It could have been a disastrous year for fledgling Philadelphia School District teacher Rachael Pringle.
Six weeks into the school year last fall, the school district abruptly uprooted the first-year teacher and sent her to a new school because of a change in enrollment.
"I was devastated," recalled Pringle, a 41-year-old former restaurant manager who came to teaching as a second career. "The first year of teaching is hard enough."
But Pringle put her heartache behind her and plunged into work at the new school, Fitler Academics Plus in Germantown, where she was mentored by a top educator, the other fifth-grade teacher Lori Blue.
The results were astounding.
Under their tutelage, more than 90 percent of their students scored proficient and advanced in math and more than 60 percent in reading in state tests given last March. As fourth graders, only about 60 percent of them had reached those benchmarks in math and 40 percent in reading.
When their fifth graders' scores were compared with those of the previous fifth graders, the leap showed the largest improvement in reading and math on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment in the region.
As school opens today in the 166,000-student district, Pringle and Blue return to new fifth graders, ecstatic with the results of their hard work and ready to share with colleagues the way to their success.
The teachers gave up their lunch time and preparation periods to tutor students. They handed parents their home phone numbers at the start of the school year.
They developed creative lessons to illustrate concepts and adapted their teaching to meet each individual student's learning needs.
"There's no limits with them," said Fitler Principal Willette Jones. "They will come in early. They will stay late. They will make whatever adjustments need to be made."
Blue, 41, an accountant who turned to teaching six years ago, has the added benefit of strong math skills.
And Pringle, whose undergraduate degree is in theater and who has performed at the Keswick, knows how to entertain her students.
Both Blue and Pringle share the credit with Jones, an award-winning district principal, and other staffers.
"It's not like me and Rachael pulled our capes out of the drawer and did this," Blue said. Added Pringle: "It's a strong staff."
In fact, Fitler, which has a nearly 100 percent African American student body and six in 10 of its students from low-income homes, made adequate progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law for the fourth consecutive year. Fitler draws students from throughout the city by lottery. Fifteen to 20 percent come from the neighborhood.
Pringle, a graduate of the former Performing Arts School in Philadelphia, arrived at Fitler in early October. Principal Jones had heard that in her first six weeks, she had already established herself as a strong teacher at John S. Jenks in Chestnut Hill.
Jones decided to put her in the fifth grade. Pringle had to win over her new students, who themselves had been with another teacher.
"Lori [Blue] welcomed me with open arms," Pringle said. "I would not have made it if I hadn't had her mentoring."
Blue turned Pringle on to teaching Web sites and coached her in dealing with a disruptive student.
Pringle noticed the student typically acted out "during independent work because there was a deficiency with the reading." So once a week, she had lunch with the student and helped him.
"The difference was phenomenal," Blue said. "He did a 360-degree transition." And, he made the honor roll.
Pringle also involved the student's father.
She has found parental communication so important that today she plans to pass out refrigerator magnets with her home number. She knows how critical that can be.
"I'm a working single mom. I can't contact my son's teacher during the day," explained Pringle, whose 7-year-old attends the district's Shawmont School in Roxborough.
Added Blue, who this year is teaching at Kearny School in Northern Liberties: "We have to work beyond the boundaries . . . beyond 'he's not in my class,' beyond 'I'm only here from 8 to 3.' We have to take each kid individually and some kids are going to need a whole lot more."
She said students see that the teachers give up personal time to help them and it offers a lesson in itself.
It shows: "I'm giving up my lunch time to help you do something. That's how important it is to me that you do well. Shouldn't it at least be that important to you?"
Parents were grateful.
"She took him to another level," said Rose Fields, whose son, Solomon, thrived in Pringle's class. "She just has great passion for each of the students."
Parent Beverly McGhee said Blue bought chapter books out of her own pocket to allow McGhee's daughter, Unique Ratcliff, to read at an accelerated rate.
"She went out of her way with everything with my daughter," McGhee said. "She was a perfect teacher."
Blue, Pringle and other Fitler educators also credit the students' success to First in Math, an online program by Suntex International Inc. of Easton, Pa., which blends the popular 24 Game with technology. The school was so committed to the program, it became the first in the country to have all students complete the basic skills areas.
Both Pringle and Blue said they also emphasized literacy. They don't allow students to answer questions with banal words such as "fine" or "good." They make them elaborate. This year, Pringle has a little trash can in the room where answers such as "fine" will wind up. Blue puts the words to "bed."
"They see how to answer a question at a higher level," Pringle explained.
Blue drew her students into lessons by having them use statistical skills to predict how well they would do on the state test, baking cookies while using measurements and bringing in geometry in the making of African quilts.
A graduate of the Catholic Hallahan High School in Philadelphia, Blue worked while she got her certification and a master's in multicultural education.
Jones quickly recognized Blue's advanced skills when she transferred in from Kenderton School in 2002. In 2006, Blue was named teacher of the year for the district's Northwest Region.
Blue, whose mother is a retired city school teacher, transferred to Kearny, which is closer to her home in Williamstown, N.J. It took 90 minutes for her to get to Fitler. She agonized over leaving.
Blue and Pringle said they intend to continue to trade ideas to improve their teaching.
The method is simple.
"Do more," said Pringle.
"Yeah," Blue said, nearly in unison. "You do more."