It’s been more than a decade since George Hall Elementary School and four other Mobile County Public Schools were reconstituted due to poor academic performance.

Today, the K-5 school is a multi-year winner of Alabama’s Torchbearer Award and is making waves across the country for its consistently high scores on standardized tests – even prompting a visit from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2010.

The school’s current principal, Melissa Mitchell, came in after the school’s staff was dissolved and rehired from the ground up. She transferred from Leinkauf Elementary School as a writing coach and Title I facilitator under the direction Terry Tomlinson, who served at the helm of the school until retiring in 2014.

“The past few years, we’ve turned a corner. We’re a different school than we were then,” Mitchell said. “George Hall was one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in the state based on state test scores at that time.”

The standardized tests included the SAT 10 and the Alabama Reading and Math Test (ARMT), which were used to determine if a school met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

According to Mitchell, the website had at one time rated the school as the second worst in the state. However, after only five years as a “Transformation School,” the same website listed George Hall as one of Alabama’s top-five programs.

In 2009, the school’s scores on the ARMT showed 100 percent of third and fourth graders and 98 percent of fifth graders met or exceeded proficiency standards in reading, while at least 98 percent of each of those student groups met or exceeded proficiency standards in math.

Scores like those would be impressive at any school in the country, but George Hall’s are noteworthy not only because of the school’s past, but because of the school’s socioeconomic demographics.

“This is the first year that the district has offered universal breakfast and lunch for all students, but we’ve always traditionally been 99 percent free and reduced and 99 percent African-American,” Mitchell said.

Those demographics are what made the school a contender for the Torchbearer Award, which is given annually to select Alabama schools in high-poverty areas that meet certain academic requirements.

Despite those statistics, Mobile County Superintendent Martha Peek and the rest of the system are sticking to the notion that “all children achieve at high levels.”

“George Hall is a school that focuses on academics really intensely,” Peek said. “What we know to be true, is when students have high-quality learning experiences and they’re engaged in their learning, they achieve, regardless of socioeconomic levels.”

Tiffany Miller, an instructional partner at George Hall, said that philosophy explains why student engagement has been one of the school’s main objectives.

“We want to make sure everyone isn’t just sitting, they’re really participating,” Miller said. “Hopefully, you won’t see a teacher standing at the front of the room talking, you’ll see students talking and working with each other and a teacher acting as a facilitator.”

That’s one reason why it’s hard to catch students at George Hall using math books. You’re more likely to see them using dry-erase markers to write out their work on their desks or doing math drills in the computer lab.

“We use a lot of manipulatives, like building blocks and microscopes, so the kids understand the concepts before they’re taught,” Miller said. “You’ll see that before you see a multiplication algorithm on the board for strict memorization.”
To help keep continuity, each grade level moves through the curriculum as the same speed, which also gives each grade’s teachers an opportunity to plan lessons together.

The school also merges concepts together through “units of study,” which are used in English, language arts (ELA) classes to incorporate social studies and science concepts into reading. The school used its Title I funding to purchase several fiction and nonfiction books related to standards in both of those subjects

“The county doesn’t have a reading program that’s aligned to the new standards,” Miller said. “Most of our Title I budget had gone to these resource rooms and the books we’ve purchased over the last couple of years.”

According to Mitchell, George Hall currently receives $106,000 in Title I funds annually and an additional $2,000 to spend on items related to parents and parental involvement.

It’s one of a number of schools in Mobile County that receive federal Title I funding, which accounts for around $22.1 million in the MCPSS budget.

With all the changes that have taken place over the past 10 years, Mitchell said the school has changed a lot since it was listed as a “transformation” school.

“People want to know what we do now, but it looks nothing like what transformation looked like,” she said. “There was a huge population of students who were not meeting the benchmark on assessments, so there was a lot of remedial instruction. Now, from pre-K to fifth grade, a whole series of students has gone through, and we’re at a different place now.”

Mitchell said for the most part, students at George Hall are on grade level, and the school uses a three-tiered instructional system to make sure that’s the case.

Students receive Tier 1 instruction in the classroom, but those having trouble with a specific subject or standard go through Tier 2 instruction. Teachers work with Tier 2 students more closely in the classroom.

Tier 3 students are removed from the classroom setting if they’re still struggling with a certain concept. Miller said those steps are taken to make sure a child isn’t failing to reach a benchmark due to a lack of instruction.

Though it has seen success in recent years, the school is currently transitioning into the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards, also known as Common Core. Mitchell said the school is working to teach those new standards, while holding on to the practices that have helped turn its academic progress around.

“We’re kind of in the place now, where we’re trying to figure out how we hold tight to all these things that have worked so well,” she said. “This is a really nice place for kids and teachers to be. There is just something about this school; it’s hard to put your finger on. It’s more of a family for the students, and I think our teachers feel that way too.”