Celebrating Progress: Learning Lessons from the 2014 National Blue Ribbon Schools

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.

Teacher sits on the ground with students around her.

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.

Principal Kodi Goracke

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.