The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 7, 2012

St. James school set to follow new plan

By Amanda Dyslin
Free Press Staff Writer

ST. JAMES — Under the new state education accountability system, underperforming schools are required to submit a plan of action to the Department of Education.

Called School Improvement Plans, the state’s Priority schools (bottom 5 percent of Title I schools) and Focus schools (those with an extreme achievement gap) must devise an “organized, focused, inclusive and public way to plan improvement for student benefit.”

Those plans are being officially released soon by the Department of Education, and as a Priority School, St. James Northside Elementary School’s plan is among them.

In the 36-page document, compiled by Northside Principal Karla Beck, the school’s needs for specific interventions are laid out, as are the plans in place to meet those needs. Beck said a focus on reading is at the heart of the school’s improvement philosophy.

“Reading standards, they are linked to history, science, technology and social studies,” Beck said. “The standards almost mandate that you merge the language acquisition in with the acquisition of other subjects.”

Basically, she said, students who can read well can comprehend material in a variety of other subjects. The district is piloting programs called The Daily Five and Reading Cafe and plans to make the materials available to all teachers with full implementation in 2013-14.

Reading Cafe curriculum takes an academic approach to reading comprehension. The Daily Five is centered around five reading components, including reading to yourself, writing, reading to someone else, reflection, and spelling and word work.

“Even the kindergarten teachers are pulling tiny bits and pieces of it,” Beck said.

Simultaneously, the school is working on math standards, Beck said, as the school’s Multiple Measurements Rating indicated a need for improvement in math as well. The school’s total MMR score was 25.79 percent. (Generally, a higher percentage indicates achievement and growth.)

To aid in meeting students’ needs, the school received a federal School Improvement Grant for $445,000 to go toward staff and other resources to help close the achievement gap. The grant paid for the hiring of an assistant principal at Northside, a full-time reading specialist, a half-time math interventionist, a full-time data instructional coach and a full-time family liaison.

“Money isn’t everything, but boy can we do a lot with what we’re given,” Beck said.

Already in place as of last year is a half-time curriculum coordinator, who has conducted an assessment of the math curriculum with teachers. A Northside Principal Advisory Council at Northside also was resurrected.

Teachers at the school are being given time to work in professional learning communities or PLCs, which means collaboration among teachers and administrators to share ideas about what’s working, what’s not and how to move forward with a shared vision.

“In the past, that’s been one of our issues is, ‘How do you find the time to do that?’ This grant will pay for our staff to have the time,” said Supt. Becky Cselovszki after the grant came through.

Beck said weekly PLC time is vital.

“(We are) looking at the standards,” Beck said. “What do we need to teach? How do we teach it? How do we assess it?”

Among the numerous other improvement efforts, a “superintendent’s cabinet” of administrators, managers and coordinators was started, as well as a Parent Advisory Committee for the district.

A data coach will be working with reading, math, Title I and English Language Learner staff, as well as classroom teachers, to identify students needing math and reading intervention.

Beck said the staff is looking at the Priority School designation as an opportunity, not as a bad label.

“There is a renewed energy to make sure our children learn and that we increase our test scores simultaneously,” Beck said. “That plan isn’t just my plan, it’s truly the school’s plan.”

Beck said the efforts will be reflected in spring test scores.

“We will see gains this spring. Absolutely. I can tell you that right now,” she said.

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 under-performing 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?

Minnesota Public Radio News contributed to this report.