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Education Commissioner lauds Academy School for academic success

BRATTLEBORO—In 2006, Academy School was in trouble.

The scores from the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests found 30 percent of Academy students tested “substantially below proficient” in math, and 12 percent were at that level in reading.

Five years later, Academy led all elementary and middle schools in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union with more than 70 percent of students at or above proficiency in math.

And Academy was third, just behind Brattleboro Area Middle School and Dummerston School, with nearly 80 percent proficiency in reading.

The “substantially below proficient” scores declined at Academy in 2011 to 4 percent in reading and 11 percent in math.

At the same time, the number of Academy students who earned “proficient with distinction” scores went from 10 percent in 2006 to 25 percent in math in 2011, and from 8 percent to 25 percent in reading during the same period.

These results proudly hang in the lobby of Academy School, and caught the eye of state Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca during his visit to the school on Oct. 24.

“This is why I’m here,” said Villaseca to Academy Principal Andy Paciulli and WSESU Superintendent Ron Stahley. “These scores are just spectacular. Your special education students scored higher than the general population did five years ago.”

This progress is even more remarkable when you look at the conditions they took place in.

Unlike Green Street and Oak Grove schools, which are more neighborhood schools, Paciulli said Academy is the biggest elementary school in Brattleboro, with 375 students in grades K-6.

Stahley pointed out the shadow of poverty hangs over all three elementary schools, as 60 percent of Brattleboro’s students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

“There’s a lot more poverty in town than there used to be,” said Stahley.

“And a lot more homelessness,” added Paciulli. “All three schools are affected, but we see more of it because we’re the biggest school.”

Vilaseca said he was most impressed with the work that the Academy staff has done to improve special education, prevent learning disabilities, and to quickly intervene when students start falling behind with remedial classes before and after school.

Paciulli said that this two-prong approach of improving instruction for special education students, and catching them before they fall, is done by having the special ed teachers work closely with the rest of the Academy staff.

“Traditionally at most schools, special ed teachers are off by themselves,” said Vilaseca.

Paciulli also pointed to a “no excuses” policy at the school. To achieve the goal of making sure every Academy student is able to read by third grade, he said the focus of the staff is making sure every student gets what he or she needs to succeed.

“That costs a lot of money,” said Vilaseca. “but it’s hard to argue when you look at the results. When these kids are in middle and high school, this will pay big dividends. I’ll be talking about this program everywhere I go.”

After a brief meeting with Stahley, Paciulli and assistant principal Jenn O’Neill, Vilaseca toured classrooms around the school led by sixth-graders Jack Price and Olivia Reil. He later met with Academy parent groups.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #176 (Wednesday, October 31, 2012).

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