Walking the halls of Skyview Elementary, one week into the school year, Principal Travis Barringer spotted a kindergarten student and greeted him by name.
The boy stopped and looked up, incredulous.
“Wait, you know my name?” he said, his eyes wide.
“I do!” Barringer said cheerfully, before correctly identifying the boy’s classroom teacher and then telling a visitor how he distinguishes the kindergartner from his twin (slightly different hair color).
At the Oakdale elementary school, teachers and staff members make it a priority to get to know their students, whether or not they are a part of their classroom or official responsibilities. Barringer said Skyview students learn quickly that many adults in the building are interested in how they perform at school — but also in how they are feeling and how they see the world. He believes it’s one of the reasons the school consistently exceeds expectations on math and reading tests, even though many of its students face significant obstacles to learning.
Skyview Elementary is one of 44 high-poverty public schools in the Twin Cities metro area that the Star Tribune has identified as “beating the odds” in an annual analysis of statewide test scores. Schools in that category did significantly better on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments than would be expected in math, reading or both, based on their poverty rate — a measure that’s been shown to have a significant impact on student achievement and progress.
Statewide, the average math proficiency among the schools beating the odds was 62 percent, compared to 39 percent for all high-poverty schools. In reading, it was 57 percent, while the average for all high-poverty schools was 41 percent.
This year, the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District — of which Skyview Elementary is a part — had six schools on the “beating the odds” list, the highest number for any district. Anoka-Hennepin was second, with five schools. The only other district or school with at least two entries on the list was Higher Ground Academy, a St. Paul charter school that reported better-than-expected results for both its elementary and secondary students.
Schools on the list have taken varying approaches to narrowing the achievement gap with their wealthier peers. Some, particularly those where students of color make up the majority of the population, have made significant changes to ensure that everything from lesson plans to classroom seating reflects the student body. At Skyview, where 61 percent of students are nonwhite, that means more of the books in the school library feature characters from a variety of backgrounds, and an annual cultural fair is a highlight of the school calendar.
Instructional coach Lori Forkner said many of the teachers in the building have been at the school for years, teaching a student body that has become far more diverse — and less wealthy — than it was a decade or more ago. She and Barringer said the school and district have embraced those demographic shifts by making changes to teacher training and involving support staff like academic specialists and social workers in more aspects of the school day.
“We recognize that the teachers who have been here awhile know the students in front of them have a different experience than they did 10, 12, 15 years ago,” Barringer said. “And to not embrace that would be foolish.”
Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent David Law said his district, the state’s largest, has made some practical shifts that are now paying off. Three years ago, the district changed the way groups of teachers working together divide up instruction time, ensuring that all students get the same amount of classroom time in reading. And last year, students getting extra help in reading started using the same materials as their classmates, a move Law said has helped those students catch up and find consistency in what they are learning at school.
“When they go back to the regular classroom after the intervention, they see the same lesson,” he said.
Across the district, principals at high-poverty schools have been spending more time comparing their performance with those of other schools with similar demographics around the metro area, sometimes even dropping in at those schools to see how they are finding success. Law said that’s proved far more useful than making comparisons between schools within the district with markedly different poverty levels.
The state’s second- and third-largest districts, St. Paul and Minneapolis, have 83 high-poverty schools between them, but just one school from each district made the “beating the odds” list (St. Paul’s Como Park Elementary for math and Minneapolis’ Dowling Elementary for both math and reading).
Dowling Principal Lloyd Winfield said the school’s high parental involvement and its special focus on learning through hands-on lessons involving the environment have helped his school land on the “beating the odds” list four times in the last six years. Relatively low teacher turnover has also helped, he said.
“With that stability, our teachers have the opportunity to focus more on their craft and what they’re doing, versus ‘I have to pack up and move, I have to learn the ways of this next building,” he said.
Many other high-poverty schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul, however, have had a harder time keeping up. Both districts had 18 schools that performed considerably worse than expected in reading (at least 10 percentage points lower than their estimated proficiency based on poverty rate). In St. Paul, 33 high-poverty schools fell short of expectations in math, along with 23 in Minneapolis.
In total, 109 schools around the metro area met the criteria for “falling short” of expectations — about 26 percent of all high-poverty schools.