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 letterTraditional 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 worthwhileLindsey 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.Haney said the school experienced a similar backlash when it debuted its year-round schedule. But Knighton said now, he's hard-pressed to find a parent who doesn't love the schedule."People are adverse to change," Haney said.Plenty of other parents like the new system, though."They like knowing the specifics," Haney said.Parents are informedLarry Groce, host of West Virginia Public Radio's "Mountain Stage" and parent of two Piedmont students, said he approves of the new grading system."I think it's a good system," he said. "This gives you a little more detail. You obviously want to know what's going on."Corina Whittington, mother of Piedmont fifth-grader Alison and third-grader A.J., said she likes the new system, too.She said before, if Alison or A.J. would get a bad grade, she wouldn't know what happened."And that's all you get and you're like, 'What happened?' " she said.Now she said her children know if they don't do well on an assignment, their teacher will explain why and Whittington can help them improve.Shanequa Smith attended the conferences with her daughter, second-grader Heaven, her son, fourth-grader Jomo and her nephew, fellow fourth-grader Raphaiel Brycethurton.Smith said she likes the additional information because it lets her know what to focus on at home."I can work as a parent to help," she said.She said the change from grades to paragraphs was a little rough at first, though. Smith said it took her a while to get comfortable with the new system."I thought they were very informative," she said, but "change is always hard.""They kept asking me, 'Mommy, is it a good report card?' and I said 'I don't know.' "Knighton said he recently conducted an informal show-of-hands survey during lunchtime. Apparently, most of the children prefer the traditional letter-based grading system.He suspects that's because children don't understand what their teachers are writing about - the information and language is aimed at parents."You're writing to an adult," he said.Knighton said students' dislike of narratives might also stem from the very specific information teachers provide. If a teacher reports the child is misbehaving, frequently tardy and frequently asleep in class, "how do you let the dog eat that?" Knighton said.High-tech trackingStudents' narratives are written using a special computer program Michael Knighton, principal Steve Knighton's brother, designed for the school."He's been very helpful," Haney said. "We're encouraging Michael to copyright it, because it's that good."The program also allows teachers to view a list of skill students are supposed to learn - the state education department's "content standards and objectives" - and choose which ones each student needs to focus on, according to their abilities.Haney said the program even allows teachers to add skills above or below students' current grade level if the child is lagging behind or outpacing her classmates.The school is still adding to the software, too.Haney said currently, she can only see students' personal education plans and narratives after teachers load the documents onto a portable flash drive, deliver them to Haney's office, and let her transfer the files onto her computer.She said the program would eventually be hooked to a centralized server. That way, education specialists like Title 1 teachers could access the server and see any child's updated narrative as soon as teachers update it."Our ultimate goal is it being server-based," Haney said.The Legislature passed the Innovation Zones Act hoping the chosen schools would share their ideas with other schools once they worked all the kinks out of their program.Haney said Piedmont's tracking software easily could be shared with schools around the state.Few bugs to work outOne problem Piedmont is facing, however, is how its students' lack of grades will affect them once they move beyond elementary school."We're still trying to determine what to do about that," Haney said.Middle schools use letter grades and standardized test scores to place students in the correct classes - those with stronger math skills go to more advanced math classes, children with lagging reading abilities go to classrooms where they'll get more help with that.She said the narratives could help Stonewall and Horace Mann, Piedmont's feeder middle schools, giving teachers and administrators there a clearer picture of students' academic performance and abilities.Middle school administrators there might not want to deal with the lengthy narratives, though, since the schools have hundreds of students to deal with, Haney said. "We don't want to assign the letter grade but we might not be able to get around it," Haney said.Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or firstname.lastname@example.org.