Minn. Education Dept. to unveil schools’ plans to improve performance

/ 1 October 2012 / eunice

Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio, October 1, 2012 – The Minnesota Department of Education on Monday will release plans by the state’s lowest-performing schools to improve student performance.

Early drafts of the improvement plans approved by state education officials show that Minnesota schools are taking similar approaches to increase math and reading scores, improve student behavior and better involve parents in school life.

The plans, which require the state’s 130 lowest-performing schools to show how they intend to turn things around, represent another step in how the state has changed its system to evaluate the performance of Minnesota schools.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, thousands of Minnesota schools were considered failing and were required to show the state how they planned to improve.

The new system, called the Multiple Measurement Ratings, focuses on a much smaller number of underperforming schools, providing more intense help for the bottom 5 percent.

While fewer schools are required to present improvement plans, those plans are much more detailed, said Steve Dibb, director of the division of school support for the Department of Education. He said they require school officials to answer an essential question: What is going to look different in the classroom in terms of instructional practice as a result of implementing your school improvement plan?

“That usually gets their attention,” he said.

Each school has an individual plan, but the 30- to 60-page draft plans that schools sent to the state in September show some similarities.

School officials plan to track data on student performance more closely. They also hope to improve student behavior, leading to less time in the principal’s office and more time in the classroom.

Topping most plans is an effort to improve student test scores, with an emphasis on narrowing the gap in test scores between whites and students of color.

To do that, schools want students to spend more time engaged in math and reading.

At Maxfield Elementary in St. Paul, for example, students have started spending more time reading, a main point in the school’s improvement plan.

Persuading students to sit down longer, with books that challenge them but don’t scare them off, is key to the school’s effort to raise test scores.

It can be important to find the right book, said 11-year-old Elsie Silas, who recently spent 30 minutes with the popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”

“If you don’t like it, then it’s really just sitting there looking at it,” she said. “If you do, your mind is right in the book.”

Students like Elsie are building their reading stamina, said Principal Nancy Stachel, who hopes that helps improve their test scores in the spring.

“By the time you get to the MCA test in the spring and you’re looking at kids having to be able to sit for an hourlong testing block of reading and really paying attention, that’s hard,” Stachel said. “That doesn’t happen overnight; it’s got to get built up over time.”

To improve test scores, the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School District in central Minnesota is adding another approach: reaching out to parents.

For Superintendent Sheri Broderius, also principal of the high school, a key question is “How do we help our parents help their kids with school?”

To find the answer, the school system is hiring a parent and family liaison, Broderius said.

Minnesota educators generally like the new system. They say they’re being given more say in how to develop plans to improve test scores.

“There’s definitely more flexibility there,” said Nicole Norton, director of funded programs and school improvement for Minneapolis Public Schools. “There’s also emphasis from the state department to work with districts more collaboratively to support their efforts.”

Half of the Minneapolis district’s 70 schools have filed improvement plans.

Another change in the system is better monitoring of low-performing schools. In the past, state officials rarely re-evaluated school improvement plans after they gave them a stamp of approval.

Schools are now expected to update the state in December on how their plans are working and make changes if necessary.