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Grading Our Schools: Traditional format helps Bostic Elementary achieve success

Vickie and Aaron Veatch started shopping for schools when their first child, Andrew, was still a toddler. They visited several private schools in Wichita and had pretty much decided to go that route, Vickie Veatch said. Then they heard about a place called Bostic Traditional Magnet Elementary.

"It was like, 'Let's just go see what we're saying 'no' to,' " she said. "And we were just blown away by what we saw at Bostic."

Over the past 15 years, the little magnet school near Kellogg and Rock Road has earned its reputation as one of the best schools in Wichita — a shining star where kids behave, work hard, walk straight and achieve.

They also pass tests. When ranked by the percentage of students scoring proficient or above in a combined score of Kansas state assessments last spring, Bostic ranked No. 1 among 136 elementary schools in the three-county Wichita area.

Bostic received the state Standard of Excellence for every grade that took the test and in every subject area — reading, math and science. It also received the Governor's Achievement Award for being one of the top-performing schools in the state.

"From the minute the kids walk in here, the expectation is that they're going to learn," said Mark Jordan, chairman of Bostic's site council. His daughter, Hannah, is a fourth-grader at the school.

"Because of its reputation, it tends to attract students and parents who make education and academics a real priority."

It also attracts families who prefer the traditional magnet concept, which emphasizes phonics-based reading, rigorous academics, quiet classrooms and regular homework. In 1995, Bostic was the first Wichita school to require uniforms.

Bostic is small — about 300 students, two classes in each grade. It also is a pure magnet, which means it does not serve a geographic area like a neighborhood school. Everyone who wants to attend must apply.

Bostic's consistently high test scores were a factor in the Veatches' decision to send Andrew, now a fifth-grader, to the school. But its overall approach and day-to-day atmosphere persuaded them to stay. Abbie Veatch is a third-grader at the school, and baby sister Alaina will start kindergarten this fall.

"Walking up and down the hallway and seeing what the kids were doing — it's just very impressive," Vickie Veatch said. "And it felt very comfortable to me because that's what my elementary school background was.

"The walking single file, just very orderly, was what I remember elementary school being."

Parent commitment

Teachers and parents say one key to Bostic's success is an 11-item "commitment agreement" each parent must sign.

"If you hesitate to sign any of the following items, please carefully reconsider whether Bostic is the right choice for your child," the contract says.

By signing, parents agree to: "help my child welcome and revel in the challenge" of difficult work, beginning in kindergarten; expect exemplary behavior; schedule all vacations and appointments outside of school hours; "volunteer readily;" and consider retention if a child cannot perform on grade level.

"That parent buy-in is huge," said Robin Pressnall, a fourth-grade teacher. "We know we have support from our families, and you can't replicate that everywhere."

Fifth-grade teacher Linn Bertog puts it another way:

"When we send books home, we know we'll get them back. It sounds simple, but there are schools where that's just not the case."

Indeed, say district officials. Bostic doesn't face some of the challenges of some other Wichita schools, in which most students are poor or don't speak English. Less than a third of Bostic students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, compared with more than 70 percent districtwide.

Rigorous curriculum

Even so, parents and teachers note that almost all Bostic students, no matter their economic situation, are surpassing benchmarks. They credit high expectations and a rigorous curriculum.

Day to day, that means spelling tests and book reports. Students who don't turn in homework get lunchtime detention. In hallways they walk quietly, single file, with hands at their sides or behind their backs.

Kindergarten show-and-tell "isn't just 'Get up there and mumble,' " recalls Vickie Veatch.

"I just about died when Andrew got home and I saw what he was graded on. This was the criteria from my speech class in college."

Even so, "I never felt like it was some kind of elementary school boot camp," said Jordan, the Bostic dad.

"It always seems like a warm place. It's small enough that kids know each other, and the teachers know them, and it's a family."

Tiffinie Irving, Bostic's principal, says teachers continually remind students of behavior and academic expectations. Three snow days last week meant teachers reviewed rules again when wiggly, stir-crazy children returned on Friday.

"We talk about what good behavior sounds like, what it feels like, what it looks like," Irving said. "We're very explicit. We don't want any doubt about what we're here to do, and that is to be respectful and to learn."

That doesn't mean Bostic students never cut loose or have fun.

Amy DeLong's kindergarten class wore crazy, speckled "sight word glasses" during a reading lesson last week. The glasses have a google eye glued to the middle of the frames "to help us see and recognize new words," DeLong said, smiling.

Later this month, the students will dissect a cow heart and pig lungs as part of a science lesson, then celebrate Valentine's Day with a Mardi Gras-themed party.

"Once our families come (to Bostic) they stay, and that shows that they believe what we're doing is working for their child," said Irving, the principal.

Jordan said he understands how people could see Bostic's test scores and look for ways to replicate the program. Since the Wichita district first transformed two elementaries to traditional magnets in 1994 — Bostic on the east side and Black on the west — two more traditional elementaries and a middle school have been created.

But it's not as simple as adopting a curriculum or wearing uniforms, Jordan said.

"There's no magic Bostic dust that we sprinkle over the kids when they come through the door that just makes them good students," he said. "It's hard work, and it's a lot of different things coming together that makes this a school that a lot of people believe in."

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