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?
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.”
The first in a new series of blog posts with stories about National Blue Ribbon Schools, highlighting ACGC Elementary School in Atwater, Minnesota.
In the fall, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recognized 337 National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2014, based on their overall academic excellence or their progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups. The schools were honored at a recognition ceremony in November 2014, and the PROGRESS blog is sharing some of their stories and lessons learned. To hear two principals of National Blue Ribbon Schools talk about the value of the program at the recognition ceremony, watch this video.
The series highlights the stories of 14 schools that, collectively, serve approximately 4700 students and represent 11 States, including three schools from Minnesota and two from Texas. Three of the featured schools are high schools, one is a kindergarten through eighth grade school in a thinly populated area of Alaska and two are traditional elementary schools serving grades kindergarten through sixth. The other eight schools are elementary schools serving different grade configurations.
Strong themes that emerge from the schools’ stories include high expectations for student achievement, a collaborative culture, the use of variety of data to inform decision-making and an openness to new ideas.
Kindergarten teacher Tricia Lagergren and her students. Credit: ACGC Elementary School
First up is ACGC (Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City) Elementary School in Atwater, Minnesota.
National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Using Data to Drive Student Success ACGC (Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City) Elementary School, Atwater, Minnesota
The students at ACGC Elementary School come from three small rural communities in Minnesota. Fifty percent of the 400 students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches and about 15 to 20 percent of them are students with disabilities.
Three years ago, the school was in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the State and was designated a priority school by the Minnesota Department of Education. Two years later, it had improved to reward status and was among the top 15 percent in the State.
The school used a Federal Early Learning Challenge grant to double pre-kindergarten from two half-days a week to four half-days without increasing the cost for parents. The school also used Title I funding for interventions to support struggling students.
Q. How did your school achieve such a turnaround in only two years?
Kodi Goracke, principal: We kept our School Improvement Plan very focused, starting with creating a safe and welcoming climate. That includes weekly anti-bullying lessons led by the school social worker and providing mental health services. Our staff is key to our success. I am so proud of how dedicated they are; they go out of their way to create the proper climate for learning and connect with parents.
For two years, we also focused on intensive training in the Marzano Framework for Evaluation for all administrators and teaching staff. And we established PLCs [professional learning communities] and set aside time weekly for teachers to come up with strategies for student success and plan ways to reduce achievement gaps, all while focusing on data-driven decision-making. Through this work, we find each other’s strengths and make it okay for teachers to network and share practices. We find different ways to tackle issues—what works for one group one day might not work for another group the next.
Kodi Goracke, principal, ACGC Elementary School. Credit: Reform Support Network
Q. How do you use data to drive decision-making?
Goracke: At the beginning of the school year, students are given district and curriculum assessments. The teachers use these data to start a year-long data map on each student. Students in the 40th percentile and below are flagged for additional support through our Title I program. In addition, students receive tutoring from Minnesota Reading Corps and Minnesota Math Corps to support their growth.
We use the data to help determine how to use what we call WIN—What I Need—time. It’s 30 minutes daily. Teachers, working with Title I and special education teachers, review the data and determine interventions for students. We do that intervention during WIN time for six weeks and then reassess. So we do this four times throughout the year.
We also use informal assessments. Each morning, teachers establish a goal for the day and assess students throughout the day. Students also assess themselves. If they give themselves a 3 or 4, they move on. We use data a lot. Teachers used to have to be reminded to bring data to PLC meetings, now they just do it.
You can learn much more about ACGC Elementary School’s efforts and success here.
Lessons in leadership and management from business applied to turning around low-performing schools.
In her first assignment as a principal, Maria Carlson led a small school in Cleveland where 40 percent of the students were receiving special education services and a third were learning English.
“There was a whole perception that ‘We’re the kids who can’t succeed, and that’s why they put us all together,’” she said. “The kids would say, ‘No one expects anything from us except for us to go to jail.’”
At the time, Carlson was among a group of principals of low-achieving schools enrolled in the Ohio Executive Principal Leadership Academy at The Ohio State University (OSU), which was supported by the State’s Race to the Top funds. She said one of the lessons she learned from the leadership academy was the importance of establishing a school “brand,” a lesson from the world of business.
The leadership academy was a partnership between OSU’s Fisher College of Business, OSU’s College of Education and Human Ecology and the Ohio Department of Education (ODE). Its purpose was to give the principals of the State’s lowest performing schools a crash course in leadership and management.
Carlson said her students at the Community Wrap Around Academy, one of three schools-within-a-schools at Lincoln West High School, had begun thinking they had been assigned to the “dumb school” and that was not a good brand.
To change that perception, she told students and teachers alike to turn expectations upside down. “Be the unexpected,” she would say. “If they were fighting or arguing, or if a teacher was late or unprepared for a lesson, we could discuss what the perception of the school is and reflect on the fact that this is what everyone is expecting.”
In addition to getting students and teachers to think differently about their school she involved everyone in setting targets—just as many for-profit companies do and something she learned at the leadership academy. She worked with her teachers to establish a personal growth target for each student which, when combined, became a target for each classroom and then the entire school. The teachers met with each student to help them set interim goals for their performance on benchmark exams. The school’s professional learning communities keyed their discussions to hitting those targets.
The year after Carlson attended the leadership academy, her school’s proficiency rates on the Ohio Graduation Test rose by 13 percentage points for English language arts (ELA) and 2 percentage points in mathematics. The gains continued in subsequent years and exceeded those of the other two schools housed at Lincoln West.
Six groups of principals attended four intensive two-day sessions spread out over six months, with assignments, such as preparing a case study on their school and devising an action plan, to complete in between sessions. In total, 300 leaders from 155 of the State’s lowest achieving schools attended the academy between January 2011 and June 2013, followed a year later by a culminating gathering to which all were invited.
Schools examine data frequently to identify what is driving improvement and revise improvement plans.
When administrators at Veterans Memorial Elementary School in Central Falls, Rhode Island, began closely analyzing data in January 2014 to find ways to increase student achievement, they determined that low student attendance was contributing to low proficiency rates.
“We can’t improve scores if our students are not here,” Veterans Memorial principal Ann Lynch said.
One of the steps Lynch and her team took to change things was to recruit and train a dozen “parent navigators” to help them communicate the importance of regular attendance to parents and guardians and identify issues contributing to absenteeism. Another strategy was for these navigators to reach out to parents whose children are missing a lot of school to enlist them as partners in increasing attendance.
Every day a student does not come to school, his or her family is automatically notified by telephone of the absence. Separately, parent navigators and the school counselor meet regularly to look at aggregate attendance data, discuss trends and decide which families should be contacted personally.
Other strategies include distributing flyers about the importance of being in school and talking about attendance in student assemblies and, when there is a problem, asking parents to pledge to make sure their children come to school. In addition, the school works with families to identify the cause of absences and determine how administrators, counselors and others can help, such as by providing transportation or other social services such as housing assistance. Another strategy the school has used is offering rewards for strong attendance such as school dances, breakfast with the principal, and free homework passes.
The effort seems to be paying off at Veterans Memorial, where the strategy was fully launched in the fall of 2014. The number of absences dropped from 358 during the first 30 days of school year (SY) 2013-2014 to 256 during the same period in SY 2014-2015. Chronic absenteeism, which is defined as 18 absences or 10 percent of the school year, was cut in half in the fall quarter compared with the previous spring.
Photo Credit: Kit Carson Academy, Clark County Schools.
When Kit Carson International Academy (Kit Carson), an elementary school serving grades PK-5, in Las Vegas, Nevada was identified as one of the lowest-performing schools in the state in 2009, only 30-34% of the students were proficient in English language arts and 40-44% of students were proficient in math. Kit Carson and Clark County School District staff knew that they had to make dramatic changes. To improve instruction and raise student achievement, they needed a place to start, so although math scores at Kit Carson weren’t particularly high, the leadership team decided to focus their efforts on building students’ reading skills. The good news: Those efforts are paying off. Kit Carson increased reading proficiency by over 30 percentage points in just the first three years.
In 2010, with assistance from a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s School Improvement Grants (SIG) program, Kit Carson began making some of the changes that would be necessary to improve student achievement. Students needed more time to focus on reading, and teachers needed support for efforts to make reading instruction consistent across the school as well as to meet students’ needs. That led to the school’s decision to overhaul its program by investing in additional learning time focused on reading and providing a common schoolwide approach to target reading instruction and support for teachers.
Time was added to the school day to offer additional literacy support, instruction was refocused, and teachers received coaching and collaborated to help students get the results they knew they could produce. Building teachers’ literacy instruction skills, providing support for lesson planning, and implementing a new walk-through monitoring process to ensure effective use of literacy strategies in the classroom became the focus of their teachers’ training and expectations. According to Kit Carson’s principal, “reflecting on the alignment between expectations, monitoring and feedback for teachers is ongoing and critical to minimizing variation in the quality of reading instruction.”
The outcomes are noteworthy and exciting. By the end of the first year alone, student proficiency in reading skyrocketed by more than 10 percentage points, and the focus on reading influenced student performance in math as well, with math proficiency increasing by more than 15 percentage points. Kit Carson’s thoughtful planning, targeted interventions, continuous adaptation, and relentless focus on improving reading instruction offer a useful example and promising practice for schools and districts across the country. To learn more about Kit Carson’s strategies for increasing learning time for literacy instruction, read the Kit Carson International Academy practice profile.
The Office of State Support is highlighting promising practices from the implementation of the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program in schools, districts, and states across the country. For more profiles, visit: http://www.ed.gov/programs/sif/sigprofiles/index.html
More schools are using survey data to identify barriers to school improvement and increased student learning.
When Kenneth Scott became principal of Mae Jemison Elementary School in Hazel Crest four years ago, there was little parent involvement and few after school activities for children. To change that, he started a basketball team and cheerleading squad. But, because the school only had 15 uniforms for each, not many students could participate.
Scott knew he needed to do more. That recognition was strengthened by data from a first-ever survey about the school’s culture and learning environment, administered in spring 2013 to the school’s students, teachers and parents. “The parents wanted their children to be part of the school culture and community even if they didn’t have a great jump shot,” he said. He started clubs for art, chess and computers as well as groups to mentor girls and boys. The response was gratifying. Thirty-one of the school’s 400 students signed up for the chess club alone, and whereas he had previously set up 250 chairs for parents and students attending the school’s Christmas or Black History presentations, he now needed more than 600. The growth in parent involvement was “exponential,” he said.
“The survey results made me really put my foot on the gas and get things going,” Scott said.
The Essentials of School Success
The survey Scott is referring to is the Illinois 5Essentials Survey that asks teachers and sixth- through twelfth-grade students about their perceptions of school leadership, safety, teacher collaboration, family involvement and instruction. Although not required, some districts, such as Prairie Hills School District 144, where Scott is principal, chose to survey parents as well.
Versions of the survey of learning conditions have been used for 20 years in Chicago. An in-depth analysis conducted by the University of Chicago Consortium for School Research found that schools with strong showings in just three of those five areas are 10 times more likely to see growth in student achievement than similar schools with weaker results; such schools also are 30 times less likely to see student achievement stay the same or decline.
Recent Illinois legislation required all public schools in the State to survey teachers and students every other year beginning in 2013 to provide teachers and leaders with data to help them create a school environment conducive to teaching and learning. The State is covering the survey’s cost for three years with funds from its Race to the Top grant and requiring the 32 Race to the Top partner districts to conduct the survey annually.
Hawaii created two Zones of School Innovation to support regions with many of the state’s lowest performing schools. Schools in these zones benefit from greater flexibility and from state investments in curriculum, professional development, technology, teacher recruitment, and wraparound services such as medical care and nutrition education. Photo credit: Hawaii Department of Education
Investing in teachers, time, services and technology to close achievement gaps
Bem is a ninth-grade student who lives with his parents, cousins and grandparents, migrants from the Marshall Islands, in a sparsely populated area of the island of Hawaii, 25 miles away from Kau High School. There are many obstacles Bem faces on a daily basis to receive an education. Just getting to school regularly is a challenge, as it is for many other students in this largely rural part of the State.
But, lately, Bem has been attending school more regularly and has become more engaged in his school work. He even says he wants to get involved in student government. “He’s been coming to school every day, he’s more serious about his studies and he knows that learning is going to take hard work,” said Kau High and Pahala Elementary Principal Sharon Beck.
A comprehensive set of policies and services put in place over the past few years across the sprawling Kau–Keaau–Pahoa Complex Area of schools is starting to make a difference. Unlike every other State, Hawaii has a single, statewide school system. Complex areas function like school districts in other States. In its successful application for a Federal Race to the Top grant, Hawaii said it would make two complexes—Kau–Keaau–Pahoa on the island of Hawaii and Nanakuli–Waianae on the island of Oahu—Zones of School Innovation (ZSIs) because they each had several schools that were among the lowest performing in the State.
That meant additional flexibilities and investments for ZSI schools including: more instructional time during the school year as well as in the summer; financial incentives to attract effective teachers and leaders to remote schools; a common curriculum; intensive support for early-career as well as experienced teachers; an infusion of technology to expand students’ understanding of the world; giving principals more control over hiring decisions; and arranging for medical care, mental health counseling, nutrition education and other services.
These enormous changes have led to evidence of progress. Eight of the 18 schools in the zones identified as low-performing four years ago have now met performance targets and, in more than half, student growth is outpacing State averages in both reading and mathematics. Statewide, Hawaii public schools have narrowed the achievement gap by 12 percent, and on-time graduation has increased by seven percent.
As part of its “Expanding Great Options” initiative, Baltimore City Public Schools has employed a holistic parent engagement strategy to turn around struggling schools. One principal built relationships with parents and students by shaking hands before and after school each day. Teachers sent out flyers, knocked on doors, and made phone calls to parents to discuss their children’s performance. Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education
School turnarounds require changes in school culture and strong relationships with parents
Commodore John Rogers Elementary/Middle School is located in an impoverished neighborhood of East Baltimore that struggles with high rates of gang violence and teen pregnancy. Ninety-five percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and many are three or more grade levels behind in reading when they enter. The school floundered academically for years. In 2010, based on its test scores, Commodore ranked 872 out of 875 schools in Maryland. It enrolled only 225 students, half of the building’s capacity. Four principals had come and gone during the previous five years.
In the past four years, however, the school’s results have improved measurably. Enrollment more than doubled, chronic absences dropped significantly, and the percentage of students proficient in reading and mathematics rose 20 percent. In 2012, the school’s mathematics performance exceeded the districtwide average.
Creating More High Quality School Options
How did this happen?
In 2010, Baltimore City Public Schools chose Commodore to participate in its “Expanding Great Options” initiative, an effort launched by former Superintendent Andrés Alonso to increase the number of high quality schools in the district. The city opened new schools, expanded the capacity of high-performing ones, closed the lowest performers, and began working to turn around struggling schools. During the first full year of the program, the Baltimore City school board approved eight new schools and moved to close nine low-performing ones. In addition, all high schools became schools of choice.
Commodore was among a group of persistently low-performing schools selected to be part of a districtwide turnaround initiative, which brought intensive support underwritten by the State’s Federal Race to the Top award and School Improvement Grant. The goal: transform school culture and dramatically accelerate learning outcomes. Interventions varied by school, but included new leadership, extra support staff, a longer learning day, new technology, more staff mentoring, and professional development for teachers.
Parent Engagement a Top Priority
Marc Martin, a seasoned school leader with a strong track record of success, became Commodore’s new principal. In addition to hiring new staff and renovating the building, Martin made parent engagement a top priority. He set out to get to know each parent personally, to build trust and hope. “I literally slept here during the summer before the school opened,” he said. “We sent out flyers, made phone calls and knocked on doors to let families know we were here.”
Leslie County High School has pioneered Operation Preparation, which brings in local professionals to discuss possible career paths and help students prepare for adult life. Photo credit: Kevin Gay
Three months after accepting the role of principal at Leslie County High School (LCHS) in rural Hayden, Ky., Kevin Gay was informed that his school was failing. Identified as persistently low achieving by the state department of education, LCHS was ranked in the bottom 10 percent of all high schools in Kentucky.
That was in 2010.
Today, following a concerted effort to turn around the struggling high school, LCHS is ranked in the top 10 percent of high schools in the state. The school also boasts a 99 percent graduation rate and a renewed emphasis on ensuring that students are college-and career-ready.
The school’s rapid rise is a special point of pride for this rural community of 11,000 residents and about 500 students. Poverty is a real issue here. The Kentucky Division of Nutrition and Health Services estimates that at least 69 percent of the students at Leslie County High School receive free or reduced lunches. And, in this sparsely-populated area, many students travel about 30 miles to reach the mountainous region where their high school stands.
Yet despite these challenges, in four school years Leslie County High School went from being ranked 224 out of 230 high schools – to being ranked 16th overall in Kentucky.
While each school turnaround story is unique, successful turnaround efforts like the one at Leslie County High School are emerging across the country. Students are achieving new levels of success in places like Alchesay High School in Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Reservation; Emerson Elementary in Kansas City; and Orchard Gardens in Roxbury, Mass. In these places, school leaders have used federal funding from the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program at the U.S. Department of Education to kick-start much needed change in historically low-performing schools.
Thanks in large part to successful partnerships and an attitude of shared responsibility, Leslie County High School has built a new foundation for success in this rural Kentucky town.
How did they achieve such powerful results in such a short time?
Students prepare to make presentations about endangered species. Photo credit: Chris Rost
Aunay, a junior at Winton Woods High School outside of Cincinnati, is figuring out what she can do to combat the problem of child labor around the world for a school project.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Yasmine, who is a junior at Lincoln West High School, is arguing on behalf of Sierra Leone, the African country her group chose to represent in Model United Nations debates.
In a suburb outside of Cleveland, students at Brooklyn Middle School are learning skills for college success in study groups and juniors at Brooklyn High School are taking honors classes and visiting prospective colleges.
Students at Winton Woods High School outside Cincinnati work on a mathematics project. Photo credit: Chris Rost
The schools that these students attend all have won State grants over the past two years, enabling them to remake themselves by adopting one of fiveinnovative school redesign models endorsed by the State. These transformations were set in motion by the State’s Race to the Top program. One of Race to the Top’s primary goals is to increase college- and career-readiness, and all of these models have track records in that regard.
Click for descriptions of the models. Image credit: U.S. Department of Education
That’s evident at the Academy of Global Studies, which is now part of the International Studies School Network operated by the Asia Society, a New York-based nonprofit organization. “When you go in and see the kids, they’re looking at things from different angles, they’re using technology, they know how to manage their time,” said Kevin Jones, a counselor at the school. “They’re engaged in real-world tasks; they’re pushed to think critically. We ask kids: ‘What is the global impact?’ We want them to think more deeply about these issues and become self-directed learners.”
The redesigned schools are having a broader impact on he State because they’re demonstrating what’s possible for students, said Pamela VanHorn, director of the Ohio Network for Innovation and Improvement. “Race to the Top allowed us to have many working models across the State that will give other schools an impetus to redesign their schools.”