When Antonio Brown digs into math, he reaches for connections outside of the classroom.

“When I do math, I usually think of basketball,” he said. “That helps a lot.”

Brown said he’ll think about score patterns, as well the interplay of the circles and other shapes on the court. Brown will be a senior at Dollarway High School this coming school year — and Dollarway High School is among several schools in Jefferson County recognized by the University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy as a school that’s “beating the odds,” based on test-score growth in 2017.

Quest Middle School of Pine Bluff (which includes high school-level grades) “scored in the top 10 high-poverty high schools” in the state in English Language Arts, according to the Office for Education Policy; Pine Bluff Lighthouse Charter School scored among the “top 10 high poverty middle schools in the state in ELA”; Watson Chapel Junior High School scored “among the top five high-poverty middle schools in the central region” of the state in ELA; and Dollarway High School rated among “the top five high-poverty high schools in math” in the state’s central region.

The ratings from the University of Arkansas’s Office for Education Policy are based on 2017 test performances on the ACT Aspire. According to the Office’s website, “These special OEP awards are for schools whose students are demonstrating high academic growth despite serving a population where at least 66% of the students participate in the Free/ Reduced Lunch Program, which is based on low household income.”

Sarah McKenzie, executive director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, noted that this year’s ratings are based on students’ growth instead of academic achievement. The Office for Education Policy has honored schools for “beating the odds” before, she said, but using the growth measure is new.

“This year, because the state is using what we consider a better measure — a growth score — we based all of our awards on the growth score,” McKenzie said in a telephone interview.

McKenzie emphasized that the schools on the list have demonstrated better-than-anticipated growth despite grappling with poverty.

As local educators contemplated the process of working with students who might face economic obstacles outside of class, they underscored the importance of consistent teacher-student contact in learning.

Kerri Williams, school improvement specialist and federal programs coordinator for the Watson Chapel School District, said that for about the past two years, students in seventh, eighth and ninth grades have been divided into groups to help them develop closer relationships with teachers.

“All the kids are broken up into two teams, so they see the same teachers everyday,” she said.

Williams noted that the consistent interaction between teachers and students, along with an intensified use of data, has allowed teachers to understand the needs of students more effectively.

At Pine Bluff Lighthouse Charter School, Renea Smith, principal over grades four through eight, stressed the importance of exposing students to hard-copy texts and other learning resources. She suggested that the presence of a wide-ranging set of texts is especially vital to students who may be struggling economically.

Smith also praised the work of Whitney Walker, social studies and ELA teacher for seventh and eighth grades. Walker also serves as a teacher, leader and fellow who helps to train other teachers, Smith said.

“Whitney Walker works really hard to make sure she’s immersed in the context (of the reading) as well as she can be,” Smith said.

At Dollarway High School, Principal Yolanda Prim also stressed the importance of educators working closely with groups of students.

“The teachers are working in small groups,” she said. “We’re making sure that we are facilitating classes more, rather than lecturing. That (lecturing) is how you lose your students.”

Prim has been principal for two years at the high school, and before that she served for six years as principal at Dollarway Middle School. Earlier still, before her work at the middle school, Prim served as principal, and in other positions, at Townsend Park Elementary School.

Prim said her work with earlier grades sometimes informs the way she thinks about high school education. In high school, Prim noted, students move from class to class and from teacher to teacher, possibly with less opportunity to spend time with any single teacher than they had in earlier grades. That’s something, she explained, that some students might miss.

Prim suggested that instructional facilitators at the high-school level – educators who move from classroom to classroom – can help to recreate that continuity and close interaction.

“That facilitator can say, ‘I’m going to pull you out of your third-period class and have that one-on-one with you,’” she said.

Barbara Warren, superintendent of the Dollarway School District, expressed pride in the district’s work, and she also noted the way economic challenges can impinge upon students’ performances

“When they have challenges that might stem from food insecurity or the fact that their parents are working really had to try to make ends meet, then it can be hard for children to focus,” she said.

Warren also emphasized the importance of partnerships with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Southeast Arkansas College to help students envision what they can become as their academic careers unfold.

One of the instructional facilitators at Dollarway High School, Elouise Shorter, tries, among other things, to show students the relevance of the subject matter.

“If you’re playing football and you kick that ball, it’s going to make a curve that looks like a graph,” said Shorter, the instructional facilitator for math and science at the high school. “How high do you have to jump to block that ball?”

Scenarios such as those, she said, help to illustrate math’s relevance to students. Shorter described, too, how other activities students might pursue on their own time — such as braiding hair — can involve mathematical calculations.

For Prim, working with students who are likely to be experiencing degrees of poverty means moving outside of narrowly defined classroom boundaries and working with students and their families.

“You have to know your resources,” Prim added. “I need to be able to call the Department of Human Resources. I have to be able to call various ministries in Pine Bluff.”

As for the whole, multi-faceted endeavor of educating students, Prim described progress — even if it’s not complete.

“We’re moving,” she said.

People interested in a list of schools recognized throughout the state, as well a report, can visit http://www.officeforeducationpolicy.org/downloads/2018/06/oep-awards__beating-the-odds.pdf.