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December 1999

Teachers at Brandon Gate
Open the Door

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Students at a Mississauga school in a largely-immigrant neighbourhood did poorly on EQAO’s first Grade 3 tests. The results galvanized school staff … and last year’s tests were a different story.

By Wendy Harris

This part of Mississauga is a community of neat, winding roads patterned in classic suburban swirls. Low-lying bungalows match the low-lying trees that line the streets. A few apartment buildings poke up from the flat landscape. At the centre of this enclave is Brandon Gate, a seventies-style public school with large pods instead of traditional classrooms – sprawling spaces meant to educate two or three classes of children at the same time.  

It is a reassuring picture. The 400 or so children in this Kindergarten to Grade 5 school bustle about with purpose, cramming the hallways while they work on their latest projects and dashing out to recess when the bell finally rings.

But listen to their chatter. Some kids are speaking Urdu, Punjabi or one of the regional dialects. Others speak less common languages. Still others communicate using English fragments and expressive gestures.

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This is a diverse community that is not exactly as it seems. In some of those suburban houses live two or sometimes even three or four families. Many of those families are newly-arrived from halfway across the world.

They have come with their hopes and dreams for a new and more prosperous life in Canada. But more importantly, they have come with their most precious possessions, their children – children they hope to nurture, educate and send off as contributing members of Canadian society.

As Brandon Gate principal Greg Bowman puts it, "Parents send us their best kids." But some of these "best kids" struggle when they get to school. They are plunked into an alien culture with little preparation. They sometimes don’t understand or speak English. Meanwhile, their parents struggle to establish new lives, changing jobs to find better pay and working conditions, moving frequently as they adjust to the many changes in their lives.

"It is not unusual for a Grade 2 student to have been to five or six schools," says Grade 1 teacher Wendy Calder. "This is a very transient community. For a lot of our children, school is their only safety net." 


Despite the apparent challenges faced by many Brandon Gate students, the results of the first round of Ontario-wide testing by the Education Quality and Assessment Office (EQAO) in the spring of 1997 came as a shock to school staff. Brandon Gate placed near the bottom of the heap – somewhere among the lowest 10 schools in the huge Peel board.

Bowman was vice-principal at the time and he was devastated. He took the results personally, as a reflection of himself as an educator. "I know that I was embarrassed." So were the teachers at the school. "It was quite a blow," recalls Calder.

Coupled with that embarrassment, Bowman says staff were feeling beleaguered by yet another provincial government requirement, particularly when they were still in the process of implementing a new curriculum and were faced with producing new report cards. Moreover, a number of teachers thought province-wide testing was probably politically motivated and had little to do with educating children.

In the spring of 1998, teachers administered a sample set of questions to their Grade 3 students based on the previous year’s test. By then, Bowman was the acting principal and the results of that sample were grim. It appeared that Brandon Gate children were once again positioned to do poorly. The good news, though, was that the EQAO tests clearly identified the students’ needs.

As Bowman sees it, he essentially had two choices. He could throw up his hands in despair and do nothing. Or he could take decisive hands-on action. He chose the latter. "When you know we can predict the results for the next year, would you do nothing?" he asks rhetorically. Instead, he moved on to the next set of questions. "What’s the best we can do for our students? How can we help them to compete? How can we close the skills gaps we’ve identified and give them the best possible chance?"


Testing was to be held during the last week of May, 1998. It was already the end of April. The Grade 3 children were clearly not primed to succeed. And Bowman had a big, almost hare-brained idea that was about to turn the school on its head.

With the full support of his superintendent and the school council chair, Bowman called a school-wide meeting where he laid out a plan that would affect every single teacher at Brandon Gate. "We are going to pull out all the stops for a very short time frame," he said. "We are going to teach specifically to close the gaps and drill strategies and skills that may enable our students to achieve greater success ...it will be daunting, risky and lots of hard work."

Bowman had a real team effort in mind that would mobilize the talents of his entire staff, of the students and their parents. He told Brandon Gate’s teachers. "This isn’t a reflection that what you were, and are, doing is wrong ... It is direct, intensive intervention with the aim of making a difference, not just for these tests, but for ongoing learning."

His first step was to assemble an experienced teaching team – moving a seasoned Grade 5 teacher, Tracey Ohori, to teach Grade 3, and collapsing a Grade 1-2 split class to free up an additional veteran teacher, Marion Johnston, to support the three teachers delivering the program.

Letters were sent home to the affected families to let parents know where their children would be for the next month. That allowed him to reduce the teacher/student ratio substantially and group the children by ability for the learning ahead. Bowman calls this phase of the operation "creative timetabling" so that all the legal requirements were met for the special education and ESL students while still maintaining educational standards.

Next, he introduced the school-wide theme that would help anchor the learning that was about to begin. For the entire month of May, all of Brandon Gate buzzed with Inventions, Investigations and Discoveries. No-one could talk about a teakettle or a light bulb or even a paper clip without discussing what it was made from, how it was constructed and why it worked.


Finally, Bowman assembled a team of educators who focused their considerable talents and energy on making the Grade 3s learn to think differently. The school’s resource teachers, Phyllis Hendricks and Brenda Holly, and Wendy Calder, who was acting vice-principal that year, were marshalled to both plan and help the teaching team meet its goals. Five Grade 3 teachers, Ohori, Johnston and the three already teaching Grade 3 – Angela James-Harris, Asgar Kapasi and Deborah Laughlin – were in the trenches. The stage was set for one of the most intense months any of them had ever experienced.

But before that could happen, the teachers had to put aside all their fears and political misgivings and to be convinced of the real educational value of the test. "We had to get everyone thinking in the same direction," says Calder. "Part of the fear that can arise from a province-wide test is will it be the only measure that matters? We have to be careful not to set teachers up. We have to create an atmosphere so teachers don’t feel intimidated."

All agree now that preparing for the EQAO is not only about teaching the new curriculum requirements in reading, writing and math but more significantly, about teaching kids thinking strategies – not what to think, but how to think. What’s most important is not necessarily the answer, but how that answer was arrived at – not just the facts but an analysis of the facts. "It’s a test that asks kids to apply higher-level thinking skills," says Holly. "There is a strong focus on communication and to be able to demonstrate their thinking processes."

They also had to realize that the provincial tests were not exclusively a Grade 3 concern but rather a school-wide initiative that would require an about-face in instructional practices and a deep willingness to change how they taught. "Sometimes, the ego has to take a bit of a back seat," says Bowman. "This is not about being a bad or good teacher. This is about student achievement and continuous improvement."

Bowman’s message didn’t sit well with everyone right away. There was some resistance and real apprehension about the plan. "People tend to want to hang on to what they did before," he says.

But according to Holly, the strength of Bowman’s vision was magnetic. "I really believe that the biggest factor was the leadership Greg showed his staff. He backed everything up with tremendous support. He said things like ‘these kids can be successful’. He said that to the parents and teachers and the kids. Every stakeholder was very involved."


Ohori, who had been pulled from a Grade 5 class to teach Grade 3s for those critical weeks in May, says her first task was to alter her own thinking. She had to recognize that "it was okay to keep demanding a higher level from these kids," even though some had limited support at home because of communication barriers and were wrestling with English as a second language.

James-Harris also changed how she regarded her students. She says as a result, she now demands to see clear thinking and routinely drags more detailed answers out of her students, sometimes word by painstaking word.

Although Johnston says her approach has always been very hands-on during the 32 years she’s taught elementary school, it became even more so. "Everything I do in my classroom is total thinking ...(But) I am certainly stretching the kids a lot more now."

Central to the teaching blitz was providing children with a model so they could understand each and every building block in a thought process or skill set. "We had to show the children exactly what we wanted them to do," says Calder.

One of the teaching strategies both Hendricks and Holly stressed is called scaffolding. It enables students – particularly those with a limited grasp of English – to reduce the complexity of a test question, first by identifying the key words that tell them what to do and then by following their thought process logically through to an answer.

The process, says Calder, compels a child to provide sequential language support by organizing thought into a "first I did this, then I did this and then I did this" kind of pyramid that builds to a conclusion. Often, children would be asked to first provide an oral response and then to write it down. Specific strategies for analyzing questions were drilled over and over again. Kids were shown what their targets were. Instructions were clean, clear and to the point.

"It was a very, very focused effort but all of it was the same kinds of things you want to do in a regular program," says Calder. "We want kids to understand the process (and to) reflect upon their own thinking."


Finally, after a month of hard work, testing day arrived. After a few words of encouragement from anxious teachers, a hush fell over the rooms as students bent over test forms. Would Bowman’s plan work? Can three and a half weeks of intensive teaching make a difference?

Last fall, after months of waiting, the test results came in. This time, as the news spread, smiles filled Brandon Gate’s halls. The news was better than many people expected. Considerably.

Brandon Gate had leapt into the top third of all of Peel’s schools. The proportion of Grade 3s reading at or above a C level had increased from 56 per cent to 91 per cent. Writing at a C level or higher was up from 75 per cent to 93 per cent. And, most remarkably, the proportion of students with a C or higher in math almost doubled from 47 to 91 per cent.

The children at Brandon Gate have reaped more than the stickers, candy and praise won for work well done. They have won a sense of pride in accomplishment that has rubbed off on everybody. And they overcame gaps in their learning that would have hampered them for the rest of their school years.

Bowman, however, is philosophical about their academic achievement. "You really can’t lose if you’re doing it for the kids. Even if we’d done badly, it still would have been a good learning experience ...Fortunately, it all paid off."

While not as dramatic as 1998’s, the 1999 preparation for the EQAO testing had the advantage of an experienced crew, with staff at the school clearly identifying several key strategies for their students’ success. Once again they had to ensure a low enough student/teacher ratio to allow for active learning. They grouped children according to their abilities. And then they dug in – with questions that again demanded real thought from their students and by modelling what the answers should be.

Chief among their teaching strategies was encouraging the children to develop both questioning and listening skills, skills that were sometimes beyond their developmental level, particularly earlier in the year. "Developmentally, it is a tough adjustment ...(to the) kinds of questions they have to answer on EQAO," says Bowman. "It’s not just repetition that’s needed. The younger they start this kind of thinking, the better off they are."

In addition, teachers continued to stress sequencing skills in their classrooms and used a variety of visual and graphic tools to help their students sort through what can otherwise become an overwhelming mountain of information. Finally, teachers unfailingly demanded that children stretch towards their personal best. "You have to ask the Level 4 question so that children at a lower level can reach up," says Johnston. "We honed in on the kinds of questions we should ask to help them move from one level to the next."

Students at Brandon Gate have maintained their upward momentum, improving in almost every category. This year the proportion of Grade 3s reading at or above a C level has remained at 91 per cent, better than the provincial average of 85 per cent. Writing results in the same category have gone from 93 per cent to 95, virtually matching the provincial average. Mathematics was the only area in which students faltered slightly, dropping from a mark of 91 per cent to 89.

"We’ve a lot of kids here who are beating the provincial average quite handily, and we’re happy with the results," says Bowman.

"We know they did the best they could," says James-Harris. "That’s all we wanted from them – to give us the best reflection of themselves."

The staff at Brandon Gate Public School can be reached at gregory.bowman@peelsb.com