In 2008, Rayshon Ivory and David Hardaway checked their work during a second-grade class at North End Elementary in St. Paul.

Harkness, Kyndell, Kyndell Harkness - Star Tribune

Denise Johnson: When schools catch up

  • Article by: DENISE JOHNSON
  • Star Tribune
  • September 6, 2009 - 10:33 AM
When Hamilton Bell became principal at St. Paul's North End Elementary School three summers ago, he picked up broken glass and trash outside the school to get to know the community. At his inner-city, high-poverty school, he wanted neighbors to know that he cared about the kids, their families and the neighborhood. Since then, he has spruced up the school, has separated girls and boys for some classes to teach to their different learning styles, and has instituted a uniform policy. He also refers to students as ''future leaders.'' Bell requires his teachers to work as a team and use data about each child to help them improve. As a result, his students were just a few points shy of making adequate yearly progress (AYP) under federal No Child Left Behind rules. One of his student groups made a 17 percent gain in math. ¶ In Anoka, Franklin Elementary principal Vickie Spindler draws on her background in social work to help her staff connect with kids and families. With half of her students on free and reduced lunch, she's hosted family nights so that parents, kids and staff can read and play games together. Send a family off with a pack of cards, she says, and you've got a way for moms and dads to teach math at home.

And because the quality of teaching is a major factor in student achievement, she engages her staff in what are known as PLCs, or professional learning communities. Under that model, teachers share information and use tests and other evaluations to determine how best to teach each child. Using that combination of engaging kids and families and staff collaboration, Spindler's students improved enough to work their way off the AYP noncompliance list this year.

Franklin in Anoka, Nokomis and Crossroads in St. Paul, and Kenwood and Kenny elementary in Minneapolis were among the schools that moved into AYP compliance this year. That's not easy, given that the bar for a passing score has risen and that trends in too many schools are moving in the other direction.

Earlier this summer, the Minnesota Department of Education reported that statewide test scores improved slightly in 2009, with 64 percent of students showing proficiency in math and 72 percent testing proficient in reading overall. But last month Minnesotans learned that, based on those scores, just more than half of all state public schools, or 1,048, are on the dreaded AYP list.

About 600 of those schools failed to meet the goals but are not subject to penalties because they receive no Title I federal funds for low-income students. But the remaining 400 or so schools are in one of several phases of corrective action, ranging from a warning to restructuring.

In fact, Minnesota's largest districts -- Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul and Minneapolis -- all have more AYP "needs improvement'' schools than complying programs. And though Minnesota boasts some of the highest overall test scores nationally, the state continues to have one of the widest achievement gaps between lower-income and more-affluent students. To narrow that chasm -- and better prepare more children to become productive, contributing adults -- incremental progress isn't enough. Schools and communities must do more to accelerate student learning.

So as a new school year is beginning, what can schools on the watch list learn from success stories next door? In schools with similarly challenging demographics -- poverty, English-language learners and special-education kids -- why do some schools make the grade while others do not? What stands in the way of replicating good work?

Perhaps the most important things successful schools have in common are strong leadership, collaborative staffs and a laser-like concentration on teaching basics. When that PLC culture exists in a building, educators constantly evaluate how kids are doing and quickly shift how they teach individual students. They don't wait until the end of a grading period or for parent/teacher conferences to suddenly discover that a student has fallen behind.

In recent interviews, administrators from the state's three largest districts agreed that leadership, focus and teamwork are essential and that national research on "beat the odds'' programs supports that approach.

Interim St. Paul Superintendent Suzanne Kelly has set a goal of improving student test scores by 10 percentage points next year, understanding the urgency of moving students along more quickly.

"It's not a lack of commitment that gets in the way,'' Kelly said. "Urban districts have tried lots of things. We've applied for every grant that comes along, hoping that something would stick. But we're finally coming to grips with the fact that more is not always better. We have to stop doing some of what we've been doing, focus on a few things then practice them with fidelity.

"People -- and not only in education -- become very invested in the things they've done in the past. But if those things aren't working, they are not sustainable.''

When "the list" on AYP is reported each year, predictable criticisms follow. Some of those complaints have merit. As Congress considers reauthorizing NCLB next year, the federal rules should include ways to recognize progress and should be less punitive when only a few students in a single category miss the mark.

At the same time, fully half of Minnesota's schools are not on the list and every year many work their way off -- proving that it can be done. Now school staff and communities with the largest learning gaps have to get serious about doing what works best for students. And they may only have to look to the school around the corner for guidance.

Denise Johnson is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

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