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February 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 5

A School Reclaims Itself

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To raise fallen achievement scores, an urban elementary school pressed every school professional into the service of student literacy.

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In 2002, Anderson Elementary, a preK–6 school founded in 1886, was dubbed “In Need of Improvement” after failing for three years in a row to make the adequate yearly progress (AYP) required under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Families in the Anderson area, an urban neighborhood of Reno, Nevada, were given the choice to transfer their children to other schools, and the school would soon be forced to provide supplemental tutoring.
Anderson had been considered an elite public school in the 1980s, and in 1996 the school earned a Distinguished Title I School award. Yet six years later—with the principal and 20 members of the 50-person staff having recently left the school—a large majority of Anderson's 500 students could not pass Nevada's standardized language arts or math examinations. Anderson was one of only two schools in the state to fail to make adequate yearly progress for three consecutive years.
Some facts surrounding Anderson's fall from grace indicate changes that shook the school. Between 1984 and 2004, the percentage of the student population speaking English as a second language increased from 5 percent to 60 percent; the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch soared to 91 percent; and the once-stable neighborhood around the school turned into a community with a 60 percent mobility rate for families with school-age children.

Mandate for Change

When Washoe County School District superintendent Jim Hager hired me as a rookie 30-year-old administrator to take the reins at Anderson in 2002, he gave me a mandate to question everything—to leave no stone unturned in the mission to rebuild the school's foundation and reclaim its former history of high achievement.
To learn about the school, I interviewed each employee in the building individually. I challenged staff members to rededicate themselves to teaching the basics. In all, I hired 13 teachers—including a second literacy coordinator and three reading specialists—specifically for their strengths in literacy knowledge and pedagogy and for their willingness to tackle a daunting challenge.
The new energy in the school building was palpable. But the state of Nevada had given Anderson Elementary just 90 days to submit a plan of improvement and get itself straightened out or face a possible takeover of leadership. The reality of the potential consequences, complicated by a 40 percent staff turnover and a young novice acting as leader, soon set in.
In November, I began leading the entire staff in the monumental task of creating a comprehensive schoolwide improvement plan. The Washoe County School District had retained a professional education consultant firm to help turn around each of its two schools that had been labeled “Needs Improvement” under NCLB. This firm facilitated a trip for Anderson teachers to Kennewick, Washington—home of several high-achieving schools with demographics mirroring those at Anderson. The Kennewick School District had set and achieved the goal of getting 90 percent of its 3rd graders reading at grade level. We chose to visit Kennewick because our education consultant had professional connections there, and I knew a trip out of our immediate area would spur teachers to participate. Anderson is a year-round school, and its three-week vacation occurred while many other schools, including Kennewick's, were still in session.
Nine teachers and I spent nine days observing three high-quality schools and considering which of their characteristics we could replicate at Anderson. We met with superintendent Paul Rozier for several hours, and hearing directly from him how Kennewick made its vision a reality was enormously inspiring. Beyond the information we gleaned, our conversations and brainstorming, as well as the camaraderie this group developed, were fruits reaped from this trip.

Creating the Formal Plan

Back in Reno, after mulling over the data and ideas from the site visits for a fortnight, the Anderson staff reconvened and began formally creating a plan that would help our struggling students. In the first of four consecutive weekly planning meetings, we divided the creation of this plan into four manageable chunks: adding minutes to literacy instruction; creating content for a second literacy block; using literacy assessments; and creating time for teacher collaboration. Members of the “Kennewick Crew” shared their findings, and other staff members conducted research on everything from successful reading programs to instructional minutes.
Each week the staff addressed a topic that one group had researched and discussed how it applied to Anderson. Through this process, we came to consensus on substantial changes that we could make to improve the overall program of the school. In the days between meetings, staff members consulted with one another and began to play out a variety of schemes in their heads to determine the path toward greater student achievement. At the end of January, we compiled the data and ideas that teachers had unearthed into one schoolwide improvement plan to submit to the state.

Developing a Literacy Academy

Our staff adopted the philosophy that literacy would be the foundation of our school improvement. Teachers voted unanimously that a strong foundation in reading and writing skills took precedence over any auxiliary curricular topic, no matter how worthy other disciplines may be in their own right. Each of the seven primary components of our school improvement plan was devoted to enhancing the literacy abilities of our 500 students who so desperately needed a boost.
Curriculum and instruction. The staff concluded that the literacy program we used at the time, Success for All, benefited some students but did not reach others. To better address the needs of students being left behind, the staff put together a model for a second literacy block (the Lit II Block) using the approaches and techniques of a balanced literacy program: guided reading groups, intensive word study, writing instruction, and other components that targeted student needs. Students would remain in the ability-based groups in which they met for the Success for All block so that teachers could differentiate instruction for each group.
More time for literacy. Adding a second literacy block doubled the number of instructional minutes focused on reading and writing at Anderson Elementary. What was once a schoolwide 90-minute reading class based on Success for All would expand to 90 minutes of Success for All instruction plus 90 minutes of balanced literacy instruction. That totaled three hours of daily literacy instruction for every student on campus. We developed a schedule that allowed for this dual literacy block.
Drawing in all personnel. Anderson's literacy block schedule means that every available teacher now teaches a reading class and every available paraprofessional leads a reading group in several literacy blocks. Everyone—teachers, literacy coordinators, specialists, teacher assistants, the librarian, and even the dean of students—leads a reading group daily. As the planning year ended and the implementation year began, all personnel received intensive training centered on literacy skills that our analysis showed students most needed.
Lowered class sizes. One goal of our plan was to lower class and group sizes for literacy instruction. As a direct result of giving all adults in the school charge of a group, class sizes were reduced, especially in classes with students reading significantly below grade level. In Anderson's primary grades, teachers had been team teaching with a 32:2 student-teacher ratio for several years—a system that was not in accordance with our state legislature's recent call for class size reduction. To reduce this ratio, Anderson staff erected retractable walls within primary classrooms, creating two smaller, more intimate learning environments within one classroom. This move reduced distractions and honed students' focus.
Frequent assessment. The staff developed a set of assessment parameters to guide instructional decisions and to evaluate program effectiveness and student growth. New students enrolling in Anderson now undergo a complete battery of literacy assessments before entering their first reading class. Site literacy coordinators interpret the assessments and assign each student to the appropriate reading group so that new students are integrated into the program without missing a beat. During the year, all students undergo three routine sets of assessments that include measures of phonemic awareness, comprehension, fluency, developmental spelling, and writing ability.
Collaboration time. Without frequent collaboration among teachers on assessments, student placement, progress, materials, teaching methodology, and philosophy, all the changes enacted at Anderson could never have succeeded. Every Wednesday, the dean of students and I occupy the whole student body for the last 45 minutes of the school day to grant teachers those 45 minutes plus the remaining 30 minutes of the contracted workday to meet in collaborative groups. We divide the students into two age groups—primary and intermediate—and engage them in different activities on alternate weeks. While I lead an assembly for one group, the dean—with our counselor, playground supervisor, and after-school program coordinator—runs a physical education activity for the other.
Most teachers rarely have time built into the regular weekly schedule to plan together, discuss student and teacher needs, and address problems. At Anderson, it is standard operating procedure. Teachers use this time to meet with fellow grade-level staff, with grade-pair comrades, and in action research teams.
Learning by doing. Every teacher at the school currently signs up to participate in an action research project, focusing on a topic of interest or concern to that group of professionals. Each action research team formulates and researches a driving question, conducts relevant research, and determines whether any reasonable conclusion can be drawn from the information gathered. Topics range from the effect that a student's home life has on achievement to the potential benefits of guided imagery instruction. Asking staff members to investigate a relevant concern and present their findings to their colleagues has proven empowering for teachers.

The Results: A High-Achieving School

During the 2002–2003 school year, the school made its adequate yearly progress goals while seeming to operate as it had during the previous three years. But below the surface appearance was a dramatically heightened awareness of student learning—nurtured by the planning sessions, research reviews, philosophical discussions, and development of the improvement plan. The students were already benefiting from our planning process.
Achieving our goals for adequate yearly progress in 2002–2003 was an important accomplishment because it was the first year of the NCLB accountability program. Schools that had failed to make required progress on the “old” scoring system, like Anderson, were fast-forwarded to year three of NCLB sanctions, whereas all other Title I schools received a reprieve in starting anew.
To avoid sanctions under No Child Left Behind, however, Anderson Elementary needed to make its AYP goals for a second consecutive year. In 2003–2004, the implementation year of the comprehensive schoolwide plan, students' test scores showed a remarkable upswing. We increased the percentage of students labeled proficient by 10–51 percent in every subcategory, and met our AYP thresholds with room to spare. For our students with limited English proficiency, the achievement gaps were reduced or even eliminated across the board. Anderson was one of nine Washoe County elementary schools to garner “High Achieving” status—the only Title I school to earn this distinction.
Comparing scores from the 2003–2004 academic year with those of two years earlier shows truly startling improvement. These data reflect the percentage of Anderson students meeting the state of Nevada's proficiency benchmarks. Data for English and language arts reflect the 3rd and 5th graders' scores on the CRT examination in reading combined with 4th graders' scores on the state Writing Proficiency exam; math data reflect 3rd and 5th graders' combined scores on the CRT in math.
  • The school total pass rate rose from 24.2 percent to 38.6 percent.
  • The Latino student pass rate rose from 22.9 percent to 39.5 percent.
  • The white student pass rate rose from 26 percent to 36 percent.
  • The pass rate for students getting free/reduced-price lunch rose from 23 percent to 36.8 percent.
  • The limited-English-proficient student pass rate rose from 2.6 percent to 41 percent.
  • The school total pass rate rose from 28.3 percent to 56.4 percent.
  • The Latino student pass rate rose from 26.5 percent to 58.5 percent.
  • The white student pass rate rose from 31.2 percent to 53.3 percent.
  • The pass rate for students getting free/reduced-price lunch rose from 27.3 percent to 56.5 percent.
  • The limited-English-proficient student pass rate rose from 5.1 percent to 56 percent.
We have made dramatic gains at Anderson Elementary in only two years, and the changes we implemented will be sustained because they reflect an altered approach at the school, not just quick-fix score raisers. The school has become a community of thinkers, working together as a unit to build a powerful program. As Anderson continues to reclaim its high-achieving identity, I believe we exemplify a new category for struggling schools that demonstrate significant growth—that of exemplary turnaround school.

Veteran school administrator and educational consultant Pete Hall channels his experiences as a school principal, life coach, and small-business owner into manageable lessons for continuous growth, personal improvement, and positive mindset.

Hall served 12 years as a principal in three Title I schools, each earning awards for academic performance, growth, and student achievement. He currently works as an educational consultant as a member of the ASCD faculty and trains educators worldwide with a focus on the continuous improvement of our education systems.

Besides partnering with Alisa Simeral on three ASCD books, Hall authored over 20 articles on leadership and 11 books, including The First-Year Principal and Lead On! Motivational Lessons for School Leaders.

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