Garlough Environmental Magnet School had never been considered an academic failure until 2012.
That’s when the Minnesota Department of Education rolled out its new school accountability system, which identified 85 schools it said weren’t doing enough to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color.
“Initially, it stunk,” Garlough Principal Sue Powell said about finding out that her West St. Paul school had been dubbed a “Focus” school.
Today, Powell concedes that the designation was probably a good thing, because it motivated staffers to up their game.
Crucial to those efforts was the Regional Center of Excellence based in Rochester, one of three state teams of specialists who are dispatched into the state’s lowest-performing schools — called “Focus” and “Priority” schools — to help them improve.
The centers, established under the state’s 2012 waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind law, represent a significant shift in the way the state supports struggling schools.
The waiver allowed the state to funnel extra help to schools that really need it. Under the old system, it spread its field resources incredibly thin, because about half of all Minnesota schools were branded as failures. State visits to schools were much less frequent, and many school administrators felt like the focus was on punishing them, not helping.
“It didn’t work,” said Assistant Education Commissioner Steve Dibb. “The system was just too big, and it imploded on itself. It was very inefficient. This system is efficient and purposeful.”
Early reports on the Regional Centers of Excellence are good. One-third of the state’s Focus and Priority schools have made enough progress to be released from the lists, while some have skyrocketed to the top of the state’s ranking system.
“It’s how they helped us,” said Sherri Broderius, superintendent of Atwater-Cosmos Grove City, a former Priority school that now has a stellar state ranking. “It started by them asking, ‘What can we do to help you?’ That doesn’t always happen in education.”
Being in the building
When Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius has good news to share about Minnesota students’ progress, she routinely cites the centers.
Yet few outside education circles understand what they do, though they’ve received millions of dollars in state and federal funding.
That’s partly because most attention has been focused on the state’s new school ranking system. There’s been significantly less attention to what happens to a school once it gets a less-than-desirable ranking.
That’s when the centers enter the picture.
Tapping $3 million in federal funds, the state in 2012 opened three — besides Rochester, there was one each in Thief River Falls and Sartell. In reality, they are virtual; each content specialist — typically reading, math and special education teachers — works out of his or her home. The centers’ directors have offices in the education service cooperatives located across the state.
The state specialists are in Priority schools weekly and Focus schools monthly. They do everything from helping teachers better understand student data to assisting administrators in fine-tuning school improvement plans.
“Really, it starts with building relationships,” said Toni Cox, director of the Thief River Falls center. “And the way you do that is by being in the building on a regular basis.”
For rural schools, center staffers often serve as vital sounding boards for the small number of teachers who work in specialized fields such as special education or teach English language learners.
Peter Lingen, principal of Long Prairie Grey Eagle Elementary, said the specialists have helped him and his staff improve instruction for the school’s growing Hispanic population.
“They have helped us create a template to be successful, and now it’s up to us to make sure we complete it,” he said.
Coaching, not punishment
At a meeting of center staffers and Garlough teachers at the West St. Paul school, the mood was upbeat as Andy Schalm, a math specialist assigned to the Rochester center, began a discussion about how to get students more engaged. Several teachers cited a method called “turn and talk,” where students partner up, face each other and chat about what they’re learning.
By the end of the meeting, the teachers were leading the discussion, and Schalm and Kristin Scherman, a center literacy specialist, listened. They aim to coach, they explained later, not to do the improvement work themselves.
“Our approach is not punitive,” Schalm said. “It’s my job to stand alongside this professional leadership team rather than coming at them with iPad in hand and a checklist.”
Since the school began working with the Rochester-based team in 2012, Powell said, it’s done a better job of assessing students’ reading levels and helping struggling readers.
‘We are seeing results’
While Priority and Focus schools have had exclusive access to staffers at the three centers, that’s about to change.
Last year, state legislators granted $2 million in funding to double the size of the Regional Centers of Excellence network. Three new centers will be anchored to education service cooperatives in Mountain Iron, Fergus Falls and Marshall.
The new centers will serve all schools, assisting administrators with dropout prevention, family engagement and the implementation of statewide curriculum standards. They also may play a role helping schools abide by the state’s new antibullying law.
The original three centers, however, will continue to work with the state’s lowest-performing school districts that accept federal poverty aid.
Based on recent testing data, Garlough is making progress toward shedding its Focus label after next school year. Over the past two years, its math proficiency has increased from 48 percent to 68 percent, state test results show.
Teachers have already asked if there’s a way they can continue working with Schalm and Scherman.
“Teachers’ attitudes about this process changed when they started seeing results,” said Powell. “And we are seeing results.”