New leader, focus lift Fulton school from ‘F’ to ‘B’ on state report card

Miranda Freeman was still identifying areas for improvement at Cliftondale Elementary School when she learned the school scored an F on the state’s report card for progress.

Freeman, who returned to the Fulton County School System school as Cliftondale's principal in February 2018 after a previous stint at the school, said she knew going half a year without a permanent leader had affected things. She did not know how much until those scores were delivered.

“We’ve always had scores that showed what we could do,” she said. “The feeling of being labeled an F school … pushed us. We knew we were more than just our test scores. But that’s how the state grades us.”

In less than a year, Cliftondale Elementary School raised its College and Career Ready Performance Index score to a B, showing significant improvement in “school culture” and student achievement. District officials touted a clear mission to deal with an inconsistent culture and increase focus on literacy, led by its new principal with help from supportive teachers and parents.

Carrying out that mission involved making higher standards clear to everyone, and instruction that went beyond teaching students what answers to mark on tests.

“This is a dramatic achievement with gains in all levels and across the district,” Chief Academic Officer Cliff Jones said. “Our CCRPI and Climate Star rankings reflect great work by our professional teachers, principals and staff.” (Georgia’s Climate Star rating, a component of the index, is “a diagnostic tool to determine if a school is on the right path to school improvement,” the state education department says, based on surveys of parents, students and teachers; discipline reports, and student attendance rate.)

The school’s improvement, up from 57.9 to 81.2 on the annual index was the district’s biggest improvement, and ranked among the largest individual school improvements across the state.

CCRPI, as it is known, rates schools on several components, including content mastery, closing gaps, progress and readiness. High schools also are judged using their graduation rates. The district's overall score increased nearly three points to 83.8, nearly 8 points ahead of the state average.

The district’s number of schools scoring in the F range — below 60 — also fell dramatically, down to six in 2019 from 15 the previous year and as many as 25 in 2015.

Some of Cliftondale’s staff preferred to talk about its present and future rather than rehashing why the growth spurt was necessary.

Erica Jones, who teaches third grade, said Freeman arrived with expectations of the school community — parents, students and teachers alike — that held them to a higher standard, something that had been missing during the time the school did not have permanent leadership.

“We had to go back and reflect on what we were doing to see what we had to do differently to make sure we improved as a school,” said Jones, who has been teaching for 16 years. “Having a leader to come in with a clear vision … put it in perspective for what we needed to be doing going forward.”

Immediately, Freeman said she put a focus on literacy and “excellence in education for every student every day,” the school’s mission statement. That included making sure parents understood what students were working on and that the students understood the lessons they were being taught. Not only were students going to be reading, Freeman said, they were going to be analyzing characters from their reading materials, making predictions along the way.

“That’s different from marking something on a test,” Freeman said. “If our students don’t know something the first time, we work with them until they master it. (The CCRPI scores) opened our eyes to what we had to do to ensure our children were learning.

“We needed to ensure our children were learning.”

Parent Franchesca Warren also said an unsteadiness was evident when the school went without a full-time principal. During the time, she said it did not feel as if the students or their education were priorities. It was worse for students with Individualized Education Programs, specially designed learning plans for some students with special needs and accommodations.

“Those students were left to fend for themselves,” she said. “Those kids need even more help to make sure they’re proficient. Some (people) wrote off the school.”

She said things changed when parents were allowed to sit on the committee to pick the new principal.

"We wanted to make sure the vision was clear: that we were a small neighborhood school and we wanted to be the best private school a public school can be," she said, referring to a private school-like environment where people are more invested in the process. "We needed to make sure people who go here feel like it's family."

Freeman said she first got the news from her regional superintendent, Gyimah Whitaker, who did not initially say how much the score improved. When she was told the school’s score moved from an F to a B, she said she cried.

“I knew how hard everybody — from our teachers to our students and parents — had worked to make sure our students were successful,” she said. “It meant all the time we poured into our students and this school … was worth it.”