Minneapolis school's gains prompt tweaks in district strategies

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 30, 2013 - 9:28 AM

Minneapolis school’s gains credited to team teaching prompts tweaks in district strategies.


Tara Fagerlee, Jeff Rajacich and Ben Goltz posed a math challenge to fifth-graders at Pillsbury Community School, where team teaching has led to successes.

Photo: DAVID JOLES • djoles@startribune.com,

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Holding a wrapped box, teacher Ben Goltz asks fifth-grade students how many sides need to be counted to figure its surface area. At the same time, colleague Jeff Rajacich walks them through the area calculation at an easel, followed by Tara Fagerlee, who focuses her class on the next question.

Time taken for this swirl of teaching activity? Maybe 15 seconds.

The three illustrate the team-focused teaching that’s speeding student progress at the Pillsbury Community School in northeast Minneapolis, where more than half the kids are still learning English.

The K-5 school’s success is attracting the attention of district officials who are under pressure and struggling to boost achievement, especially among low-income and minority students.

“My staff here is just incredible,” said Principal Laura Cavender after observing the fifth-grade classroom.

The district is reaching out to principals to see what’s working and what’s needed to accelerate student achievement in schools. Faster gains, especially with the achievement gap, were mandated for Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson last month by members of the school board, most of whom are up for re-election in a year.

When the district released disappointing academic results for last school year in November, Johnson’s No. 2, Michael Goar, said the district would pursue the eye-catching strategy of installing a second teacher in the primary-grade classrooms of a half-dozen of the most-struggling schools.

But it turns out that the district’s midyear adjustments are likely to be far more nuanced. The midyear changes depend on huddles between principals at about a dozen schools and their associate superintendent bosses.

“It’s going to be so dependent on what the school identifies as their need,” said Susanne Griffin-Ziebart, the district’s academic chief. She said the district isn’t pushing a particular strategy, but trying to find what added resources principals think could make a difference. One example might be returning to literacy coaches who could teach small groups of students directly or show teachers how to do that more effectively. That might require redeploying people from central office jobs, but also hiring some recent college grads with intense support from district specialists, she said.

“Part of our goal in doing this is to get better at what works and what doesn’t,” she said.

Team teaching at Pillsbury does seem to be working. The school shot up last spring in the state’s new multiple measurement of proficiency, student growth and achievement gap reduction, scoring especially strong in the latter. The school outperforms the district averages for math proficiency and usually matches the average for reading, despite its concentration of new English speakers. Among such students, it outperforms the state and district for reading proficiency, and does so by a wide margin in math. It also matches the district for reading proficiency among low-income students, and beats the state as well for math proficiency among those students.

‘Feed off each other’

With a high immigrant population and almost nine in every 10 students qualifying as low-income, Pillsbury puts a big emphasis on teaming classroom teachers with specialists focused on learning English, special education and gifted students.

That’s what brings together the classroom where Fagerlee teaches all day. She usually has Goltz, a special education teacher, for 40 minutes a day, plus Rajacich, an education assistant, for another 50 minutes, but typically not all three teach together. She discusses class plans daily with Goltz but when the teaching begins, “We just jump in and feed off each other,” Fagerlee said. “If an idea pops into your head, you share it,” Goltz added.

Goltz and Fagerlee have regrouped for this particular day when students didn’t make the progress they’d hoped for the previous day on calculating the surface area of a cube. They’ve wrapped several boxes and inscribed the dimensions on them to help. Having multiple teachers to restate what’s being taught in slightly different ways also helps to reach students who have different learning styles.

Pillsbury’s approach was launched by Cavender, who is in her fourth year leading the school. “The climate is a very collaborative climate,” she said. But that didn’t just happen. For years, for example, Mark Trumper was the building’s sole teacher specializing in English learners.

Our classroom, but shared

Under Cavender, the school supplemented district English-learner money with its own budget to put an English-learner teacher at each grade level. It also budgeted to raise its special education teaching staff from one to 2.7 teachers, not counting the building’s autism program. Building funds also added a teacher for gifted students. One trade-off was giving up a position that handled playground supervision and other duties.

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  • At Pillsbury Elementary School it is becoming more common for teachers and paras to team-teach in classrooms so that often more than one adult is in classrooms -- a model the district plans to put in place in some of its schools. Here, Mandy Franz, second from left, and 5th grade teacher Joel Lurvey, right, team up on a science lesson.

  • Pillsbury teachers, from left, Mandy Franz, Joel Lurvey and Chelsea Rudie often team up to keep more than one adult in the classroom.

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