Washington County School District sprawls across more than 2,400 square miles in the southwestern corner of the state of Utah. While tourists and adventurers flock to Zion National Park, which lies in the eastern part of the county, educators have recently been drawn to a much smaller attraction: Tonaquint Intermediate School, one of 47 middle-grades schools across 16 states to be named a "School to Watch" by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle- Grades Reform.
Located in a brand new building in St. George, a city of about 70,000, Tonaquint teems with energetic sixth- and seventh-graders. Its faculty and staff are deeply committed to seeing that these students are both challenged and cared for.
Christine Huley, co-director of Utah's Schools to Watch program, believes that the sense of community at Tonaquint sets it apart from most middle-grades schools. The development of this sense of community has been no accident. Rather, Tonaquint's teachers and administrators alike know where the students are developmentally. "They understand the uniqueness of young adolescents," observes Huley.
Marshall Topham, assistant superintendent for secondary education, is impressed by Tonaquint's emphasis on reaching each student. "They designed their entire curriculum around the needs of individual students," he says. "They have lots of innovative programming. My hat's off to them."
Topham believes that Tonaquint's recognition will give impetus to the ongoing effort among the nine middle-grades schools in the district to see that every child succeeds. "We share information a lot," he says. This cooperative spirit and desire for excellence has drawn many visitors not just to Tonaquint but to other schools throughout the district.
Schools to Watch Recognition
In March, Tonaquint became the fifth Utah middle-grades school to be recognized as a School to Watch. Launched in 1999, Schools to Watch began as a program to identify middle-grades schools across the country that were meeting or exceeding 37 criteria developed by the National Forum. In general, according to the National Forum, three things are true of high-performing middle-grades schools: They are academically excellent, developmentally responsive and socially equitable. (The 37 criteria can be found online at www.mgforum.org/Improvingschools/ STW/STWcriteria.asp#academic.)
After initiating the Schools to Watch program, the National Forum spearheaded the creation of individual state programs, and it is these programs that now select the schools to be recognized each year.
In order to be considered for Schools to Watch recognition, a school must submit a written application demonstrating how it has met the National Forum's criteria. State teams then visit those schools that appear to have met the criteria. These teams interview parents, teachers and administrators, observe classrooms, and look at achievement data, quality of lessons, suspension rates, and student work.
Several years ago, upon learning that her school would be moving into a new building in 2007, Bobby Garrett, then principal of the school that would become Tonaquint after the move, recognized that this was an opportunity for more than just a change of scenery. She wanted to revamp the school's entire approach. "We wanted to look at good research," she explains. "We didn't want to plan this based on emotion, so we researched national programs. The program we found that was closest to what we were looking for was Schools to Watch."
When the team from the Schools to Watch program evaluated Tonaquint, therefore, they found not just a school that met the criteria, but one whose curriculum and methods - even the building itself - had been designed specifically to meet those criteria. Lori Gardner, the other co-director of Utah's Schools to Watch program, thinks Garrett and her team have created something special. "Tonaquint Intermediate School is not just a way station between elementary and high school," she says. "Significant teaching and learning goes on there."
Making the Data Work
Tonaquint has just over 700 students, who are divided into seven teams, each of which includes both sixth- and seventhgraders. Th ese teams are key in creating what Huley calls a "family atmosphere." "The same group of teachers is with the same group of kids," she says. "The adults are true advocates."
Tonaquint has an integrated curriculum, and the teachers in each team meet together regularly in professional learning communities to coordinate lesson planning and testing, and to discuss the needs of individual students. At these meetings teachers bring not only anecdotal information but also hard data. "The degree to which Tonaquint is using data to make decisions on the teacher level is unusual," says Gardner. "Teachers use data acquired through NCLB-required testing, but they have also designed their own tools of assessment."
Language, math, and science classes are 86 minutes long. This can seem like an eternity for attention-challenged sixthand seventh-graders, but at Tonaquint the advantages of such a schedule are clear. "With these extended classes we can do both remediation and acceleration," says Garrett. "We can also do a lot more reinforcing. Every 20 minutes, students are moving. They have a new experience with the same concept."
The news about Tonaquint is now out in the educational community, but Garrett wants to spread the word closer to home. A big celebration took place in May, at the end of their school year. The community was invited and it was an allday affair.
Don Parker-Burgard is copy editor of District Administration.