MANKATO — An entourage of Mankato Area Schools administrators and media walked the halls of Washington Elementary School Wednesday watching Brenda Cassellius visit classrooms and engage with students and teachers.
The state commissioner of education asked questions, gave high-fives and observed the teaching methods that have helped Washington achieve Reward School status for two consecutive years under the new state accountability system that replaced No Child Left Behind.
Reward Schools are the highest-performing 15 percent of Title I schools in the state.
“I am so thrilled with our No Child Left Behind waiver, and we can put the focus on the positive,” Cassellius said to Washington Principal Will Remmert.
Remmert and Supt. Sheri Allen explained the various programs in place at Washington, including a data wall in a staff conference room with framed pictures of all the students, categorizing them by their level of achievement in reaching learning outcomes. Another wall contains information on each “What I Need Kid” with individual skill goals mapped out.
“It personalizes the data. It really, to me, validates the growth model,” said Allen, whom Cassellius described as a “super feisty superintendent who gets things done.”
Cassellius was impressed with the system. “We need everybody to see this right here,” she said.
Focusing on growth and the needs of each individual student is a huge benefit under the waiver, Cassellius said. And Washington — made up of 20 percent non-white students and 43 percent free-and-reduced lunch — is a great example of that growth, Remmert said.
Under No Child Left Behind, the school missed reaching Adequate Yearly Progress (the old accountability benchmark) several years in just one of more than a dozen categories. The third year, the school missed it by 5/10 of a point, Remmert said.
“And so the public perception was we were a failing school,” he said, adding that morale was terrible. “It was horrible around here.”
Cassellius said the worst part of missing AYP by such a slight margin was knowing that the teachers were doing the right things and weren’t being recognized for growth.
“We knew we were doing the right work, we knew we were headed in the right direction, we knew we were closing the (achievement) gap,” Remmert said.
The new system has the opposite effect, Remmert said. Throughout the school, focus is put “kid by kid, skill by skill,” he said.
“You’re doing all the right things,” Cassellius said.
In a second-grade classroom, reading intervention teacher Connie Long was just sharing some great news with the class: 100 percent of them had hit their reading target for the first time.
“Do you know how you hit your goal?” Long asked the class.
“Because we’re good readers,” a boy said. “Because we’re reading,” a girl said.
Cassellius congratulated the class and asked what subjects they were interested in with kids shouting out art, music and reading.
“Do you kids know you can be anything you want to be when you get big like us adults?” she said.
Remmert said he appreciates having a commissioner who understands that school is about more than just students passing standardized tests. It’s about “the whole culture, the whole child,” he said.
Cassellius said she is visiting schools such as Washington to gather feedback and learn where resources are needed, and to help “get those resources as close as they can to the kids.”