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AMS writers outpace state standards

A unique tag-team approach is just one of the keys to the success of being one of the top three schools in Alabama.

The members of the Andalusia City Schools Board of Education know it. The faculty and staff at Andalusia Middle School know it. The students know it. Now the parents know it.

But don't just take their word for it. Take the State of Alabama's word.

According to the statewide results from last year's Alabama Direct Writing Assessment, Andalusia Middle School's seventh graders (now in the eighth grade) ranked number three in the state - behind only Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills - two systems with vastly greater monetary and facility resources.

That's pretty impressive, according to Linda Kyle and Linda Mellown, the two seventh grade English teachers at AMS.

"We use what could be called a 'tag-team' approach," said Mellown. "Linda (Kyle) will teach the creative, developmental part; and I will teach the sentence structure and grammar.

"It has really helped the students and the scores reflect that."

The Writing Assessment, a relatively new test, scores a student's ability to develop a complete essay that is graded on four different areas - holistic composition, writing mechanics, sentence formation, and grammar and usage.

The assessment presents the seventh grade students with an essay topic, with specific instructions on what type of essay to write; and for 60 minutes, students expound upon that topic.

"We make sure the students understand the different modes of writing and the differences between them," said Kyle. "We also teach them to think. No matter how much they've learned, they have to be able to think. This type of assessment tries to get the student to think, dig deeper. It's a way to evaluate full comprehension."

The students are scored twice on the assessment - and not by their teachers, but instead by Alabama Department of Education officials.

"The scoring system is on a scale of 1 to 4," said Kyle. "A 1 is considered bad, 2 below average, 3 a good solid standard, and 4 is above standard. Two different people read the essay and each one gives it a score. The overall score is determined by the lowest score."

"It's really difficult to get the highest scores because they use the lowest one given," Mellown said. "We want to meet and exceed those standards, so we emphasize good writing and development of ideas. It is subjective to some degree, but with two people looking at them, we feel it's a pretty accurate representation."

Both teachers added they never see the essays, but would like to know what the kids write. Because they never see the essays, the two educators will make practice runs with the students.

"We'll have them write essays for us, and we'll both look at them and score them," Kyle said.

In fact, the Mellown is in the process of preparing the students for the upcoming assessment in February. Kyle's unable to help out right now since she's recovering from surgery, but Mellown's not alone.

"Jeanice Kirkland is coming out of retirement and filling in while I'm out," Kyle said. "She's a wonderful teacher and her and Linda will make sure the kids are ready."

All of the writing and scoring may sound a little dry, but the two teachers make sure that it's more than just an educational experience - but is in fact, an experience that forces the student to go beyond their own set of experiences.

That's reflected in the overall assessment standing for the school.

"When you consider we have some students who have never traveled outside of Covington County - and you've got some students in the two areas that placed ahead of us that have traveled all over the world, I think it's pretty obvious that helping the students think outside of their personal experiences is very beneficial," Kyle added.

But other than forcing the students to think outside of the box, there's got to be another reason Andalusia's students annually score at the top in the state.

AMS Principal Neal Dansby has an answer for that.

"It's these two ladies sitting right here, and the dozens of other teachers in the Andalusia system that are dedicated to the students. Dedicated to making sure the students learn and perform to the best of their abilities.

"The legacy of Andalusia City Schools also plays a big part," Dansby continued. "There is that expectation to do well as a student from Andalusia. The teachers know that. The parents and students know that. We've always had quality teachers who have a day to day interaction with their students. Our teachers do an outstanding job."