Palolo Elementary turns to planet to boost test scores

Once considered one of the worst schools in the state, Palolo Elementary has turned a new leaf by focusing on the planet.

Seven years ago, Ruth Silberstein, who was the school’s principal and is now complex area superintendent, was faced with low test scores and many other obstacles.

“We had just come out of restructuring and our scores plateaued somewhat,” she said. “At that time, students only spoke in one word sentences.”

Something had to change and she turned to Planet Earth for inspiration.

Silberstein helped develop a new sustainability-based curriculum where kids K-5 learn something new every year, starting with the rainforest, litter, soil erosion, water, gardening and energy.

“Each grade level chose a global problem and went into project-based learning that incorporated high-level thinking,” Silberstein said.

“It’s really relevant to them and we are solving real-life problems using the engineering design process,” said Palolo Elementary principal Reid Kuba.

In 2002, only one percent of students showed proficiency in math. In 2013, it was 78 percent.

“It’s because they had to become the teachers,” Silberstein said. “The students leading where the teacher becomes the facilitator.”

Instead of being kept in the classroom, kids were getting hands-on experience getting their hands dirty and conducting presentations, working in groups and educating others.

“The bigger picture is I think our students are getting the life skills to persevere and solve problems,” Kuba said.

More than 300 students attend Palolo Elementary. Ninety-seven-percent of them receive free or reduced lunch, 95-percent are considered at-risk, and half are still learning to speak English.

“I like it because my teacher is fun and I have a lot of friends here and I like learning about stuff,” said kindergartener Zaydee Morales.

“I think (teaching) should be that way and it’s heading that way across the nation,” Silberstein said.

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