Chalkbeat is talking with principals across the city at schools that made some of the biggest ISTEP gains in 2017 to explore what was behind their school’s progress and identify possible lessons for other schools.

As the five William Henry Burkhart Elementary students clustered closely around two tables full of xylophones, they turned toward their teacher, awaiting her signal.

“Ready, let’s see!” said the music teacher, Sandy Rogers. “We’re going down first. One, two, ready, go.”

The first-graders plunked their mallets on each bar, methodically moving down the scale as they said each note aloud. Then they repeated the exercise, this time going up the scale. But one boy in a crimson sweatshirt struggled to make the transition. Rogers went over to him to demonstrate more closely.

“It’s amazing to watch them grow and learn,” said Principal Darlene Hardesty, who was observing the class. The boy was an English-learner who was new to the school last year, she said, and he’s already made significant progress with his language skills.

A minute later, the students repeated the exercise, and this time everyone got it right, including the struggling boy. After the last note, Rogers cheered.

“Ahh, that’s it!” she exclaimed. “High five, great job!”

Hardesty, in her 12th year at the school, said Burkhart’s focus on fine arts sets it apart from other schools in Perry Township. But that’s not all it has to be proud of this year — once again, the 733-student school posted strong state test scores, along with keeping its A grade.

Burkhart’s ISTEP passing rates jumped 9.4 percentage points to 63.2 percent of students passing both English and math exams, higher than the state average. Both figures — passing rates and growth — factor into a school’s letter grade.

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

Almost 80 percent of Burkhart students qualify for subsidized meals, and 38 percent are learning English as a new language. Many of those English-learners are also refugees from Burma, a trend across the district.

The district as a whole last year was focused on tracking student progress on English and math skills though a new system called Evaluate. Students and teachers both track results from tests together each month, using a stoplight model — red, yellow, green — to indicate in their records what a student has mastered and what he still needs to work on.

Of the Marion County township elementary schools with the highest ISTEP gains, four were from Perry Township. Every Perry principal who spoke to Chalkbeat this fall mentioned the new data tracking system as a key to their improvement.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Hardesty to talk about her school’s progress. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you had made this year?

I was so excited for our students and our staff. They’ve all worked so hard to close the gap and to make significant gains. You can look from the last year to this year and you know in both English language arts and math, though we continue to accept refugee students and our population continues to change, we are still helping children grow. That’s what we do, that’s our business, and I was so excited to see where we were improving from last year. I was very proud of them.

What do you think made the difference?

One of the things I think really helped us drive instruction this past year, and that we’re using again this year, is a program called Evaluate. It’s a benchmark assessment …  that really helped our teachers to give more focused instruction and our students to gain from that.

Also, in Perry Township we all have master teachers who lead our professional development each week. Each school sets a goal, and our goal was in the area of (English) to increase from last year. We were focused specifically on reading small groups — looking at core vocabulary and things of that nature so we could target what teachers were teaching and then applying that with our students so they could improve.

With Evaluate, students take a monthly assessment in the area of English language arts and the area of math, and then students track that data to see how they are improving. Are they growing in the area of proficiency or getting above threshold for grade level standards? They also would set goals each month: What is something I struggled with? What did I do well with? How could I do better?

Teachers, you’d see them participate in assessment of their own data. There are reports they can access and see by skill, which children are showing mastery and which are not. We meet as teams of teachers to discuss what are strategies we can put in place. What are lesson ideas and things we can do to meet the needs of our students.

What is your school community and culture like?

We are a very diverse school community. (Many) of our students are English-learners, some of those being brand new to the language and some of those getting close to exiting the program.

Burkhart, we like to affectionately call it “Beautiful Burkhart.” It really is a unique place to teach and for children to learn. We do have a focus on the arts. You’ll notice as you go through the building, we have stained glass pieces that our students have created, mosaic tiles. Things where we’ve invited visiting artists in and do unique learning opportunities for our kids. So that’s something that makes us special.

We have a choir called All That Jazz … they perform quite a bit for churches, organizations and community endeavors. They go to Gatlinburg (in Tennessee) every spring and compete in the Smoky Mountain Music Festival. We have an incredible music teacher who really supports the development of our students in that way.

We’ve been working on building our volunteer base trying to get support from our community friends. Several church groups volunteer, and parents and grandparents come and spend time reading with students and working math facts. We’re so grateful for our community support.

What is your vision for Burkhart and how you want to move the school forward?

We’re always looking to continue to grow and to learn more. It’s that constant assessment of our own work — is what we’re doing effective? And how can we continue to help kids get to that next level?

We know we get them for such a short amount of time. The school days go by so quickly, and the years go by so quickly, so our time is limited and giving them everything we can in that limited time is the focus we always come back to.