Bright Spots: Westcliff Elementary
Bright Spots is a collaboration between Read Fort Worth and Fort Worth ISD spotlighting District elementary schools making meaningful academic progress, specifically in the areas of early childhood literacy.
Data is at the heart of just about every success celebrated at Westcliff Elementary. Along with a big ole dose of heart.
Westcliff Principal Sara Gillaspie has made it her mission over the last 15 years to the blend contemporary use of data with classical theories of education, while empowering her staff to reach new heights. The result is a Fort Worth ISD elementary school that scored an ‘A’ on the state’s latest Accountability ratings and earned five out of six distinctions.
“We were a data-driven school before it was becoming cool,” Principal Gillaspie said with a smile. “And kids are loved here. Teachers are loved here. It’s a real family atmosphere.”
Westcliff does a statistical breakdown of all 575 students using the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) as a guide. TEKS are the state standards for what students should know and be able to do.
Gillaspie and her staff began conducting data meetings and breaking apart those TEKS about a decade ago, taking it up a notch over the last couple of years. Every student is charted according to what they know and can show to master each standard.
Being proactive, instead of reactive, has been the Westcliff way. Gillaspie, much as others in FWISD, utilizes “Teaching Trust,” a Dallas-based training program that helps education leaders transform urban schools. Before standardized testing ever takes place, Westcliff identifies students with weaknesses, leading to designing lessons tightly aligned with TEKS.
The charge is to get out in front of the data. In August, the leadership team and teachers created large poster boards where every student was highlighted for making expected progress and then ranked in the assessment areas of “Did Not Meet,” “Approached,” “Met” and “Mastered.”
“This is the most powerful experience with data that I’ve ever had, and I’ve been doing data meetings for 10 years,” Gillaspie said.
Every teacher receives the data for their students and every student sets goals and has a color-coded chart, with a “Student Expectations (SEs)” grid for each standard in either in green (met) or red (not met). Students are tracking their own mastery of the TEKS. Specialized tutors can then pull the students out for specific intervention based on the red SEs, making sure they’re covered.
“Every team on our campus meets every single week and we chart the targeted standard design a lesson together,” Gillaspie said. “With every idea and every activity, we say let’s look back at the TEKS.”
Teachers are able to group students by ability before the first day of school. This includes the younger grades by applying literacy tools such as Achieve 3000 and Fountas & Pinnell. Early literacy is a major pillar of Westcliff’s success, according to Gillaspie.
The school’s assistant principal, Jose Diaz, has implemented a book report program to encourage reading and writing for all students, including second-language learners. The book reports cover the Accelerated Reading books which students read and take tests online. As a school from kindergarten to fifth grade, Westcliff students turned in more than 28,000 book reports last year.
About six years ago, Westcliff began teaching a challenging English phonics program to all students K-3. As a result, students in both dual language and English programs read with fluency and accuracy much sooner, allowing teachers to focus more on comprehension.
Goals are also set as a campus to target advanced learning for all students, with the aim to move students to work one full year ahead of grade level. The objective is for Westcliff Wranglers to fill up the seats in the AP and honors classes at McLean Middle School, breaking through social barriers and creating space at the top of the class.
“We are very focused on advanced learning, and our students are proving that race, socioeconomic status are not barriers and must never be barriers to high achievement,” Gillaspie said.
In receiving an ‘A,” Westcliff’s latest Accountability data showed 58 percent met the standard in third grade reaching, which is above the FWISD rate and a 20 percent increase since 2013. The Westcliff student body is 76.1 percent economically disadvantaged, with the majority of students being Hispanic.
Westcliff is one of the few schools in Texas to score a perfect 100 in Domain 3 of Accountability, which is “Closing the Achievement Gap.” Westcliff was also named as one of America’s Best Urban Schools by The National Center for Urban School Transformation in 2018, receiving a silver medal. Several Westcliff teachers were recently recognized as Chair of Excellence Award winners.
“The dedicated teachers at Westcliff Elementary really make all the difference in the lives of these children,” Gillaspie said. “Every staff member gives their very best to these kids, hosting countless clubs, tutoring after school, coaching UIL teams, sponsoring competitions and volunteering at parent involvement activities, in addition to the long hours they work. There is a real joy among this dedicated group of teachers, custodians and support staff. They love what they do because they truly love our students.”
Westcliff also boasts an active and robust PTA, along with community partners such as Academy 4 and Arborlawn Church that sponsor leadership programs for students. Read2Win brings in reading volunteers from Congregation Ahavath Sholom led by Rabbi Andrew Bloom, who personally read to two students every week.
“Every life we touch is a treasured gift and an awesome responsibility,” Gillaspie said. “We know that when a student is fully taught, he will look like his teacher, so we approach each child, each day with compassion and the belief that they can achieve advanced learning, overcome obstacles and create an amazing future of success.”