Struggling schools in West Duluth, Proctor see success after intervention

/ 29 September 2013 / eunice

Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune, September 29, 2013 – One of the first things you see when you enter Laura MacArthur Elementary School in the heart of West Duluth is a banner proclaiming, “We will be a reward school by 2015.”

The high-achieving label is a tall order for the school that in 2012 was lumped in the bottom 5 percent in the state for achievement, being named a “priority school” for three years, along with neighboring Proctor Bay View Elementary. But both schools were given large state grants to pay for more staff and other resources, and last year rolled out massive changes that required new ways of thinking and instructing for teachers. That led to new expectations of students and more outreach to families. In one year, both schools have seen a variety of improvements, ranging from higher test scores to better behavior and more parent involvement.

“We’ve had to do some very progressive things,” said Laura MacArthur Principal Nathan Glockle. “It’s been a lot of hard work. But the things we are doing are going to be the new normal.”

In 2012, many Minnesota schools were required to roll out school improvement plans as part of the Minnesota Department of Education’s new accountability system for schools that receive Title I money. The department created the new system after receiving a waiver from some of the federal No Child Left Behind law’s harshest mandates. New labels ranged from “reward schools,” which were those at the top for achievement, to “priority.” The priority label lasts for three years.

Working together

Glockle has arranged it so teacher prep time is now when teachers from the same grade meet to work together during the school day with him and other administrators to go over data and talk about instruction. That was the biggest change, because it meant some complicated schedule changes to work within their contract and a mind-set shift for teachers who were used to private time to correct work or to plan.

“A lot of days you had to question yourself: Is this going to work?” said Glockle, in his third year at the school. “But I know who I am as a person. If I am going to bring teachers together to collaborate on student learning, how can I go wrong with that?”

Fifth-grade teacher Ronda Erie — who saw her class go from 11 percent proficient in math to 73 percent proficient in a year — said she’s worked in schools where teachers work in isolation, sharing nothing. By working with other teachers, sharing methods and studying data, she’s learned more in one year than in 15 years of teaching, she said.

“We never looked at data before,” she said. “It’s embarrassing to say that. Why weren’t we? Now we are and I can tell you exactly where each student is; these kids need a challenge and these kids need help. This is going to change education.”

At Bay View, Principal Diane Morin said her school is doing the same thing.

“Our thing was, we weren’t really teaching to the standards,” she said, referring to the state education department curriculum standards. “That was a big shift in thinking,” once subjects were aligned that way.

Morin was brought to the school from another principal position in the district to replace another, so it has taken staff time to develop trust, she said.

“We are getting there,” she said. “Change is always hard. Some people immediately buy in and others, it takes a bit. But it’s the most gratifying work I’ve done in my professional career.”

Both principals spend more time in classrooms observing teachers, giving them feedback on their instruction. Each said it’s been stressful for some teachers not used to such scrutiny, but it’s a requirement of the grant.

The teachers are focused on learning new ways to better help their students, said Shane Johnson, Laura MacArthur’s continuous improvement specialist who was hired last year as part of the grant.

“They are in the trenches, they are the foot soldiers,” she said. “They are the ones pulling this off.”

In the wake of success seen at Laura MacArthur, Principal Glockle was among educators from six states invited to the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., to talk about the work being done at their schools.

Both schools lost a few staff members to retirement or other schools after last year, but administrators wouldn’t directly say whether staff members left because of the changes.

“It’s been an incredible amount of work for staff,” Morin said, and some departure decisions may have been based on, “‘Am I in this for the long haul?’ It’s a whole new way of doing things.”

Johnson said people left for a variety of reasons, but she doesn’t fault anyone who left because of the difficulties that come with the “priority school” label.

“Sometimes, it’s too overwhelming,” she said.

Building trust

Parent involvement has been important at Laura MacArthur, which has a couple dozen fewer students than last year, about 460 last week. Books are set out in the cafeteria so kids can read during the free breakfast time, and some kids read with their parents who come in with them.

A “Peacemaker Assembly” is held each month to honor kids who go out of their way to embody the values of Martin Luther King Jr. A boy and a girl are chosen from each class by their teachers, and last year students chose from those students a final “peacemaker” at the end of the year. Families are invited to each assembly and throughout the year, more parents came to each one. Kids are taught how to accept an award, Glockle said, and it sets them up for years of striving for goals.

“It’s that expectation of, we know you will go on and do great things,” he said.

It also worked to bring parents to the school that may not have been comfortable being there. The names given to the peacemakers were the Ojibwe words for “leader,” lending a cultural touch.

At Bay View, math and reading nights and summer school were added last year. This year, the after-school program was expanded. Summer school was something Bay View had never had, Morin said, and participation was high. Bay View’s enrollment — currently 544 — has surged this year with about 65 new students, so the priority status isn’t keeping families away from the school. Morin attributes it to adding all-day, every-day kindergarten and the closure of nearby St. Rose School.

Bay View has a large percentage of involved families, but there is a chunk that doesn’t participate, she said, and more outreach is needed there.

“We’re going to try home visits this year,” she said, and offer more help to parents who say they don’t know enough to help their kids with homework.

At Laura MacArthur, fifth-grade teacher Kellie Mulliner said her students have planners that go home with students to be signed by parents, to signal homework has been seen and discussed. In the past, some would go weeks without being seen, or they’d be lost, she said.

“Now, every kid has it every day and they are almost always signed,” she said.

Achievement and behavior

Laura MacArthur made large gains in state math scores but went down in reading, although the reading test changed to a more difficult test, making comparisons difficult. The school also made gains in narrowing the achievement gap, which is the disparity between students of color and those who are white, for example, or between students from low-income families and those who are not.

One sign of things to come, Johnson said, is an early reading indicator for kindergarten students. They ranked second among the nine elementary schools for their grade in a sound fluency test with nearly 80 percent proficient.

At Bay View, where most scores weren’t as low as at Laura MacArthur, gains were made in both reading and math but achievement gap gains were negligible.

Laura MacArthur has come up with something of a mantra that it uses schoolwide to improve behavior: “focused, appropriate, cooperative.” The kids are expected to be those things, and any adult at any time can remind students of those expectations when they’re not showing the qualities, which wouldn’t have been done in the past, teachers say. Superintendent Bill Gronseth even had a student recite it to him during one recent classroom visit when he asked what the class was doing to succeed.

In past years, Glockle said, some incidents were so disruptive that they would stop classes until kids were removed.

“Now, if there is an issue or a concern, it’s not a three-hour episode,” he said.

What happens next

Having a school with the priority designation is “emotionally jarring,” Gronseth said.

“It was the push we needed to make changes quickly,” he said.

The extra funding was important in doing that. Many of the things the school has learned can be taught at other schools, but for the entire approach to be used, each school would need the start-up costs, he said. Duluth’s grant was $1.3 million and Proctor’s was $1.7 million for three years.

Whether the gains made will be sustained once the grant money is gone is debatable. Glockle said money has been spent wisely to create change that will last long after it’s gone. The time teachers spend together working was created within the normal workday.

“That cost us brain power,” he said.

As for staff adjustment, most won’t be able to argue with the gains students are making, and have grown used to the changes.

“It’s in their bones now,” Glockle said, and it’s worked because “everyone had their oar in the water and they were all rowing at the same time.”

Morin worries more about what will happen when the money — this year more than $700,000 — goes away.

“Now we have all this time to look at data and talk about it,” she said. “My biggest fear is we won’t have this in the future. We have to have this and teachers deserve it.”

At Laura MacArthur, the time has been so valuable to Erie she said she wants her old classes back to reteach them.

Working at a priority school is tough, she said.

“We are climbing out of a dark hole and it’s exciting seeing people change that are finally saying ‘These kids can do it,’” Erie said. “For so long we heard, ‘These kids can’t do it.’ But they can do it and they are proving it.”