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Dogwood, on the Rise

Scores at Dogwood continue to rebound, minority students excel.

Fittingly, Hope Metcalf never lost it. Hope that is. Now, that faith and hard work is beginning to pay dividends for Metcalf, her colleagues and their students at Dogwood Elementary School. A third grade teacher, Metcalf has been at Dogwood for five years, arriving at the same time as principal Ricki Harvey. Together, the two joined shortly after it became a "Project Excel" school.

Implemented in 1999, Project Excel, provided students in 20 of the county's so-called "high impact" elementary schools with an enhanced and lengthened academic program, according to the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). Among other changes Dogwood undertook was a modified school calendar and full-day Kindergarten.

One year after its designation, Dogwood burned to the ground, moving students and staff to a host of different temporary locations for a year and a half while the new Dogwood was built.

As an incentive for Project Excel schools to raise student achievement, the county promised bonuses to all staff members if periodic goals were reached. Last week, Harvey got the news she had been waiting to hear. "I thought of Hope and other teachers who have been here since we started," Harvey said. "Hope's cried with me, she has struggled alongside me."

One year ago, Harvey remembers telling Metcalf that Dogwood's SOL goals would be met. "It's going to happen, it's going to happen," she remembers saying. "Just stay the course."

Metcalf kept working, kept hoping. "Ricki, I know you are our cheerleader, but I just want to know if it is going to happen in my lifetime," Harvey said Metcalf told her.

Last week, it did. FCPS awarded Dogwood a "silver medal award," after being the only Project Excel school to meet its targets, Harvey said. "It takes a whole team and that means the teachers, custodians and secretaries will all be getting bonuses," Harvey said.

For Metcalf and her fellow teachers, the news was welcome validation. "It's my fifth year and I wasn't sure I would ever see it,"

Metcalf said. "Yeah, it felt really good."

Harvey says she understands that progress can take time. "What I am so proud of is, that if you really look at it, we've had one full year — last year," Harvey said. "All of those other years counted but there were just so many challenges keeping it from coming together."

Luanne Grabski, a Dogwood parent, agrees. "Mrs. Harvey has put together a whole new team and has gotten rid of all the 'nay-sayers' The attitude around the school is night and day from what it was," said Grabski, who has had children in Dogwood for nine years.

Metcalf, too, can feel and see the difference in Dogwood. "My first year, I could count the days that I thought went well on one hand," she said. "That's no comparison to how I feel at the end of most days now."

FOR A SCHOOL STILL rebounding from a devastating fire, the recent news is one in a string of positives developments. Last month, it was announced Dogwood had increased its SOL scores, marking the first time it met state standards in all four subject areas. Dogwood saw a 15-point increase in math scores, a 14-point growth in science scores and 17-point jump in English scores. While still meeting minimum state standards, Dogwood's history scores fell by eight points. Harvey insists that those tests will be a priority for staff and students in the coming year.

Dogwood parent Mary Whaley who has a first and a fifth grader at Dogwood credits the year-round education, coupled with Harvey's leadership and new staff, with turning Dogwood around. The modified calendar keeps students and teachers "at the top of their games," Whaley said, adding that her children look forward to the intercession classes held each break. "Students don't forget what they learned and teachers don't hit the wall when May rolls around."

Grabski says the modified calendar helps struggling children catch up, while keeping stronger students from "losing their edge." "It's a big improvement."

PERHAPS THE MOST REMARKABLE news came in September. On the surface, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) report issued by the Virginia Department of Education showed that Dogwood was one of three Reston elementary schools not to meet its federally-mandated "adequate yearly progress (AYP)" targets in a broad range of subgroups, including Hispanic students, limited English proficient students and black students.

Last year, the school saw an eye-opening 300 percent increase in the number of students in its English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. At the culturally diverse Dogwood, 55 percent of the students receive "free and reduced" lunches. "That is higher than any other elementary school in Reston," Harvey said.

A closer look at the NCLB numbers reveals the successes that Dogwood has had, especially in regards to minority student achievement. As a group, black students at Dogwood scored higher on the NCLB tests — both math and reading/language arts — than any other Reston elementary school. In fact, four of the eight Reston schools scored below the county and state averages on math and three of those schools scored below the county and state averages on the reading test, as well. Dogwood, on the other hand, scored 16 points higher than the Fairfax County and Virginia averages in math, and 11 and 12 points higher on the reading scores, respectively.

While not as dramatic, Dogwood's Hispanic student achievement was no less significant in comparison to other Reston schools. According to the reports, Dogwood had the third highest scores in both categories, equaling or exceeding both the state and county averages.

In the economically disadvantaged student achievement category, Dogwood again scored highly, besting all other Reston schools in math scores and finishing second only to Aldrin in reading.

Metcalf isn't surprised. "We take every child no matter where they come from and try to push them as far as they can go," she said. "We treat every child as an individual. A lot of the minority students have language barriers and other things that would typically be holding them back, but we really try to give them extra support."

SUSAN TANGEN, the PTA president, has two children at Dogwood. Unlike some of her neighbors, who pupil placed their children at GT centers at other schools, Tangen kept her children at Dogwood. "I sent my daughter there specifically because of Ricki Harvey," she said. "I saw something in her from the moment she came here. You knew she had it. She sets an incredibly high standards and hired an amazing group of teachers. The change here is phenomenal."

Now, Tangen says she sees more of her neighbors keeping their children enrolled at Dogwood.

Parents like Grabski, Whaley and Tangen find that the diverse student population at Dogwood has been a positive experience for their children. "This ethnicity reflects the world," Grabski said. "This is reality and this is the world where they live. Why should we hide that from our kids. I think when some students arrive at Langston Hughes, they are in for a shock."

"All of my kids are very accepting," Tangen said. "They have friends of all different cultures and I credit Dogwood with that."

Metcalf credited the Dogwood parents, as well. "We've really grown into a tight community," the teacher said. "I see much more parent involvement and I see many happier kids who are taking pride in the gains they make each day, week and year."

WITH NO GT CENTER or language immersion program, Dogwood doesn't have the luxury of attracting high achieving students from outside their natural zone. "We're really committed to making sure that every child gets this fabulous education. We are one of the only schools in Reston that doesn't have a special program that provides that other group of kids that help you pass the scores," Harvey said. "So we're not masking any of those students where they might need to be, so our goal, from day one, has been: Every kid has got to get what they need and every kid has got to be extended. It is a great challenge."

Harvey proudly points to her students success on the math portion of the SOL. "Last year, 33 percent of our third graders passed the math SOL in the advanced range--33 percent is really high in the math range," the principal said. "We've got 70 kids in the Young Scholars Program in K-2. So while people tend to look at the overall scores as low in the past, but what they weren't seeing reflected are those [ESOL] kids or those kids who just moved here. We've got kids in fifth grade who have never been in school before, and they don't speak English."

But Harvey isn't making excuses, only explaining what her staff is up against every day. "What we do know is that over the last few years, we've really been stretching those kids who could do it," Harvey said.