After years of lagging behind, Western Middle School surges forward

November 26, 2017 GMT

GREENWICH — Principal Gordon Beinstein stood before a group of 20 Greenwich Realtors and tried to sell them on his school. Greenwich’s most diverse middle school is rewriting its mixed history of academic performance, he said.

“At Western, we are going to beat yesterday,” he told them. “We’re on the upswing, as you can see, and it’s only going to get better.”

In the middle school’s library, he paged through a presentation highlighting Western’s improving test scores. Math and English results on the Smarter Balanced Assessment have climbed in each of the past three years, he showed them.

In a survey last year, 95 percent of parents reported their children enjoyed coming to Western every day. That’s middle schoolers liking school, Beinstein, a 30-year educator, emphasized. Middle schoolers, he repeated. The Realtors chuckled.

The tone of the morning was fervently positive, but toward the end, Beinstein became more serious. He needed their help, Beinstein told the agents. The old narrative about Western no longer applied, he said. As the Realtors are the ones literally selling the town and its neighborhoods, he needed their help getting the new story out.

“I don’t misinformation spread,” he said. “This is a phenomenal school. For a variety of reasons, people choose to demonize or badmouth this building, who have never set foot in here.”

Solid growth

Western has consistently been Greenwich’s lowest performing public middle school.

According to data from the state Department of Education, Western’s eighth graders have scored worse than Central’s and Eastern’s in reading, writing and math on standardized tests almost every year for the past decade.

Just three years ago, only 41.6 percent of Western students were proficient in math. That same year, 74.4 percent of Eastern students were proficient.

Realtors told Beinstein that some clients refuse to look at homes on the western side of town because the reputation of the schools — based on what they read on websites like Zillow or hear from friends — is so poor.

“When I first moved here eight years ago, there was a big concern of ‘Well we can live on this side of town’ — in some areas it was more affordable for a starter home in Greenwich — ‘but then we must move before middle school,’” said Theresa Hatten, executive vice president of the Greenwich Association of Realtors.

Beinstein said that kind of reaction to Western was based on “misinformation,” perceptions based on the skin color of his students and “a vary narrow look at a test score.”

The principal is determined to change that way of thinking. And he believes he has the evidence he needs to do it.

While Central and Eastern saw their English Smarter Balanced Assessment scores drop in each of the past three years, the percent of Western students meeting benchmark climbed by 8 percentage points. In 2014-15, 60 percent of Western students were proficient in English, compared with 68 percent in 2016-17, according to the state Department of Education. Last year, more Western Middle School students were proficient in English than at Central.

In math, Western increased the percent of students scoring at benchmark by 11 points in the past three years. Last year, 52.6 percent of students were proficient.

When Beinstein talks about the numbers, he gets most excited about “cohort growth.” Whereas in sixth grade only 53 percent of last year’s eighth graders were proficient in English, by their final year at Western, 75 percent were at benchmark, according to data provided by the school. Likewise, in math, just 36 percent of sixth graders were proficient three years ago, but by the time that same class was in eighth grade, 57 percent scored at benchmark on the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

“We are making remarkable growth, not just with our students who struggle, but with all of our students,” said Beinstein. “We are leading the league in student growth — and that’s every school, every elementary, every middle, every high school.”

The school has seen 83 percent growth in the number of students in advanced math classes since 2014, Beinstein said. Western’s Quiz Bowl team is nationally ranked; the debate team made it to state finals. Nearly two thirds of students perform in a music group.

When Beinstein presented these numbers to the Board of Education in October, the room broke into applause.

“It is a wealth gap”

Western’s scores are not likely to surpass those at Eastern. The Byram school faces challenges that Central and Eastern middle schools don’t.

“We have a diverse population,” said Beinstein. Some 53 percent of Western students are minorities, most identifying as Hispanic.

According to the Greenwich Public Schools 2017 enrollment report, some 45 percent of Western students this year are low-income, receiving special education services or learning to speak English. That’s about 264 students. Central and Eastern middle schools have fewer high needs students combined.

“The achievement gap, to be clear, is not a race gap, is not a language gap; it is a wealth gap,” Beinstein said. “Schools do not cause these gaps but we are responsible for closing them. And at Western we are doing just that.”

When compared to schools with similar numbers of low-income students, such as Dolan or Cloonan middle schools in Stamford or West Rocks or Nathan Hale middle schools in Norwalk, Western leads the pack with more low-income students scoring at proficient levels in English and math than any other.

Teachers driving change

Since Beinstein came to Western five years ago, he has hired almost all of the staff who currently work at the school. It is the teachers — their many extra hours before and after school with students, their growth mindset and their tough love — who deserve the credit for improving student performance, he said.

“It’s the idea that — I get the fact that you may be a little bit disadvantaged. Maybe mom is working two jobs, maybe you don’t have everything,” explained Beinstein. “But that doesn’t allow us to lower our expectations for you. The world doesn’t care. It’s really important that regardless of what you come in with, you are held to the standard because you are going to high school in three years. And they don’t care, and they shouldn’t. So we care in a sense that we support them. We make sure they have breakfast, we make sure they have a binder, we make sure they are well-clothed. But the homework is still due.”

Teachers and administrators have also made concrete changes that may be driving student success. Teachers increasingly use assessment data to diagnose student learning needs. Western has used its Title I funding — federal supplemental funding it is awarded to support the large number of low-income students who attend — to hire more interventionists who give students struggling with literacy or other skills targeted instruction outside of the general education classroom.

A Spanish-speaking liaison ensures that Western’s many Hispanic families are in regular communication with the school. The school has taken many strategies from AVID, a program that supports students in the academic middle who want to be the first in their family to go to college, and implemented them school-wide, such as having students use one binder to promote organization and encouraging them to set more academic goals.

“I came here in seventh grade (from Jamaica) so it was pretty hard for me to get a hang of all the subjects and the different workload,” said eighth-grader Shimeika Denton. “Throughout seventh grade, I didn’t understand much so (the teachers) helped support me. ... Sometimes, after school I would go to them and they would help me or reteach some of the things they taught in class.”

Eighth-grader Joelle Singer Jensen added, “Western really has such an amazing staff.”

That’s important, she said, because “if you really have a friendship, let’s say with your math teacher, then you are really going to take in the learning more. The teachers are really nice and they all try to help the students as much as they can and I really admire Western for that.”

Beinstein just wants the good word about Western’s teachers, students and scores to start spreading, he said.

“Parents say, ‘You’re the hidden gem,’” he said. “I don’t want to be hidden any more.”

emunson@greenwichtime.com; Twitter: @emiliemunson