Rural school's turnaround comes with lots of help

Sunday, January 11th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHERRY TREE, Okla. (AP) _ The new superintendent arrived in the summer when the hills were green and the snakes thick in the overgrown yard of Dahlonegah School.

The cars haphazardly parked outside the rundown building assured Jeff Limore he'd entered chaos.

``There were no lines!'' he still exclaims five years later. ``And so we painted lines. We got some order there.''

Paint doesn't take one of the state's worst performing schools and make it one of the most improved. But it was a step _ just like running off the snakes, rousing absent students from their homes and sacrificing Spring Break to prepare for state tests.

The recovery of the school, set on a curving road of cow pastures south of Stilwell, comes down to a literal interpretation of the federal ``No Child Left Behind'' mandate.

``We don't allow students to fail,'' Limore says.

No district scored higher than Dahlonegah's 1,373 on the latest state index of school performance, preliminary results show.

The index, based on factors such as standardized test scores and attendance, is designed to address improvement, not compare districts. But even it fails to show how far this kindergarten through eighth grade school of just 133 pupils has come.

``They could have shut us down,'' says school board president Tommie Moton, recalling the shame of the late 1990s that others here try to forget.

Financial discrepancies had led to yet unresolved charges against some former school officials. The district had scored poorly on mandated tests, bringing the state's nearly bottom-barrel label of ``low-performing.'' In 1997, the state seized control of the district.

Turning the school around took help, and ``we took it from anybody we could get it from,'' says Moton, who came in with a new administration.

The district sought federal, state and Cherokee Nation grants.

The grants paid to send teachers to conferences for training and for assistance from the University of Oklahoma. They covered tutors to work one-on-one with students and bought curriculum to boost students' academic and life skills.

When Limore was hired in 1999 from another district, test scores were already on the rise. But teachers credit him with raising expectations to the point they forfeited Spring Break last year so they could cover more ground before state standardized tests. They plan to do the same this year.

In 2001-2002, every fifth grader showed advanced performance in math compared with no students just two years earlier. Notable improvement also came in reading and science scores.

``You see teachers feeling good about themselves, and that spills over into the classroom,'' says second grade teacher Phyillis Kimble, who has taught here 12 years.

Limore is a big man who looks even bigger when tiny pupils wrap themselves around his familiar legs. He knows every pupil's name and he knows where they live in Cherry Tree, a community of homes and trailers scattered along U.S. 59.

If he doesn't know why a student is absent, he ensures someone from the school drives down the curving road to check on homes that lack telephones to find out.

``If there's a slip in a grade, he's letting us know how to fix it,'' says Jennifer Flynn, a Dahlonegah graduate whose two children and stepdaughter now attend there.

Like most of the students here, Limore is Cherokee. His mother attended school at Dahlonegah, which opened before statehood as an Indian day school.

He worries about a community plagued by poverty, drugs, teen pregnancy and students who drop out after they leave the tiny district for comparatively enormous high schools in Stilwell and other communities.

But Limore says he accepts no excuses for paltry test scores, which account for 90 percent of the state's Academic Performance Index in his school's case. He insists on a trial test run midterm to see where students have weaknesses before the state testing in the spring.

``Our math and reading scores are great,'' he says, ``but I'm not satisfied with the science and social studies'' scores.

The biggest difference in the district is the expectations that have replaced shame, Moton says. He's echoed by eighth-grader Eric Wofford who puts it his own way.

``The teachers make you try harder,'' the 14-year-old says.

Limore worries that even though Dahlonegah's index score was the state's highest, it represents a 10-point drop over last year's score. And the grant money the district received as a low-performer is running out as it achieves success.

``But we're not going to look for excuses. We're going to dig in,'' he says. ``It's work, but it's fun.''