The sign outside Belleview Elementary School's front entrance reads, "Together we learn."
It's one of public education's well-worn phrases. But at the Rock Hill school, it's a mission statement.
Belleview uses a multi-pronged attack involving the staff, families and children that pushes students, many of whom live in poverty, to excel. Test scores are climbing. And the school continues to narrow gaps in achievement between white and minority students and between students from low-income homes and their wealthier peers.
Belleview's success is drawing statewide attention. It's one of three campuses in the running to become South Carolina's 2010-2011 Distinguished Title 1 School for Closing the Achievement Gap. The state plans to announce a winner today.
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State officials reviewed standardized test scores from South Carolina's 525 Title 1 schools, campuses that get extra federal money because they have a large share of students from low-income homes.
Belleview, where 72 percent of the 420 students receive free or reduced-price lunch, has posted remarkable gains.
In 2009, for example, 65.6 percent of third-graders with subsidized meals passed the state math test, compared with 84 percent of students paying full price for meals - a gap of more than 18 percentage points.
The next year, it flipped: 91.4 percent of third-graders with subsidized meals passed, while 90.9 percent of students paying full price passed.
"This school is truly an anomaly," Principal John Kirell said. "You're not going to find many schools where a group of subsidized students is performing higher than full-pay."
The so-called achievement gap - the difference in academic performance between groups of students - has been called America's most vexing educational problem. Educators believe the divide stems from many causes, including poverty, historical discrimination, cultural misunderstandings, decrepit schools and families who don't get involved.
Belleview doesn't dwell on gaps, Kirell said.
Instead teachers work together closely. They quiz students regularly to pinpoint weaknesses. Specialists work with children individually or in small groups. Struggling students get extra help. Advanced students get more challenging work.
"We're trying to drill down and decide specifically what it is they're struggling with," Kirell said. "We really just go student by student."
The school balances academics with outreach.
Teachers visit students' homes and give families their personal phone numbers. Parents receive calls and invitations to conferences and school events.
"I say to them, 'I know you want the best for your child, so you should come,'" said Renee King, a Reading Recovery specialist. "Every parent wants their child to be successful. We try to make it easy for them."
In some ways, Belleview acts as a community center whose role extends beyond the reach most would expect of a school.
Kirell has helped parents find jobs. The school holds canned food drives and used book collections for families. Through a network of local churches and nonprofits, the school tries to help the neediest.
Teachers pay $3 a week into a needy student fund - which allows the teachers to wear jeans on Fridays. The money has kept students' electricity on, bought clothes for children and put food on tables.
"We get to know the kids," program teacher Janice Hyatt said. "When we say it's about the child, it's who you are. How do you learn and what do you need? Sometimes it's food."
"We get it," King said. "We get that these kids need that extra support."
If students don't show up, "John Kirell will go to the houses and find out why they're not in school."
When a homeless couple arrived to enroll their two children, Belleview bought the family food and paid for the children's lunch until their free meal forms were approved. When the mother found a job and a trailer for rent, the staff donated piles of furniture, decorations and clothes.
When Hazel Mitchum, who has custody of her four grandchildren, was in the hospital with throat cancer, Kirell and parent educator Maya Alexander took the children out to eat. While Mitchum was recovering, they delivered food.
"I sure didn't think a school would do that," Mitchum said. "I just love all the teachers and the staff."
Some of the stories Belleview educators tell aren’t so encouraging.
There’s the child who was bitten by a copper head snake but left to suffer until the symptoms were at their worst before his mother took him to a hospital.
There’s another child who was thrown against a crib so hard by his step father, that his leg was broken. Kirell arrived at the house and, through a window, saw a toddler, home alone living in filth.
Kirell called police, who arrested the father. The six children left with social workers.
“When you see them being taken from their families, it wears on you,” Alexander said.
Belleview's approach has won over families.
At a recent movie night, when the parent-teacher organization showed "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" on an inflatable screen in the school bus parking lot, dozens of families showed up.
"We have more parents contributing and donating their time," said PTO treasurer Denise Reynolds. "Over the last year or two, it's dramatically improved."
Belleview is expanding its efforts. This year the school launched a pre-K program for 4-year-olds.
Teacher Elicia Miller is working closely with families.
"Parents call my cell," she said. "They come in. It's an open-door policy. They come eat lunch. They come hear stories."
In two months, the program has seen results. When class started, only two of the children knew colors and shapes. Now the whole class knows them.
Kirell says that such a program, if successful, will eventually close achievement gaps.
"Some schools focus on third through fifth grade because those are the tested levels," he said. "That's just chasing our tails. There's a lot we could do before then."
For Reynolds, it's another reason why she wouldn't send her daughter anywhere else.
"There was a time several years ago when I would have been worried about sending my child to a school with higher poverty," she said. "I completely see things differently now. I am very proud to be a Belleview parent."