fall 2008 results for yourself, at the left of the accompanying chart.  Fully 35 percent of Fort Barton’s 200 students were at risk of not passing the state tests.  August sighs, ” At first you get a lot of finger-pointing, “Oh it’s the family, the poverty, language, attendance, special needs.”  Teachers generally felt they already knew how to do better, so the message to August was, “Thanks, we’ve got it from here.”

But the second DIBELS test ignited “the winter of discontent.”  The kids had gotten worse.  Apparently, this decline is typical and the Highlander staff were all but expecting it.  Still, Fort Barton’s hard work had increased the gaps.  Teachers cried.  But now at least they were listening.

August says, “We really kick into gear during this so-what?, what-now? period.”  Once again, she showed teachers how to use the data to divide their classes into four groups.  Each group gets instruction precisely tailored to their needs.  Teachers freaked at the idea of managing four different groups with different needs, and at collecting data daily.  August guided them through the process, and it got easier.

Wordell says, “Teachers use running records and every day they cull information from those.  As quickly as the data tell us, we move to remediate.  Now we can honestly say that what we do is driven by data.  Every single day.”

After 4 years of working together, Highlander considers Fort Barton to be a well-oiled machine.  Getting results in education is not sexy.  It takes hard work, over time, and a willingness to change strategies along the way.  But the Institute’s ability to get everyone laser-focused on student needs was the secret weapon that got fabulous results.

The school fought hard for success, and they won.  Good work, Fort Barton!

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.



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