'F' has meant change for Fifth Street

Staff Writer


Almost nothing about the letter sparks positive connotations. Failing, flunking, unsuccessful are just a few of the images.

And yet that one letter has been a motivator for a West Point school for two years.

"It was hard carrying that label around on our backs, it was tough on everyone. It was a hard, emotional professional experience," said Richard Bryant, who is in his fourth year as principal at Fifth Street Junior High.

"We knew we had worked hard. We knew that grade was not a true reflection of the kind of school we are, the kind of students we have," he added.

After standardized tests in the spring of 2015-16, the school's results left it with an "F" on the state's academic achievement scoring system. It was placed on the state's focus list, meaning it got help from the state and was under a microscope.

Following the 2016-17 tests, the school was up to a "C," a rating that's almost unheard of for middle school in the region or almost anywhere because of the aged students -- "in that awkward age between childhood and teen years" -- with which teachers are dealing.

"We improved our scores, we moved our students' learning and achievement on the tests. Look around, a 'C' is good for a middle school. But we know the hard part is just beginning," continued Bryant, who taught at Fifth Street for four years before taking over as principal.

Many educators echo Bryant's sentiment. It's one thing to get to a passing level or above. It's often more difficult to stay there and continue to grow.

The district learned some things after that first year. While the "F" was a tough symbol to bear, it made good teachers even better. And it made them more committed.

"We got smarter as educators, we taught smarter. We better understood some of the little things," he described of the process he and the staff undertook to get better.

But to stay at a "C," or to get a higher mark, students have to show more improvement on state tests. It's not enough to show the school's 200 seventh-graders and 200 eighth-graders have mastered material one more year, they have to have mastered it and then some.

During a state-mandated report to the school board recently, Bryant said that according to monitoring tests teachers give regularly, students were a little ahead of where they were last year in the critical English and language arts subject areas. And students are at about the same point in math and science.

Because of the demands on academic growth that are pivotal in standardized tests, "about the same" isn't always enough.

"We've got our work cut out for us in the last nine weeks to get back to where we were last year," Bryant told the board, referring to the "C" grade.

While it's difficult to say to a group that's been busting their backsides all year, the principal had the same message during a staff meeting this week.

The response?

"Yeah, we've got a lot of work to do, let's get to it," he said.

In talking about it, Bryant is visibly concerned the school might not maintain a "C." He knows it won't slip back to an "F," but even a "D" would hurt.

"It's the thing that keeps teachers motivated. The whole building is absolutely committed to students. It's that simple. We've got people who really care about kids. You said it, if they didn't, they'd have found something else to do," he stated.

And they'll be at it up until the minute they give the tests in early May. Given the changing emotional and mental nature of junior high students, teachers have to bring that kind of commitment.

"But kids can amaze you. We are giving them the tools, the foundation. They can do it," he stated, his words re-enforcing his optimism.

While walking the halls showing a visitor around, Bryant ducks into an administrator's office. A sign greets visitors.

"If you change nothing, nothing will change," the sign reads.

Fifth Street Junior High hopes it's changing some things.