Newport El writes its way to distinction

Newport Elementary School's principal stood in the hallway as the bell rang and students filed out of their classrooms to lunch.

Principal Amy Nagy received hellos, waves and hugs — and some news they excitedly had to share.

"I've done really good at writing," shouted a kindergartner.

She congratulated him.

Next was a sheepish first-grader, who showed Nagy his paper about bees.

He walked away with a smile and the promise of a "super student" pencil as a writer's reward.

"There is so much excitement about it," Nagy said, as the onslaught of students faded away toward the lunch tables.

Writing is the name of the game, the topic of conversation and the subject of a blog at Newport Elementary. The K-6 Balboa Peninsula school has ramped up its writing lessons this year by implementing a dedicated writing time that's created a schoolwide "community of writers."

The school dedicates 45 minutes a day at various times to writing, except for 10:40 to 11:25 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, when all the students practice their writing together.

"I think it's neat for them to know everyone is writing," said kindergarten teacher Lindsay Messner.

The writing program, along with its response to intervention program, earned Newport Elementary the recognition of a 2012 California Distinguished School — the only Newport-Mesa Unified elementary school to earn the title this year.

With the recognition comes a commitment to share the school's two programs, or signature practices, with others that want to try them.

"We're so excited about what's happening, we want to share," Nagy said. "We want that same kind of success and enthusiasm spread everywhere."

Alliteration — when a series of words repeat the same sound — was the topic of Thursday's lesson in Sharon Barth's third-grade class. She was showing her students how authors use the technique to their writing advantage.

Their assignment: practice using alliteration before brainstorming topics for a poem, which they'll write next week.

The writing lessons are based on state standards, and several times a year every student writes to the same prompt for evaluation. Generally, though, students are given freedom to write about their interests.

Fourth-grader Jessie Phillips uses a "tool kit" to help her writing. The binder is filled with ideas on good starter sentences, graphic organizers to help her structure her writing, and examples on how to use similes or sensory observations.

"I really like writing time because it helps me learn more about how to make my writing better," Jessie said. "I just want to keep trying to make my writing better."

Focusing on writing in nothing new for the campus.

When Nagy took over as head of the school, the percentage of fourth-grade students passing the state writing exam was 13%.

Writing consultants were brought in, test scores rose but then slumped.

So in 2008, the school decided to focus inward. Teachers were given professional development to make them experts on the subjects. They collaborated on what was, or wasn't, successful. Professional consultants and authors were brought in again to take the teachers to the next level.

Scores rose to 83% last year.

By then, every student was writing for 45 minutes a day, but it was spread out. Nagy said it was hard for her to get to the lessons when each teacher was doing it at a different time, and instruction would be cut short for an assembly or to finish another subject.

"If we're really going to commit to this, let's carve out time as a whole school," Nagy said. "This is a time as our school to protect."

britney.barnes@latimes.com

Twitter: @britneyjbarnes

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Interesting in checking out the student's writing? Check out the school's writing blog at bestonthebeach.blogspot.com.

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