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Richardson ISD Makes The Grade

This month, when the state handed out its newest version of school district ratings, Richardson once again scored more accolades than almost any other district in the state.  How do they do it?

 It may sound strange but Audrey Cedor can’t wait for her summer break to end.

“I feel really excited because I love school,” say the slight, fair-haired . eight-year old who’s stylin’ in a red-knit cap.

Next week Audrey will begin third grade at the Math Science Technology Magnet in Richardson.

Her parents Megan and Josh Cedor volunteer at the school.  They chose to live in Richardson so Audrey could attend its schools.

“I think the enthusiasm and creativity of our teachers makes a huge difference in the level of learning Audrey experiences,” Megan said.

“I went to these schools and they were top tier schools.  (Education) is a highly valued commodity here,” Josh added.

Again and again you hear the residents of Richardson say they just expect their schools to be great.  Not good.  Great. 

And state ratings indicate most are, even though Richardson receives some of the lowest per student funding in Dallas County, and more than half its students are considered low income.

Audrey’s elementary was awarded every designation for achievement the Texas Education Agency handed out this year.

District-wide, a vast majority of schools earned honors only awarded to the state’s top 25 percent of campuses under a new rating system.

They ranked high for overall student achievement measured primarily through testing; student progress; how much the district has closed the learning gap for low income and at risk students, and how well seniors are prepared for college and careers.

Superintendent Dr. Kay Waggoner says it didn’t happen by accident.

“We have a large number of volunteers, we have very strong PTA’s, we have a very strong education foundation and our city leaders are here to support our events,” she said.

Waggoner says that even in lean economic times Richardson voters have passed bond issues that pay for building improvements and technology.

Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News
Teacher Sarah Claborn and Principal Angela Vaughan show-off the new iPad Mini available to each student this year at the Math Science Technology Magnet.

  Audrey’s principal, Angela Vaughan, says teachers are also getting results by using some new techniques.

“We’ve been participating in a differentiation program,” said Vaughan. “Whether it’s in math or reading we look at the students individually and plan lessons that will meet their strengths and weaknesses.”

Teacher Sara Claborn uses differentiation when she teachers second graders how to count money.

“I kind of dumped it out in front of them and said tell me what you know,” she said as she demonstrated the method.

Claborn says she begins by finding out how much the students already understand.

Some children can only sort pennies into a pile.  Others know four quarters equal a dollars. Some can make change.

Claborn divides the students into groups based on knowledge then provides separate exercises to help them move to the next level.

She says with individual attention many of students learn more than the lesson plan requires.

“I definitely think it’s one of the most important things I’ve learned in my years of teaching because it’s not stopping kids where the standard takes them,” said Claborn.

“Our goal is to promote life-long learning and if we’re teaching them to come to a stopping point in the middle of the year we’re doing them an injustice,” she added.

Claborn is also experimenting with videotaped homework.  She previews the next day’s lesson with a short video her students and their parents can watch the night before.

Audrey’s mother and dad watch with her.

“I liked her excitement about it,” said Josh Cedor.  “You see your teacher in a room and she incorporated her dog and she made it interesting.”

Claborn says students begin the next day with knowledge that would normally take a half hour of class time to teach.

“The level of engagement was so much better the next day.  At school my discipline decreased which gave me more time to teach.  The kids were wanting to be there,” said Claborn.    

There are dozens of other tools Richardson is using to increase learning: intense mining of test data to figure out where each student needs help; lessons that require students to interact; the use of talented and gifted materials for every student.

Despite the success and innovations school officials acknowledge they have challenges.

Test scores indicate high school students need to improve their writing skills.

There is a growing number of low income families coming into the district, and because many of the parents work several jobs they aren’t involved with their children’s schools.  The district is looking for ways to make it easier for them to participate.

Richardson says it will tackle those challenges the way they have tackled others:  with an understanding that failure isn’t an option, and  doing work that's  just acceptable  isn’t good enough.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.