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Back from the Brink

Stuck on NCLB's Needs Improvement list? Here's a primer for swift and effective school reform

Teachers at Oakwood Elementary School in Lakewood, Wash., outside of Seattle, watched TV at their first staff meeting last fall, and the dial was turned to the local news.

"They were talking about Oakwood being one of six Washington schools coming off the Needs Improvement list, while 100 more schools were going on it," remembers principal John Mitchell. "That was a cool way to start the year."

Further east in Wenatchee a rural and largely agricultural community between Seattle and Spokane Columbia Elementary School also had just left Needs Improvement, a status imposed by the No Child Left Behind Law on schools whose student test scores have missed any of their states' Adequate Yearly Progress targets for two years in a row. Those targets require an increasingly high percentage of students ranging from different racial subgroups to those in ESL and special education to meet state standards in reading and math.

Based on state assessment data, 26 percent of schools nationwide did not meet AYP in 2004-2005 and 14 percent wound up in the Needs Improvement category. And those percentages will likely increase as AYP targets get steeper every year on their way to the 100 percent proficiency required by 2014.

Getting off Needs Improvement, and away from its escalating sanctions, requires meeting AYP in all target areas for two successive years. And the impressive turnarounds of both Washington elementary schools as well as the recent success stories of other schools from Minnesota to Maryland are offering a primer for swift and effective school reform in the high-pressure and high-stakes era of NCLB.

Looming Penalties

When Fay Crawford arrived as Columbia's principal in the fall of 2002, she found her new school teetering on a dangerous brink. "We had just tumbled into Needs Improvement, and the school district came to me with the news," she explains. "We had to go into public school choice. We had to send a letter home and have a family meeting explaining the options. And if we didn't come out of the second year of Needs Improvement, the next step would have been disastrous."

Columbia had missed the Washington Assessment of Student Learning reading targets for its Hispanic population, which comprises 68 percent of the student body. As a Title I school receiving federal funds, Columbia had to foot the transportation bill for any students who had chosen to transfer to other elementary schools, and Crawford knew that missing AYP again would mean paying for supplementary instruction, including the often pricey tutoring programs offered by private vendors.

The work doesn't stop with getting off the list. "I told the school board last week that this isn't the end. Now we need to show that we're sustainable and that this isn't a fluke." -Fay Crawford, principal, Columbia Elementary School

The work doesn't stop with getting off the list. "I told the school board last week that this isn't the end. Now we need to show that we're sustainable and that this isn't a fluke." -Fay Crawford, principal, Columbia Elementary School

In a series of faculty meetings, she tried to reassure her teachers. "My biggest concern was to communicate to them that this was not a failing building and that they were not failing," she says.

From there, Crawford had plenty of work to do, although she notes that being new to the school helped her usher in reforms. She launched a three-pronged strategy including a new approach to reading instruction, a higher standard of teacher collaboration, and an expansive after-school program. She implemented skill-leveled reading a so-called "walk to read" program for 2nd and 3rd graders, who were placed with classmates at similar reading levels. As students raised those levels, they moved to matching classrooms.

Columbia cracked down on student absenteeism, a chronic problem since almost all students walk to school. "There had been a lot of tardies and the reading blocks were in the morning," Crawford recalls. "If a kid's not here, we can't teach him." So the school paid more attention to attendance records, contacting parents if there was a problem, and, in some cases, even handing out alarm clocks.

Columbia teachers also paid stricter attention to assessment data. "We needed to go deeper into the assessments to find the specifics of what students needed," Crawford explains, "phonemic awareness, decoding vocabulary, fluency, ESL skills what the strengths were and what were the holes to fill to help this kid's life, not to meet our AYP. Quite frankly, it gave us a focus, and we met AYP as a by-product."

Crawford points to another by-product of Columbia's reading program. "They are our children, not just one particular teacher's," she says. "One of the things that has to happen here is people need to see this is a K-4 test. We're all in this together, and we're all responsible for the children."

New Programs

Speed Progress

The push for teacher collaboration has extended beyond the reading classroom. Instead of a weekly staff meeting, teachers meet within and across grade levels to share information about students and to develop strategies for improving student performance. "They may talk about reading groups or they may discuss resources: 'What do we have, what do we need, what worked for you,' " Crawford says. "You just have to carve out the time to do it."

Crawford also cobbled together funds from Title 1 and Migrant Bilingual programs to build a large afterschool program that divides its two hours between enrichment activities and tutoring in reading, math, ELL and science, depending on the needs of individual students. The program usually begins with 150 students in the fall and expands to 400 by March, as more students are identified for the extra help.

Based on the numbers, the changes at Columbia have worked stunningly. The reading scores for Hispanic fourth graders have followed a dramatic trajectory from 25 percent to 72.2 percent, well above the target of 64.2 percent, although Crawford has mixed feelings about her school's experience.

"I like that AYP is forcing the focus, and you have to face the realities of your problems head on," she admits. "But you are not a failing school, and your teachers are not failing teachers. Nobody's leaving a child behind. That's ridiculous."

She also warns the work doesn't stop with getting off the list. "I told the school board last week that this isn't the end," she says. "We're out of AYP and doing better. Now we need to show that we're sustainable and that this isn't a fluke."

At Oakwood Elementary, a self-described "urban school in a suburban setting" with a 92 percent rate of free and reduced lunch, a different set of programs and a significant change in teacher attitudes have led to similar success. From 2000 to 2005, the percentage of students meeting WASL reading targets catapulted from 28 to 74.4, and the results in math rose from 17 to 51.2.

Linking Math to Reading

Unlike Columbia's Fay Crawford, principal John Mitchell who has led the school for seven years and his staff saw Oakwood's AYP troubles on the horizon before the school entered Needs Improvement in 2003. "We were aware of the bad news prior to that. We had five or six different types of reading programs going on in the building, and we also had just a few outstanding teachers of reading," Mitchell points out. "We knew we had to bring a more consistent approach to our kids."

"Math was kind of a mess in multiple areas," adds Liz Colleran, the school's mathematics facilitator. "Our geometric sense was not strong. Our measurement sense was low. Algebraically, we couldn't communicate understanding of how to solve a problem through writing, which was a big piece of the WASL."

Colleran began calling other elementary schools that were successful in math to find out what they were doing and turned to Scott Foresman's Investigations series. She also piloted a fourth-grade problem-solving program, which helps students to read what a problem is asking and to explain their answers completely.

Oakwood also implemented the Success for All reading program across the board, an improvement that reading facilitator Amanda Luce says even helped students on math tests. "We discovered that every kid who met standard in math also met standard in reading, but not every kid who met standard in reading met standard in math," she says. "If they're having trouble reading, they can't read well enough to read the math problems."

Luce has additionally studied the data for children entering Oakwood's first grade, with an eye to those who might not reach level in reading. And she has started an afterschool extra-help program for the seven children most at risk.

"We've turned our school upside down with data," observes Mitchell, who says that Oakwood may have learned most from an educational effectiveness survey, in which parents indicated and the teachers confirmed that the school did not have high enough expectations of its students.

"That was eye-opening for the entire staff," he says. "A lot of our people felt that because our kids were so poor, that what we needed to do for them was feed them and keep them warm at school."

The Oakwood faculty turned the corner in the summer of 2004 during a three-day summer retreat led by an outside educational consultant. "People really had to get those feelings out and we had to cleanse our system of all of the negative thought," Mitchell remembers. "We had to build a new vision, a mission statement that we could live by, and beliefs we could hold dear to our hearts about how kids can learn and how the service delivery looks when we have high expectations."

According to Mitchell, the thorny journey through Needs Improvement has been worth it. "It's certainly not a lot of fun to walk into any district level meeting as one of two schools in a 28-school district on the Needs Improvement list," he says. "It causes anxiety. It causes stress. But look what it's done for our kids, and our teachers are starting to enjoy being here. We've really turned things around."

Wholesale Changes

In Baltimore, Md., veteran principal Mary Minter has conducted her own extreme makeover at the William Paca Elementary School. "I got a call from my superintendent in 2001," Minter recalls. "She said that this school was about to be taken over and asked me to turn the school around."

That turnaround was a task made more challenging by the large size of the school 820 mostly African-American or Hispanic students and by the pervasive poverty surrounding it. "That school is in a very poor community. Even the trees are dead," says Ben Feldman the accountability officer for the Baltimore City Schools. "But the Paca has become the Holy Grail of schools trying to make AYP." Feldman notes that 52 percent of all Baltimore schools are still in Needs Improvement.

"It was not the best place to be," agrees Minter. "There was a dismal climate." She recalls blackened ceiling tiles indicative of poor ventilation and stained carpets. But the heavy lifting came with changing the human landscape. "When folks walked in the door, they needed to know that change had taken place. It had to smack them in the face," Minter says.

She required uniforms color-coded by grade level so she and other Paca staff could tell where the students belonged as well as a change in teacher attitudes. "We were not going to accept 'It's the children's fault,' " says Minter. "They had to know that these students had the ability to learn. They would blame the children and their parents. So I had to transform the culture the beliefs, the expectations, and the habits."

Minter also replaced a dozen of the school's 78 teachers. "Those that could not be a part of the vision left," she says. "I didn't have to ask. So there are no weak links on our team."

"Team" has become the catchword and overarching theme at Paca. "I don't think it's about programs. It's about getting teachers more concerned about students' learning," Minter insists. "The biggest thing I did was to create professional learning communities. Working as a team, the teachers here took more collective responsibility and they felt like their load was lightened. Everybody is invested and aiming for a goal."

At weekly meetings with Minter, each grade-level team brings the latest assessment data on student performance. "We have to bare our souls with each other," says Minter. "We all talk about what made a group of children understand the 'main idea' in one class. Then they'll all observe that teacher, learn from her, and maybe have her come into their classrooms."

The same approach applies to Paca's students. "Let's say I have a model class doing a terrific job of talking about books," Minter explains. "Children from other classes will go into that room to see other 'student experts' model book talk. There's no limit to our human resources. As the student target percentages get higher and higher, we need to work smart."

In 2004-05, the percentage of all Paca students who achieved reading proficiency on the Maryland School Assessment had jumped to 63 from 31.4 two years earlier. Math percentages increased even more dramatically, to 65.5 from 24.4.

Neither has Minter feared to immerse most of Paca's special education students in regular classrooms. More recently, she started an afterschool program aimed at helping Spanish-speaking ESL students better integrate into the school's English curriculum. And the test results argue that Minter is onto something.

In reading, 73.3 percent of the Hispanic students reached proficiency on the 2005 MSA compared to 25 percent a year earlier. Over the past two years, the percentages of special ed students meeting standard in reading have risen to 63 from 8.1. In math, the percentages of special ed students increased to 66 compared to 8.1.

In fact, Paca's newfound academic success has made Minter concerned that parents from the other elementary schools in her community none of which have come off the Needs Improvement list will start swamping Paca with transfer requests.

Trouble in the Suburbs

Life on the Needs Improvement list, of course, is not limited to the elementary grades or to Title I schools. That has been the case with the Champlin Park High School, located in a northwest suburb of Minneapolis. The mostly affluent school has almost 3,250 students, 98 percent of whom are Caucasian. But students in several subcategories including African-American, Limited English Proficiency and Special Education had fallen short in math and reading on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.

"[NCLB is] a thorn in our side but also, a constant reminder that there are groups of students that have fallen behind. We're forced to figure out who's having trouble, why, and what to do about it." -Rhoda Mhiripiri, principal, Champlin Park, North Champlin, Minn.

"We don't receive Title I funding. But it is published in the paper, and you obviously don't want to appear there," says the school's AYP coordinator Ryan Lager, whose position was created to make up the testing deficits. His plan was simple, and he began by studying assessment data.

"[NCLB is] a thorn in our side but also, a constant reminder that there are groups of students that have fallen behind. We're forced to figure out who's having trouble, why, and what to do about it." -Rhoda Mhiripiri, principal, Champlin Park, North Champlin, Minn.

"We only had to move six or seven kids in each subgroup, so we identified a group of students who based on past data would be closest to passing the test," Lager says. "We didn't target ones a long way from passing."

The chosen students were pulled out of elective courses for 40 minutes every other day and taught by part-time math and English teachers imported for the job. Their curriculum read like a crash course in SAT preparation. Math focused on areas such as number sense, chance data, space and shape, and estimation. Reading worked on developing vocabulary, prefixes and suffixes, differences in the meanings of words, and scanning reading comprehension materials.

"We also did a much better job of tracking down students and making sure they came in for the test," adds Lager, who notes that part of Champlin Park's failure to meet AYP hinged on low participation rates by the same subgroups. The bottom line was that Champlin Park students achieved proficiency and participation targets on all fronts and came off Needs Improvement last summer.

The specialized intervention programs are continuing, but what started as a short-term solution has evolved into a long-term strategy. "We knew we needed to do something to help kids systematically," says Lager. Recently Champlin Park sent a staff delegation to a national Advancement via Individual Determination conference, with the idea of bringing new organizational and study skills to all Champlin Park students.

Lager's intensive study of data has expanded to see what pattern of math classes leads to success on the MSA. The school's administration and math department are also working to identify successful practices in advanced courses for use in lower-level math classes.

Champlin Park Principal Rhoda Mhiripiri adds that the school is starting an international baccalaureate program, with the aim of reaching wide spectrum of students. "It's an advanced curriculum, but we don't want it to be exclusive to advanced learners," she says. She is also aiming for stronger communication about instruction with and a smoother transition from the middle school that stands across the street and supplies 95 percent of the high school's student body.

"It's a thorn in our side but also a constant reminder that there are groups of students that have fallen behind," Mhiripiri says of her school's experience with NCLB and AYP. "You talk about kids falling through the cracks. We're a large high school and that can easily happen in a school like this. We're forced to figure out who's having trouble, why, and what to do about it."

Ron Schachter is a contributing editor.

Aiming at Moving Targets

"Life is good-for the moment," says Bob Gemeny, the principal for the past 21 years at Rock Falls Township H.S. in northwestern Illinois. But his relief at coming off Needs Improvement is tempered by his school's continued exercise in meeting changing requirements.

Gemeny notes that Rock Falls missed AYP in 2002 because the composite scores of 11th graders on the Prairie State Achievement Examination did not meet Illinois standards. The problem was that the state's version of AYP for that year tested social studies, science, and writing, as well as reading and math.

"We started attacking all five subjects," Gemeny recalls. Rock Falls changed its math program, extended the practice of writing and reading across the curriculum, and required a second year of science. But even as the school was making its adjustments, the state's definition of AYP changed in 2003 just to performance in reading and math, standards that posed less of a problem for Rock Falls' students in the first place.

Now Gemeny says he's bracing for another change in AYP, the re-inclusion next year of the writing test. And he's also casting a concerned eye on NCLB's future requirements. "The target keeps going up, and we're all standing on the seashore waiting for the tide to come in," he says. "It's going to get us eventually. We'd like to improve and we are improving, but there comes a point when that 7.5 percent annual jump in AYP will get you."

The Rural Dilemma

When The Dodson (Mont.) School District-which consists of a single K-12 school of 100 students, 80 percent of whom are Native American-received low 8th grade reading scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Superintendent Rod Simpson started a campaign befitting a much larger school.

What followed in this rural Montana district was an $8,000 investment in new books to update the school's library. The librarian also began offering classes for older children, as well as reading aloud to the younger ones.

English classes required more book reports. There were drills on negotiating multiple-choice questions on reading comprehension tests. The school wrote a Reading First grant. A newsletter to parents reinforced the ways parents could supervise reading at home.

"We didn't just want students to pass the test," Simpson emphasizes. "We wanted high-achieving learning." Dodson's students did not disappoint, and 75% of the next year's 8th grade class achieved proficiency in reading-all because two additional students met the standard.

"If you have a class with just a few kids and two score lower," that will skew the AYP results, Simpson observes. "It's a problem with smaller schools." And it's one of the problems that the National Rural Education Association underscored in a 2004 position paper on NCLB. The NREA also pointed to the difficulty of getting highly qualified teachers to relocate to rural areas and the deficit in per pupil funding many rural schools face.