Massachusetts Addresses Nonacademic Barriers to Learning

Schools are working to boost student achievement by identifying students’ nonacademic needs.

At John J. Doran Community School in Fall River, Massachusetts, elementary students begin each day with a morning meeting. Sitting in a circle, they talk about important events in their lives and ask questions about their classmates’ experiences.

Morning meetings are part of the routine at many schools. But these conversations are particularly important for students like those at Doran, who are coping with hunger, homelessness and family instability and other issues. Ninety percent of the school’s students live in poverty and the community’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the State.

Students use this time to practice ways to stay focused in class, manage anger and work through conflicts with their peers. Last year, for example, a group of second-graders who were routinely sent to the principal’s office for acting out and getting into fights used the morning meeting to brainstorm ways to control their tempers. Their teacher posed questions such as: What kind of clues does your body give you that you’re about to lose your temper? Once you identify your triggers and cues, what can you do to relax?

This graphic has a quote from Maria Pontes, principal of John J. Doran Community School: “Before, we were much more reactive. Now, data drives everything we do.”The morning meeting helps create a sense of belonging and emotional safety for students which, research shows, translates into improved academic and behavioral outcomes. This activity is a central part of Responsive Classroom, a nationally recognized social emotional learning program associated with gains in mathematics and reading achievement in addition to more emotionally supportive classrooms.

“Our kids are much more focused on being successful,” says Maria Pontes, Doran’s principal. “When I first came on board, it was such a chore to get these kids to focus on their work. Now, they’re like ‘bring it on.’ They’ve really taken on the challenge.”

Addressing Nonacademic Roadblocks to Learning Statewide

Doran’s focus on students’ feelings and behavior came about as part of a statewide initiative aimed at systematically addressing nonacademic barriers to learning in schools in so-called “wraparound zones.” The schools in those zones, which are regions or school districts, “wrap” social, medical, psychological and academic services around their students to address their various needs.

The initiative was launched in 2011 as a key component of the State’s Race to the Top plan. Funds were used to train teachers and other staff on how to create a positive and nurturing classroom culture using evidence-based programs such as Responsive Classroom and Guided Discipline. The State also provided districts with technical assistance and the opportunity to learn from other schools that were part of the initiative.

“Improving curriculum and instruction is a major focus in the State’s turnaround work, but we recognize that social-emotional and health needs also have a significant impact on student learning,” said Rebecca Shor, who oversees the initiative for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The zones began operating in 2011 with 4 disticts and 17 schools. Race to the Top funds allowed the State to increase participation in the initiative to the 6 districts and 32 schools that are part of it today.

Eliminating Challenges to Learning

Doran was one of the first schools to join the initiative. In 2010, Doran was declared a Level 4 school under the State’s accountability system, meaning that it was among the lowest performers in the State. A school-wide survey documented the host of challenges that made learning more difficult for its students. Among them: 60 percent of the students came to school hungry and 50 percent were chronically absent.

In 2011, Doran refocused its resources on a singular goal: systematically addressing students’ nonacademic needs, which they termed “wellness.” “We knew that addressing students’ readiness to learn was going to be key,” said Principal Pontes.

Focusing on Four Priority Improvement Areas

Massachusetts does not have strict Wraparound Zones guidelines, but it does expect schools to focus on the following priorities to ensure their efforts are comprehensive:

  • Building a positive school climate and culture. Doran introduced nationally recognized programs such as Responsive Classroom and Guided Discipline to help students learn to manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make healthy decisions.
  • Proactively identifying and responding to student academic and nonacademic needs. The Doran Wellness Committee—a team of teachers, counselors, community partners and administrative staff—meets weekly to discuss issues getting in the way of student learning. One specific issue that is addressed by the committee is chronic absenteeism. The attendance officer keeps track of students who have been absent several days in a row, and counselors or teachers discuss what may be keeping them away, such as family health issues or transportation challenges. The committee then brainstorms potential solutions. This year, the school started a “walking school bus” to keep students safe on their way to school. The attendance officer walks by the houses of chronically absent students and accompanies them on their way to school. Students are provided incentives for participating, such as tokens to put on key chains.
  • Building community partnerships. Doran has built community partnerships to address a wide range of student needs, such as developing early literacy, reducing chronic absenteeism and responding to crises. United Neighbors of Fall River, a community-based social service agency, supports Doran families after an eviction, house fire or other tragic event, providing food, clothing and temporary housing as needed. United Neighbors and other community partners also have played a critical role in increasing parent involvement. United Neighbors organizes “Parent Cafes” intended to deepen parents’ connections to each other and provide a safe space to discuss important parenting issues such as handling stress and helping children arrive at school on time and deal with peer pressure. While the district had partnerships prior to the initiative, the initiative has helped the district be more strategic and identify where there are gaps or redundancies in support, formalize the relationships and expectations with key partners, and coordinate amongst multiple partners and coalitions.
  • Developing district systems of support. Districtwide system of support focus on communication, collaboration, evaluation and continuous improvement of the schools. In Fall River, the district elevated the importance of Social Emotional Learning by adding it as an priority equal to mathematics and English language arts (ELA). The district’s improvement plan has goals in each of these areas and schools do the same. Similarly, each school has a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) team and one or two members report up to a district-level SEL team to ensure that promising practices are being shared across all schools. While only six schools in Fall River participate in the initiative, the strategies have proven effective and the district is practicing many of them in all schools in the district.

The State provided assistance to help each zone design and implement a strategy for addressing the priorities.

Improving Student Behavior and Learning

Early results of the Wraparound Zones Initiative are promising. Addressing students’ nonacademic needs helped them make gains academically. Ten of the 15 schools in the first set of schools are no longer among the lowest performing in the State. As an example, Doran, which was in the bottom 10 percent of schools four years ago, is now in the top 35 percent in the State’s accountability system.  The school went from Level 4 status (lowest performing in the State) to Level 1 status because they are meeting and surpassing their performance growth goals. A statewide evaluation showed that students in wraparound zones schools performed better on ELA and mathematics assessments as compared to students in comparison schools when considering prior achievement trends.

All six districts reported significant improvements in student behavior and family engagement. The same statewide evaluation also found that improvements in student behavior, family engagement, and the student referral process were the most commonly cited areas of progress.

Providing Social-Emotional Support

The systemic approach is a distinctive feature of the Wraparound Zones. It’s not just about providing social services for high-risk students or making isolated changes in a few schools. It is about building the capacity of districts and schools to address the social-emotional needs of all students.

At Doran, this systemic approach has resulted in quicker and more targeted interventions, such as family counseling for struggling students, and better collaboration between parents, students and staff in monitoring behavior and providing support. Student support staff say partnerships with mental health and extended learning providers are now much stronger and more responsive to student needs.

“In past years, we would invite a partner in to our schools because we believed that having school partners was a good thing,” explained Barbara Allard, the district-level director for Fall River. “Now, we only invite partners into our schools if their services are directly aligned with meeting the identified needs of our students or their families.”

The school has systems to ensure that partners are providing students the support they need to be successful. Each partner negotiates a memorandum of understanding to set clear expectations about everything from what services it will offer, to what space it will use.

Doran staff have also become much more data-driven, measuring partner outcomes at the end of the year and conducting an annual climate survey to monitor school health indicators.

“Before, we were much more reactive. Now, data drives everything we do,” Principal Pontes says.

Sustaining and Scaling Wraparound Services

The participating districts have created permanent student support positions and built the work into existing positions (such as teachers, because meeting the social emotional needs of students is everyone’s job) to continue providing the wellness services now that the State’s Race to the Top money has been spent. The State also has created opportunities for districts to share what they have been doing, so educators can learn from the experiences of others. The State is hosting workshops throughout the State and codified the wraparound work through the development and dissemination of a ‘replication cookbook’.

To Rebecca Shor, all schools should make addressing students’ nonacademic needs a routine part of what they do. “Wraparound shouldn’t be an add-on service,” she says. “It should be embedded in how to run good schools.”


Seven Big District and State Takeaways

From the Wraparound Replication Cookbook

  1. We need to be determined and proactive about messaging and positioning this work. Buy-in is never given, nor is it something to take for granted. Even when people believe in the work, they still need to hear clear “permission” to prioritize it and organize around it.
  2. Districts need strong “people infrastructure” to support this work. Districts doing this work most effectively managed to embed it into existing district and school leadership structures and support it directly from there. Some districts also created new structures that enable staff from different schools to work collaboratively together.
  3. School culture strategies were easier to launch (yet potentially more nuanced). Districts found it easier to get traction on strategies related to school climate and culture. They found good “packaged” social emotional programs and tools to help which came with a well-articulated training program, coaching, tools, and other materials staff and students could start to use right away.
  4. Student support systems were tougher to work on – and the end goal was often less clear. Improving student support procedures to make them more proactive and holistic proved slower-going and more challenging. This aspect of wraparound work quickly bumped into existing clutter – structures, staffing capacity, diverse or siloed administrative procedures and paperwork, and loads of school by school variation.
  5. To have a coordinator or not have a coordinator… Wraparound should change the way a school and district works. To do wraparound well, however, you do need someone to serve as the ‘glue” that binds the diverse elements of wraparound work together. Some schools and districts created a new coordinator position. Others used a team approach.
  6. Organizing a coalition of partners… what’s our strategy? Coalition-building work may require districts or communities to restructure, streamline, or reorganize partnership groups. Be prepared to “lose the name” and organize in sustainable ways that support the needs or issues.
  7. What are we holding people accountable for and how do we do it? Are there good “dashboard indicators” for this work? Most of today’s educational accountability systems focus on academic indicators; yet we know social emotional factors correlate with academic outcomes. Districts and schools committed to this work need to create methods to hold themselves and others accountable for this work.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Focusing on Mathematics Adds Up to Higher Achievement – Turner Elementary School, Turner, Maine

Turner Elementary fifth graders identify macro-invertebrate taken from a Maine river based on its characteristics. Photo credit: Jane Campbell.

Turner Elementary fifth graders identify macro-invertebrate taken from a Maine river based on its characteristics. Photo credit: Jane Campbell.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Turner Elementary School, a grade 4–6 school, is located in a small farming community 50 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Forty-two percent of the 200 students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches and about 18 percent have disabilities.

Four years ago, Turner and other schools throughout the district were struggling to improve student performance, especially in mathematics. At Turner, 64 percent of fifth-graders scored proficient or above in mathematics on the State test in school year 2010–2011. Three years later, the number has sharply increased, to 84 percent.

The school used Title II and Title VI funds to provide professional development opportunities during the school year and the summer.

Q. How did your school achieve such a turnaround in only three years?

Cynthia Alexander, principal: We created a team of staff across the grade levels. Known as the Advanced Tier Team, the group meets every five weeks to look at data and develop an individual learning plan for every student who needs extra support, not just special-education students. We determine if students need interventions in math or other subjects and what those interventions should be. Then, at the next meeting, the responsible person brings updated data so the team can see if the intervention is working and whether adjustments are necessary. But we don’t just look at academic data; we also look at behavioral data and trends so we are focusing on the whole child.

We also have professional learning community meetings once a week, during which teachers meet by grade level to review data and plan instruction for individual students.

If students need interventions, we want to make sure they get that support without missing regular class time. So we have Intervention Time 3 days a week for 40 minutes. During that time, students work on a specific skill, like fractions, so they can fill in knowledge gaps.

We also have an interventionist—a certified teacher who provides support both in and out of the classroom. And we have mini-groups that meet daily. For example, if students are having trouble with fluency, they will meet in the mini-group for eight minutes at the beginning of the literacy block. Teachers tell us that is really helping.

Q. Why focus on mathematics?

Becky Foley, assistant superintendent: Four years ago when I came to the district, I talked with the administrators,

Maine Senator Susan Collins joins the superintendent, assistant superintendent, board chair, and Turner Elementary principal Cynthia Alexander for a photo with the National Blue Ribbon Schools award. Photo Credit: Turner Elementary School.

Maine Senator Susan Collins joins the superintendent, assistant superintendent, board chair, and Turner Elementary principal Cynthia Alexander for a photo with the National Blue Ribbon Schools award. Photo Credit: Turner Elementary School.

and they really wanted to focus on math. Across the district, we were not doing well in math on any level.

Alexander: The first year, the district math committee came to the school and observed three different math lessons on the same day. At the end of the day, the committee gathered to discuss what they had seen.

Foley: This experience was very effective because all the observations happened on the same day and the discussion was immediate. We held similar observations for the first two years we were phasing in a new math curriculum and will probably do it again in a year or two.

Alexander: We looked in particular at implementation for math. If we don’t have implementation practices in place, we get gaps in the curriculum, and students don’t have access to the same instruction. That means over a period of years, we are creating gaps among students.

We need to teach all of the units in a curriculum. We aren’t giving teachers a script, but we are making sure they have a guide to stay on track and cover the same skills, without missing some units because they run out of time. We have built extra days into the plan for use if a teacher needs extra time to cover some material. But if a teacher is two weeks behind, we need to look at what we need to do to support that teacher.

We also look at how we can educate parents. The way we teach math now is different from the way we learned it when we were in school. So we need to help parents understand it. At our fall Open House/Curriculum Night, teachers meet with parents by grade level. They show parents the math curriculum so parents can help their students. In the spring we have Math Night. Teachers set up displays at cafeteria tables, and parents come play math games at each booth. They get a ticket for each game they play, and at the end of the night we hold drawings for prizes.

Foley: We use a very systemic approach—we need everybody working together to help students improve achievement.

You can learn more about Turner Elementary School’s efforts and success here.

States Set Policies to Raise the Bar for Teacher Prep

Title: States Set Policies to Raise the Bar for Teacher Prep Description: This graphic depicts policies that states have put in place to raise the bar for teacher preparation. The graphic has four steps with a teacher standing at the top, teaching. Each of the steps has text about one example of a policy that enhances teacher prep. The first step says: “Conduct annual accountability reporting on teacher prep programs and graduates.” The second step says: “Require clinical practice with effective cooperating teachers.” The third step says: “Require certification and testing in subjects taught.” The fourth step says: “Raise the bar on admissions.”Recruiting, preparing, developing and supporting great teachers has a direct impact on the learning and success of America’s students. Research confirms that the most important in-school factor in a student’s success is a strong teacher, and excellent teachers are especially important for our neediest students. States are already taking a variety of steps to ensure that all schools have the excellent teachers all students deserve.

This graphic highlights ways in which State policies are strengthening teacher preparation to ensure that teachers enter the classroom with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. The PROGRESS blog has previously reported about New York’s new ‘Clinically Rich’ model which requires clinical practice with effective cooperating teachers, and Tennessee’s annual accountability reporting.  States are also focusing on outcomes of teacher preparation programs, such as placing and retaining teachers in high-need schools and fields and measuring teacher impact on student learning.

As part of its Excellent Educators for All initiative—designed to ensure that all students have equal access to a high-quality education— all States created and submitted to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) State Plans to Ensure Equitable Access to Excellent Educators earlier this year. These plans include strategies to close gaps in equitable access to excellent educators, including improving teacher preparation as a key lever to improve students’ access to teachers who are well-prepared to meet their needs. ED recently announced the approval of 16 states’ plans to ensure equitable access to excellent educators: Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine, Missouri, Minnesota, New York, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin.


National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: All Means All – Imogene Giesinger Elementary School, Conroe, Texas

Four students are working together at a table, two seated and two standing. They are actively discussing a book they are reading and diagramming out the story on a piece of poster paper.

Giesinger students analyze the meaning of a book they are reading as a group. Photo Credit: Giesinger Elementary School.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Imogene Giesinger Elementary School is a preK–4 grade, Title I school located in a fast growing suburb outside of Houston. The school’s increasingly diverse 617 students come from both households that are economically disadvantaged and affluent; they live in homes, apartments and rural areas; two-thirds of the students are white, 19 percent are Hispanic and 9 percent are African American. To meet all of their students’ needs, Giesinger’s teachers compile data on every student from common formative assessments and meet together in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to devise and evaluate strategies. Administrators meet with all third- and fourth-grade students to review the students’ results, celebrate progress and set goals.

The school has accomplished the rare feat of eliminating the achievement gap among different groups of students. For example, 96 percent of all fourth grade students were proficient or advanced in mathematics; 97 percent of the students eligible for free or reduced price lunches were proficient or advanced and 89 percent of the Hispanic students were proficient or advanced. In English language arts, 88 percent of all students, 88 percent of students eligible for free and reduced price lunches, and 89 percent of Hispanic students were proficient or advanced.

Q. What is the secret to closing the achievement gap?

Rebecca Page, principal*: We give common, formative assessments in each grade and use district benchmark tests to identify students who are not where they need to be and then fill in the gaps. The teachers know who didn’t get it, and then they go back and organize their students into small groups for guided reading or guided mathematics. Those groups are fluid in the classroom and across grade levels. Teachers are constantly going over the data looking for how they can intervene with students and identify the help they need. They come up with an instructional plan, and I and the assistant principal support the plan and make it happen.

Connie Payne, Title I teacher: We have a philosophy of getting together by grade level and sharing among our teachers. There is always someone at every grade level who kind of lifts you up when you’re down and gives you new ideas of how to approach a student or a learning objective; then you’re back on track.This graphic has a quote from Rebecca Page, the principal of Giesinger Elementary School: “Teachers are constantly going over the data looking for how they can intervene with students and identify the help they need. They come up with an instructional plan, and I and the assistant principal support the plan and make it happen.”

Page: We have high expectations for all of our students. All means all. I or the assistant principal get together with each third and fourth grader to review their results, celebrate progress and set new goals. And they graph their progress.

Payne: If you have high expectations for your students then you have to be current in your teaching because our kids are always changing. Ms. Page is supportive of us being current in our teaching practices.

Q. What support is provided for teachers?

Payne: The district provides excellent professional development and has instructional coaches who provide teachers with a lot of support as they go from training to implementation of best practices. Our teachers realize that improvement is a refinement process. You’re not going to try something once or twice and see an impact on students. Change is difficult. It takes time, and Ms. Page has always been great with that.

Page: Our scores on our common formative assessments and district benchmarks are very public. All the teachers in a grade level say these scores are all of ours. They get together and talk about areas of strengths and weaknesses. It is sharing and open communication about what we need to do to address our students’ needs. It’s what are we going to do together for our kids. Our teachers are very committed.

You can learn more about Imogene Giesinger Elementary School’s success here.

*Rebecca Page retired as principal after school year 2014–2015.

Innovative Massachusetts Schools Foster Deeper Engagement with Hands-On Learning

Two students, a male and a female, work on a science project.

Eighth grade Renaissance students participate in a rollercoaster expedition. Photo Credit: Springfield Renaissance School Teacher.

Flexible scheduling gives students more control of their learning, allows them to explore wide array of topics.

Tinsae, a rising 11th grader who is passionate about computer science, had a little taste of what it’s like to be a teacher last winter: he was allowed to share some of his extensive knowledge of programming with his fellow students at The Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“That whole week, I got to teach what I loved,” Tinsae said. “I wanted people to be aware of the potential in the IT field. I was really nervous because I didn’t think people would be interested, but it turned out people were really interested.”

School staff helped Tinsae put together the lessons for the programming group, which was just one of many mini-courses offered during two weeks his school dedicates to “intensives.” The intensives, most of which are led by teachers, give students a chance to delve deeply into topics such as video production, LEGO robotics and the science of science fiction. The school uses these courses to give students more control over their learning, by allowing some students to share what they learn and letting all students choose which ones to take.

To help Tinsae deepen his knowledge of IT even more, the school helped him get an internship in which he will try to hack into the computer system of insurance company Mass Mutual to test its security measures.This graphic includes the following text. The title is “Innovation School Autonomies.” Under the title are six bullets, with the following six autonomies listed: curriculum, budget, school schedule and calendar, staffing, professional development, and school district policies.

The Springfield Renaissance School is one of 54 “innovation schools” serving approximately 21,000 students in 26 school districts across the State. Under legislation signed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in 2010, the schools operate with greater autonomy in six key areas (see text box) allowing them to try different approaches to increase student learning and close achievement gaps. However, if the schools don’t meet the agreed upon measurable annual goals developed by the innovation plan committee and approved by the local school district, then the school committee may, at the request of the district superintendent 1) limit one or more components of the innovation plan, 2) suspend one or more components of the innovation plan, or 3) terminate the authorization of the school; provided that the limitation and/or suspension does not take place prior to the completion of the second year of operation and that termination does not take place prior to the completion of the third full year of operation.

The innovation schools statute lists 15 eligible applicants that can establish an innovation school, including parents, teachers, principals, and community organizations. Massachusetts previously provided competitive funding to support the innovation school planning process through the State’s Race to the Top award and Gates Foundation funding and now funds these grants with State resources. The schools can be new, conversions of existing schools, or academies that operate as part of larger schools. The first stage of the innovation school approval process includes a two-thirds vote of the innovation school prospectus by the 3-person screening committee that includes the school district’s superintendent, a representative from the local teacher’s union, and a representative from the local school committee. The second stage of the process includes the development of the detailed innovation plan by the innovation plan committee, a two-thirds vote of the teachers in the school that is proposed for conversion, a public hearing, and approval by the majority of the school committee.  The detailed innovation plan must clearly articulate the areas of autonomy and flexibility proposed and how they are expected to improve student achievement.

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National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Educating the Whole Child – Haines Elementary School, Haines, Alaska

Barbara Pardee (left), Title I reading specialist, and René Martin (right), dean of students, Haines Elementary School. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Barbara Pardee (left), Title I reading specialist, and René Martin (right), dean of students, Haines Elementary School. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Haines Elementary School is located in rural Haines, Alaska. The K-8 elementary school has 200 students and shares a building with the high school. About 15 percent of the students are Alaska Natives and 15 percent are students with disabilities. About half qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Haines cares deeply about every student’s success.  The school uses a variety of assessments to closely monitor every student’s progress and teachers meet three times per year to analyze the data and plan interventions. Students who need extra help in reading come to school 30 minutes early for individual or small-group tutoring or to use a computer reading program that has produced strong results. Some kindergartners stay 45 minutes after school to work on their mathematics or early literacy skills. Students identified as needing special education services get the help they need from paraprofessionals and special education teachers within the regular classroom.

Haines also uses several strategies to increase student engagement in school. Teachers use technology across the curriculum and the school provides students with enrichment opportunities as well as individualized interventions.

These efforts have lead to important gains for Haines students.  The percentage of students with disabilities who are proficient or advanced in reading increased 14.3 percentage points between 2011 and 2013; writing scores for this group increased 9 percentage points during that period. Mathematics scores increased by 20 percentage points. During that time, the achievement gap between students with disabilities and those without shrank rapidly.

Over 90 percent of the school’s students are proficient or advanced in reading and writing and 85 percent proficient or advanced in mathematics.

Q. How do you promote high performance among students and close achievement gaps?

René Martin, dean of students: We focus on whole child education, which involves Response to Intervention strategies, engaging parents and making all staff aware of students’ needs. Response to Intervention means that teachers try to meet each student’s needs, intervening early on when they begin to fall behind to get them back on track. The intensity of the assistance students receive is increased as needed, but some students who still need more help may then be identified as needing special education services. Everybody understands everyone’s role. We have stopped pointing fingers, and instead focus on what we can do. We also do a lot of professional development because teachers have to be aware of what is new in theory and practice—the world is different, and children are different.

Barbara Pardee, Title I reading specialist*: We have a lot of special education needs. So we looked across the students’ Individualized Education Programs to see what they had in common. We saw that short-term memory issues were a common thread and students needed help with auditory processing. So we brought in a computer-based program that helps students improve their memory and attentioThis graphic has a quote from René Martin, dean of students at Haines Elementary School: “Everyone understands everyone’s role. We have stopped pointing fingers, and instead focus on what we can do.”n skills and increases the speed at which students process information. It was not easy to implement, and we needed a lot of training. But we got the whole team on board with the priorities and said, “As a school, we are working on this.”

And it’s working. A student told me that he now could hear words when before it sounded to him like mumbling. We actually saw improved performance in math first. Now we use it for all second graders regardless of ability level, including gifted and talented students.

Martin: We formed child study teams and believe that the majority of interventions need to be done for the majority of students. We have managed to decrease our special education population from 20 percent to 14 percent because we provide support for all of our students and don’t push them aside.

Martin: With our early intervention strategies, we are working to make sure that no students fall through the cracks and that every student can move forward and have hope for the future. Because we are small and rural, students don’t even know what is possible. So another thing we are doing is sending students to Juneau to learn about careers.

You can learn much more about Haines Elementary School’s efforts and success here.

*Barbara Pardee retired after school year 2014–2015.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Working as a Team – Prairie Elementary School, Cottonwood, Idaho

A class of students from Prairie Elementary stand in front of hteir yellow school bus before departing for a school field trip.

Prairie Elementary School sixth graders depart for a school field trip.
Photo Credit: Cottonwood School District.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from their successes.

Prairie Elementary School in Cottonwood has 196 students, kindergarten through grade six, many of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on their family’s income. These students have become more mobile than in the past, as families move more often.  Prairie is one of only two schools in the Cottonwood district; the other is a combined middle-high school. It was the only school in Idaho to be awarded Blue Ribbon status in 2014.

Prairie Elementary joined a five-district consortium to give the school’s 14 teachers (some of whom also work at the high school) more peers to work with and access to additional resources. Lead teachers from the schools in the consortium come together three times annually to plan and prepare lessons and materials aligned with the Idaho Core Standards to share with their colleagues. For example, the third through sixth grade teachers in the consortium are all using online Khan Academy videos as part of a statewide pilot program. The school’s recent gains have been so significant that the State invited Prairie teachers to give a presentation in the State capital on what they are doing that is making a difference.

Q. How do you engage families and the community?

René Forsmann, principal: Everybody is always welcome, and we are fortunate to have a lot of backing from parents and the community.

The picture shows Rene Forsmann, the principal of Prairie Elementary School, on the left, and Sherry Holthaus, one of the school's teachers, on the right.

Caption: Prairie Elementary School principal René Forsmann, left, and Sherry Holthaus, one of the school’s teachers, right. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education

To improve student achievement, we have to take it on as a team. We are all in this together. Each student means something to the community, parents and staff, and our parents have high regard for teachers. We provide lots of opportunities for parents to participate in our classrooms, on our field trips and through coaching and mentoring. Our drug-free group, Kindness Rocks, provides activities for students and parents, bringing families together to work on art projects, fly tying, bracelet making, bingo night, etcetera. With each activity, there is always a message regarding kindness and anti-bullying.

We have open houses that are attended by 90 percent of parents. During the fall open house, they are given information about the Title I program, after-school program, after-school activities and school expectations throughout the year.

Fall parent-teacher conference attendance ranges from 85 to 95 percent. School concerts are attended by approximately 250 parents, friends, grandparents and community members.

We want kids to be in schools so, when students are absent, a call is made to parents to find out details. We also do home visits when students are absent from school for three to five consecutive days.

Our community stands behind our school, passing a property tax levy every year since 2005.

Q. How do you use data to improve student achievement?

Forsmann: Our work is data-driven. We look at data for individual kids and group students by ability. The important thing is to use the data—to not do data to do data.

We look at the data for each student and break students into different categories at different times of the day. Every student has enrichment time at least once per week, and we use the data to inform what happens during this time. We also use the data to help teachers teach to their strengths and provide after-school support. And we have students involved in accountability as well and provide rewards when they do well. We give awards for attendance, because students have to come to school to learn and succeed.

We have been fortunate to receive grants for technology, so all of our classrooms have iPads, Chromebooks and laptops. We load them with programs that students can use for extra support or advanced coursework. So with the data about students’ abilities, their teachers are able to use the technology to teach students at their current level. We can be there for all students. With many things going on in class at once, teachers have to be guides or facilitators.

You can learn much more about Prairie Elementary School’s efforts and success here.

National Spotlight: Teacher Leadership Changing School Systems


Title: Teacher Leadership Description: This graphic is a visual representation of the pathway to teacher leadership. The top of the graphic is labeled “In the Past.” At the top of the graphic and beginning of the path, there is a schoolhouse with a teacher walking out of the school. Next to the teacher is the text: “Teachers have had limited opportunities to lead in their schools, districts, or states without leaving their classrooms.” The path divides into two paths, one that goes off the graphic to the right and one that leads to the bottom of the graphic. The teacher “in the past” looks like he is about to walk on the path that goes to the right off of the graphic.  The path that continues on to the bottom of the graphic takes us into a section labeled “Today.” There is a second teacher on that path. The teacher has a thought bubble, dreaming of an opportunity both teach and be a teacher leader. The text next to that teacher says: “Research shows that a majority of all teachers want new roles, which allow them to lead without giving up the teaching they love.” That teacher’s path leads to eight teacher leadership opportunities, each represented by an icon and title. The titles of the eight teacher leadership opportunities are: mentor/coach, leadership team member, department chair, curriculum specialist, instructional specialist, lead teacher, advocate for change, and policy leader.Teachers who have opportunities to lead from their classrooms by participating in school decision-making and collaborating with colleagues are more likely to say “teaching is a valued profession in their society,” according to an international study. They also are more confident in their abilities and more satisfied in their jobs.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Teach to Lead initiative is designed to make available more opportunities for teachers to exercise leadership. “Teacher leadership means having a voice in the policies and decisions that affect your students, your daily work and the shape of your profession,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in March 2014, when he announced the initiative, which is a partnership with the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.

Since then, the Department’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows—teachers who work to elevate the voices of teachers nationally—organized four Teacher Summits and one State Summit at which hundreds of teachers shared their ideas for how to improve their schools. They also created “Commit to Lead,” an online community where teachers can not only share their ideas but also collaborate with others to bring them to life.

State Strategies to Leverage Teacher Leadership

Several leading States are investing in teacher leadership as a core strategy to improve their educational systems.  Federal programs, such as Race to the Top and the Teacher Incentive Fund, have also been catalysts for creating more teacher leadership opportunities. For example, thirteen of the nineteen Race to the Top states either have in place or have proposed new policies that would create roles to encourage teachers to lead while remaining in the classroom. Policies include comprehensive teacher career advancement initiatives, multi-tiered certification systems with tiers for advanced or master teachers, and certification endorsements related to teacher leadership.

  • In Delaware, teachers are among those leading weekly meetings called “professional learning communities” that focus on helping teachers work together to use a variety of data to analyze and adjust their instruction to meet individual student needs. Teachers are also training their colleagues in the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards.
  • In Florida, districts can select effective teachers who have completed clinical educator training supervising teachers or mentors to supervise pre-service teachers during field experiences or internships.
  • Project SUCCESS in Massachusetts trains experienced teachers to become Lead Mentors for new teachers, especially those in high-need schools and disciplines.
  • North Carolina is recruiting more than 400 teachers to serve on the Governor’s Teacher Network (and continue in their teaching roles) to design professional development and instructional and formative assessment resources for educators statewide.
  • The Tennessee Teacher Leader Council is developing flexible teacher leader models (designed to increase student achievement) for implementation in districts across the State.
  • In Ohio, teachers are playing a variety of key roles—training colleagues, writing curriculum, providing feedback to the State—in the transition to more rigorous college and career ready standards.

“We’re doing all of this to get a really good, strong movement in teacher leadership going because we know the best ideas in education are often borrowed or stolen from another teacher,” said Maddie Fennell, a Teaching Ambassador who worked on the initiative, “and somewhere out there in a classroom are teachers who have the ideas that can really transform the system if we can just raise their voices up to a level where they can be heard by people who are also making policy and can spread what they are doing to a systems level.”


Creating Sustainable Teacher Career Pathways: A 21st Century Imperative, National Network of State Teachers of the Year, December 2013.

Teach to Lead – Be Bold

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: We Help Each Other – Jefferson Science Magnet School, Norwalk, Connecticut

Jefferson Science Magnet School students on a field trip to a nearby river to learn more about habitats, water and soil. Photo Credit: Jefferson Science Magnet School.

Jefferson Science Magnet School students on a field trip to a nearby river to learn more about habitats, water and soil. Photo Credit: Jefferson Science Magnet School.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Jefferson Science Magnet School is a K–5 grade elementary school located in Norwalk, Connecticut, a suburb of New York City. About 70 percent of its students are Hispanic or African American, and about 68 percent of them are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. Jefferson students take part in hands-on science activities at places such as the Norwalk Maritime Museum or a local children’s science museum, and they take advantage of the school’s proximity to the Long Island Sound. The school has won a number of statewide awards for its success in narrowing the achievement gaps.

Jefferson’s overall School Performance Index (SPI) was 81.8 for the 2013–2014 school year, exceeding its State target of 79.5 and with a less than 10 SPI points gap for African American and Hispanic students.  The State considers Jefferson to be a “Progressing” school, a rating only awarded to 235 out of 820 elementary and middle schools across the State.

Q. What did you do to shrink the achievement gaps at your school?

John Reynolds, principal: We made two primary changes. First, we transitioned to the science-based program that really provides kids with deep experiential learning, predominantly with resources within the local community. We don’t just teach content, we create problem solvers through inquiry. What students experience on their field trips each year is related to the following year. There is an intentional sequence of experiences and content that is learned.

Another powerful practice is what we call “Double Dose.” For one hour each day, all students are in groups for customized literacy learning. The groups are based on the results of formative assessments created by teachers.

Instructional teams meet weekly to analyze data at all levels (school, classroom, grade level, subgroup and individual student level) to identify strengths and weaknesses, capitalizing on what students can do well and pushing them to do better. The Double Dose sessions provide remediation for those who need it and enrichment for others. If you’re a successful learner you go with other successful learners. If 10 students need basic skills, they’ll get that. It allows for focused instruction, and the groups are re-formed every six weeks based on students’ progress. Students get help before needing to be referred for special education. (To hear more from John Reynolds about the Double Dose model, watch this video.)

Q. How can you afford to take these trips and hire enough people to run these groups?

Reynolds: Title I provides the opportunity for our children to do these things. We can hire additional staff that makes the Double Dose sessions possible and provide the people we bring in with professional development and materials. We try to have a 10 to 1 student to teacher ratio for that hour.

Q. Your school motto is “We help each other.” What does that mean?

Reynolds: We have a very loving, caring community of teachers. We help each other. We need to look within to what is working, not what’s broken. That applies to teachers and students—teachers helping teachers; students helping students; and the school working with families and the community. We have more than 600 students but it feels like a small place. Students feel loved. As many challenges as our kids have, they come and know they are loved in school and can take risks and get help solving their problems. The science they learn is a byproduct.

You can learn more about Jefferson Science Magnet School’s approach here.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Collaborating Toward Success – Fennimore Elementary School, Fennimore, Wisconsin

A class of students is grouped together, perched on top of a scenic overlook of a state park with a reiver running through the background. A naturalist stands on top of a rock near the students and points to an object in the distance.

Fennimore Elementary School students on a field trip to a nearby river. Credit: Fennimore Elementary School.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Fennimore Elementary, a preK–6 school with 440 students, is located in a rural region in the western part of Wisconsin. Half of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. When Wisconsin increased the passing scores on its statewide assessments in reading and mathematics for school year (SY) 2011–2012, there was as much as a 20 percentage point gap in achievement between Fennimore’s economically disadvantaged students and those who were not disadvantaged. The school adopted what it calls SMART (Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Results-oriented and Timely) goals, focused its grade-level Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) on reaching them and began closely monitoring students’ progress and intervening as soon as they began falling behind.

In 2013, 45 percent of the school’s students were proficient or advanced in reading, up from 34 percent in 2008. In mathematics, 56 percent of its students were proficient or advanced, compared to 41 percent five years earlier. Only one in four students with disabilities was proficient or advanced in SY 2008–2009 as compared to almost one in two in SY 2012–2013. Over that same period, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students who were proficient or advanced in mathematics math rose from 29 percent to 51 percent.  Gains were similar in reading.

The school receives Title I funding, which allows it to hire two additional full-time teachers and one part-time teacher. The Title I teachers are highly qualified and intervene with students needing extra help. The school also receives Title II money that it uses to purchase technology and a Title VI Rural Education grant it used for professional development sessions in the summer and new mathematics textbooks.

Q. How did you narrow the achievement gap in your school?

Jamie Nutter, superintendent, and Carmen Burkum, principal, Fennimore Elementary School. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Jamie Nutter, superintendent, and Carmen Burkum, principal, Fennimore Elementary School.
Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Jamie Nutter, superintendent: Collaboration is the key. We formed grade-level professional learning communities (PLCs) and created a common language, so that when we were talking about strategies, everybody knew what everyone else was talking about. That created more coherence within the organization so that, for example, our third-grade teachers weren’t all doing their own things. They were working toward the same objectives and goals.

Carmen Burkum, principal: The single most important factor was that we defined success as measureable success, instead of being how we thought we did. We had baseline and benchmark data, and we used the data to monitor our progress. We made sure that, at , the data were not included in teacher evaluations. We told the teacfirsthers we will never include this in your evaluation as long as you respond when students aren’t achieving. Had we included that in their evaluations, teachers would have set that bar low. Saying it wasn’t included raised the standards.

Q. What are you proudest of at your school?

Burkum: I’m proudest of the relationships we have at our school. We’re a small district.  That allows us to really get to know students and their families, and we can really drive the curriculum toward what students actually need. The entire community is very supportive of what we do and it creates a very positive culture and climate in the school.

Q. How do you think about college and career readiness in Fennimore?

Nutter: Our poverty rate is more than 46 percent. But we want our kids to know that just because you’re from Fennimore doesn’t mean you can’t be a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher. You can be whatever you want to be if you have the work ethic. We’ve seen a culture change at the high school. A few years ago we had only two percent of our students in AP classes; now it’s 20 percent.

You can learn more about Fennimore’s efforts and success here.