PORT CHARLOTTE — Teachers Sonia Sifrit and Phebe Westby are on opposite sides of the classroom. Each instructor is seated at a table and surrounded by a group of third graders who are working diligently on their lesson of the day. One group suffers learning disabilities, the other is highly advanced, but to an outsider entering the room for the first time, it is difficult to determine which is which.
Neil Armstrong Elementary School is one of the top-performing schools in Charlotte County, but it has some of the most restrictive demographics. Over
25 percent of students are considered disabled, while nearly 78 percent receive free or reduced lunch.
“Neil Armstrong is a true success story,” said Charlotte County Superintendent Doug Whittaker. “They serve as an example that schools can overcome all obstacles.”
Students enrolled in Neil Armstrong’s Exceptional Student Education program, or ESE, which serves those suffering learning disabilities, scored 20 percent higher than the district average and 30 percent higher than the state on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in 2012.
However, four years ago, uttering the name of the school seemed to have a negative connotation. Parents didn’t want their kids going there, and the teachers didn’t feel validated.
Despite obstacles, the school has earned an A grade for the past few years and has gained popularity. A quarter of attendees selected Neil Armstrong instead of the school they were assigned based on their geographic location.
“We have really transformed our school,” said Principal Angie Taillon. “It would be impossible to pinpoint what did it. It was a joint effort between teachers, parents and students.”
The first thing Taillon did when she took over as principal was to remarket the school in a positive light. The emblem of the astro became “the positive astro,” and was redesigned by a Port Charlotte High School art student. Taillon also organized a group of parents to recommend ideas for the school’s reconditioning.
Next, Taillon revised the protocol for ESE students. Instead of pulling them out of class every day and separating them from the rest of their peers, she created a differentiated instruction pattern where teachers explain the lesson. Then an ESE teacher comes into the classroom and works with the special needs students while the classroom teacher administers different approaches to the other students.
“The problem with pulling out the ESE kids is that you lose time during the transition — almost 30 minutes a day,” said Taillon. “Plus now the kids are working together. It is much easier to complain and cry about the work being too hard when there is no positive role model sitting next to you.”
Neil Armstrong also implemented the Leader in Me Program, which teaches children responsibility and independence by encouraging them to overcome their surroundings.”
“You can’t take anything for granted with these children,” said Taillon. “They come from broken homes, from foster care, from living with grandparents, but we want them to forget about all that when they walk in the door.”
Taillon said because there are so many children on the lower end of the socioeconomic level, teachers try not to dwell on things like homework, and try to get children focused in the classroom. She also implemented a mentor program where older children help youngsters build positive academic and social skills.
To challenge those children who perform above their grade level, teachers customize each child’s reading materials so they will remain challenged. Not only have the lower-performing children improved, but those that score in the upper percentile on their FCAT have maintained their score.
“Our teachers are also learners,” said Taillon. “They are always improving upon themselves and if something doesn’t work, they do something else. Our curriculum is constantly changing — it has to in order to keep up with our hi-tech world.”