Piedmont Elementary School's first- through fifth-grade students won't receive letter grades in math, reading or writing on this year's report cards.
But don't think they're getting off easy.
Instead, those children -- about 230 in all - have "personal education plans," which allow teachers to identify and focus on the skills and concepts their students are struggling with.
Then, teachers send home "narratives" of students' reading and math progress.
All students still get letter grades on individual assignments, and first- through fourth-grade students still get end-of-term letter grades in social studies, science and other subjects.
Piedmont's fifth-grade teachers fill out narratives for every subject.
The unconventional grading system is the cornerstone of Piedmont's Innovation Zone plan.
The West Virginia Legislature passed the Innovation Zone Act in 2009, allowing select public schools to apply for such a designation.
Once given that status, the schools could apply for policy and code waivers through the Legislature and the state Department of Education, giving teachers and administrators the go-ahead to experiment with new educational strategies.
A board of state-, county- and college-level education officials chose Piedmont and 18 others as the state's first class of Innovation Zones. Piedmont received $27,798 through an Innovation Zone planning grant from the Legislature to work out details of its new grading system.
In accordance with the legislation, Piedmont's staff had to have their plan OK'd by the school's local school improvement council -- made up of parents, community members and school personnel -- and the Kanawha Board of Education before staff could send their ideas to the education department.
Brigid Haney, Piedmont's curriculum monitor, said improvement council members liked the idea.
"When we explained to them what we could do instead of the report card . . . they were supportive," she said.
County board members were a little more skeptical.
Principal Steve Knighton said they questioned him thoroughly about his grade-free concept but ultimately signed off on the plan.
Knighton said the program is just an extension of the individualized education plans that special education students already have.
Haney said Knighton wanted to make sure the alternative grading system was included in the school's Innovation Zone plan from the get-go.
"That came in the picture early on," she said. "He doesn't like letter grades."
More than a letter
Traditional letter grades -- A's, B's, C's, D's and F's -- are subjective and vague, Haney said.
"There's no information attached to it," she said. "It doesn't offer a lot of insight."
If a student receives a B in reading, Haney said parents know their child is doing reasonably well, but don't know what the student's weaknesses are.
With narratives, "you know specifically what your child can do," she said.
Haney said a child could be good at counting money as long as the denominations are separated, but might become confused when asked to count nickels, dimes and pennies together. A narrative will tell parents exactly what their student's learning deficiencies are, allowing them to work on the problem areas at home.
Haney said letter grades based on point averages aren't fair to students.
Suppose a teacher plans a mathematics unit on fractions. If a student doesn't understand fractions at the beginning and performs poorly on the first three assignments, but eventually grasps the concepts and aces his final test, the child still gets a poor grade. Though the student attained mastery at the end, those low early grades pull down his grade.
"You're going to penalize him because at the beginning he couldn't do it," she said.
Teachers add to narratives weekly, writing up evaluations for every student. Though most Piedmont classrooms have 22 children apiece, some teachers have 28 children "and they're doing this for every kid," Haney said.
The teachers also share those narratives with other educators. The evaluations follow children when they switch grades, allowing their new teachers to pick up where their old teacher left off.
Knighton said teachers also share other non-academic information to help fellow educators learn how to deal with the children.
One teacher might write "Junior was doing well until his best buddy came up and sat beside him," Knighton said, which tells his other teachers that Junior impulsive and easily distracted, he said.
"They're really pouring their hearts into this to give parents the information they need," Haney said.
Work is worthwhile
Lindsey Downey, a first-grade teacher at Piedmont, said she spends about three hours per child every week on the personal education plans. She has 25 students.
Downey said Knighton helps offset that extra work by giving teachers an hour of planning time every day. West Virginia law only guarantees elementary school teachers 30 minutes of planning every day.
She said the narratives are "a lot more work," but are worth it. Downey said her students' parents appreciate the extra information.
Amanda Ansell, a third-grade teacher, said she spends more than 20 extra hours every week writing up her narratives. But she said she's getting faster as time goes on, since she's working out a format for the assessments.
Ansell said she's hopeful the narratives will help students improve but said the program will only work if parents and students take the information to heart.
"If there's nothing on the receiving end, it doesn't really matter," she said.
Haney said the school tried to inform parents about the coming changes but some were still taken aback when grades were released in mid-September. Though the new report cards gave parents much more information about their students' progress in reading and math, some parents wanted the old grading system back.
"They think the letter grades tell them how their children are doing," Haney said.
Piedmont held parent-teacher conferences last Monday and the school sent parents home with surveys about the new grading narratives. The school plans to have three more parent-teacher conference days this year and will continue to monitor parents' thoughts and feelings about the new system.