Students at a Mississauga
school in a largely-immigrant neighbourhood did poorly on EQAOs first Grade 3 tests.
The results galvanized school staff
and last years tests were a different
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.
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 dont
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
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,"
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 years 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.
"Whats the best we can do for our students? How can we help them to compete?
How can we close the skills gaps weve identified and give them the best possible
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 Gates teachers.
"This isnt 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
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
schools 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
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 dont 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. Whats
most important is not necessarily the answer, but how that answer was arrived at
not just the facts but an analysis of the facts. "Its 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."
Bowmans message didnt 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 Bowmans 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."
TO DEMAND MORE
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 shes 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
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
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 Bowmans 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 Gates halls. The news was better than many
people expected. Considerably.
Brandon Gate had leapt into the top third of all of Peels 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 cant lose if youre doing it for the kids. Even if wed
done badly, it still would have been a good learning experience ...Fortunately, it all
While not as dramatic as 1998s, 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
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. "Its not just repetition thats 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.
"Weve a lot of kids here who are beating the provincial average
quite handily, and were happy with the results," says Bowman.
"We know they did the best they could," says James-Harris.
"Thats all we wanted from them to give us the best reflection of
The staff at Brandon Gate Public School can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org