Mayflower educators suspect their students are smarter than state test scores show, so they came up with a plan to encourage them to do better on this year's tests.
"What we felt like is that our kids weren't performing at the level they're capable, and it all had to do with motivation," Mayflower Assistant Superintendent Rhonda Bradford said.
During a brainstorming session, Elementary Principal Chris Dayer came up with a fun idea. She suggested that younger students become pen pals with the students taking the standardized tests and write them encouraging notes.
Mayflower students in the fourth, sixth and eighth grades recently took the state benchmark exams and 11th-graders took end-of-course exams.
"We wanted to motivate the kids to do their best on the test and we thought what better way to motivate them than have a little kid write to them, because you don't want to let a little kid down. How can you look into a little face and say, 'I don't care, I'm just going to write anything?'" Dayer said.
Mayflower kindergarten students wrote letters to fourth-graders; first-graders wrote to sixth-graders; second-graders wrote to eighth-graders; and third-grade students wrote the 11th-graders.
"They were telling them to do their best on the test, take their time, be sure you read every question, things they've heard teachers say," Dayer said with a laugh. "The younger students were telling them, 'We're proud of you' and 'We want you to do your best.'"
In addition, the school got parents involved. "We also sent out individual cards to all of our parents to send back in, writing their child a note of encouragement, and we read them that morning," Bradford said.
One teacher told her, "You can't even imagine how many times those kids have read those things," Bradford recalled.
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Dayer said the district went the extra mile to get parents to mail in the notes, providing postage and in come cases, prodding. "Our teachers got on the phone and called and said, 'Hey, it's just a few words.' We felt that would be a powerful tool if the first thing they saw was a note from their mom or dad saying, 'I believe in you.'"
Several students taped the encouraging notes to their desks, Dayer said.
A schoolwide hamburger cookout was held for all students, and they got to meet their pen pals. Mayflower Superintendent Mark Crowder and Blake Browning, business development officer for First State Bank, cooked approximately 1,000 hamburgers. School board member Mike Raney helped grill hundreds of hot dogs. First State Bank supplied the cooker and school cafeteria workers helped serve the food.
"At the big picnic, there were a lot of those older middle school and high school kids saying, 'Where can I find my pen pal?' One was carrying his pen pal on his shoulders. Some were crying, because their pen pal wasn't there," Dayer said. A few students who were missing because of a chess competition got to meet their younger pen pals with a private lunch in the teachers' lounge, she added.
Crowder said he wants to make the picnic an annual event. The pen-pal project was successful, too, he said. "There were side benefits we didn't anticipate, like kids getting together and getting reinforced in positive ways." He said the younger students encouraging older ones "made more of an impact."
Bradford said the teachers wanted the students to know, "Yes, (testing) is important. No, it's not a part of your grade, but that's how we're graded as a school district."
It could be as late as September when the results come in and the district can see if scores improved.
"From all the reports I've gotten from test administrators in the buildings, the kids were putting a lot more effort into testing, so we're hoping the results are going to be a lot more positive," Bradford said.
Dayer thinks the pen-pal project will be continued. Not only did the younger students get to work on their writing skills, it enhanced communication on many levels, she said.
"I think it was good for the younger kids and the older kids to understand that this process affects everybody - you represent everybody who's behind you and everybody coming before you, because it's a culmination of everything that's been taught since kindergarten. We'll find out when we get those test scores back how well it worked."