As a way to boost her students’ vocabulary, LaTanya Sothern introduced a “word bank graveyard” at Excel Academy Public Charter School. It’s a figurative cemetery where basic words like “good,” “bad” and “nice” are laid to rest and replaced with multisyllabic words like “excellent,” “fabulous” and “incomparable.”

It’s one of the methods the Prince George’s County principal says contributed to her school’s huge improvement in English Language Arts achievement since the pandemic. Back in 2019, only 14% of Excel Academy’s students were proficient on the state’s English test. This spring, 45% passed the test, approaching the statewide pass rate of 47%.

Excel, located in Fort Washington just south of D.C., was among the top 50 schools statewide making the greatest improvements on their students’ Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program scores since 2019. Of the 50 most improved, 26 were Prince George’s County schools, a Baltimore Banner analysis found.

A focus on writing, sharing strategies among schools and strong leadership were named as reasons for the spike in test scores by principals around the district, showing that there wasn’t one special formula. But they consistently said targeted, data-driven interventions were one thing that worked.

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District leaders said they used federal funds to expand interventions, or personalized instruction for struggling students. At Excel, they used a computer-based program with lessons based on the science of reading. It’s normally for students with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, but Sothern thought most of her students would benefit from it.

There were two veteran fourth grade teachers Sothern also credited with Excel’s improvement. They worked with students in small groups, analyzed data to see how students performed and targeted students who needed the most help. Fourth graders went from being 46% proficient in 2022 to 60% proficient this spring.

“Now, I have been a teacher for a long time, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been at a school where a grade level of students were at 60% proficient,” Sothern said. “Some schools were used to that. I’m not used to that. That was really phenomenal.”

Improving in English was a challenge at Clinton Grove Elementary School in southern Prince George’s County. In 2019, only 5% of its third graders were proficient in English, while just under 20% of fourth graders passed the test.

When Principal Renee Hall-McNeil arrived in 2020, she was competitive about boosting scores. So she made it the theme in the recovery process.

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“That meant taking on a coaching mentality in terms of looking at assessments, which I consider my playbook,” she said.

The quarterly benchmark assessments are the playoffs, and MCAP is the Super Bowl. The benchmark tests, which are county exams, tell staff how many students are proficient and where students are struggling. Teachers focus on those weaknesses during small group instruction, said Hall-McNeil.

Now, 42.4% of Clinton Grove third graders and 44.1% of fourth graders are proficient on the MCAP exam. Overall, the school went from 10% in 2019 to 36% in 2023.

Former Prince George’s County Superintendent Monica Goldson said having students write more could be another reason for the district’s gains.

When classes were virtual during the pandemic, the only way to assess what students were learning was to get them to write it out. That prompted a three-year focus on writing. Before then, “our kids weren’t writing about what they were learning,” Goldson said.

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The district also arranged for teachers, and sometimes central office staff, to visit other schools a few times a year and learn about practices that helped students there. Those visits, called “lesson walks,” played a part in Largo High School’s boost from 17% English proficiency in 2019 to 48% this year, said Principal Albert Lewis.

Afterward, the demonstrator received feedback from visitors. “And then we all have a collaborative discussion around how we want to improve instruction moving forward,” Lewis said.

His recommendations to other schools who want to improve are to have the right leaders and teachers in place who want students to succeed, “but who also commit to the process of improvement,” he added.

Liz Bowie contributed reporting.

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