Serving more than 21,000 students, Iredell-Statesville Schools (I-SS) in North Carolina ranks among the 20 largest school districts in the Tar Heel State. The district serves 36 schools in Iredell County — a diverse blend of urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods — 40 miles north of Charlotte. Four years ago, the district faced a dilemma: While it ranked in the top 10 percent of North Carolina districts in academic performance, it needed to increase teacher effectiveness and boost the academic achievement of its high-needs students, English learners, and students with disabilities. And while district leaders had a plan to achieve this ambitious goal, the annual I-SS budget resided in the basement of the state’s 212 districts, in the bottom five percent.
The plan to achieve their North Star goal of equity in student achievement was aptly called COMPASS — Collaborative Organizational Model to Promote Aligned Support Structures — with the route to success predicated on targeted professional development that focuses on use of data, curricular improvements, and instructional approaches to identify where students are struggling and address their individual academic needs. I-SS teachers would be equipped with the tools to ensure that all of their students are on track to achieve their learning goals. Integral to this approach is the alignment of the school’s support structures for teachers and deepening existing professional learning communities where educators collaborate, analyze student performance data, and share best practices.
In 2010, I-SS entered their COMPASS plan in OII’s Investing in Innovation (i3) competition and received a $4.99 million Development grant, setting them on a multi-year journey that would begin with bolstered professional development, followed by piloting the new approach in several schools, and eventually result in district-wide implementation.
COMPASS also includes the implementation of Response to Intervention (RtI) — an approach that combines high-quality, culturally and linguistically responsive instruction; assessment; and evidence-based interventions to increase student performance and close skill gaps. COMPASS, according to i3 project director Sherrard Lewis, “is a unifying force — a glue — that brings the data usage, heightened curricular goals, and instructional improvements together.” And with the district implementing the Common Core State Standards this year, this unifying factor has contributed to I-SS teachers embracing and teaching to the new standards.
Overcoming initial skepticism
At N.B. Mills Elementary School, one of the first schools to participate in COMPASS, teachers were working hard with a population of more than 500 pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students, who faced some of the greatest challenges in the district, including more than 90 percent of the students eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch and a large percentage of students who speak English as a second language, and many have parents who cannot read. The school’s teachers were initially skeptical of implementing the changes that COMPASS called for, but principal Kim Mitchell had the district i3 team talk with teachers to build trust and understanding. The teachers were soon eager to receive additional supports to help their students succeed, even though the new program was very different from anything that the teachers — or their students — had experienced. “Once we created a team built on trusting each other and then removed the barriers that were getting in the way of instruction,” Mitchell reported, “we could begin having honest conversations about student learning and the specific needs of our school and students.”
Understanding and using data
I-SS implemented COMPASS in participating district schools — including N.B. Mills — in three phases. The third and final stage began during the 2013-14 academic year.
At first, COMPASS was instituted by training and supporting staff across multiple departments within the district and building a comprehensive understanding of the RtI component. One of the tenets framing the RtI approach is that teachers can be more effective when their students are receiving targeted support, which is informed through the strategic use of academic performance data.
As departments in the district worked to become more aligned, the next step was to purposefully improve and increase data use. I-SS established “Data Days” to provide a quarterly opportunity for teachers from across a participating school to analyze data on student performance, which would ultimately inform classroom instruction.
During Data Days, teachers review student academic performance and progress-monitoring data, along with other measures, like attendance and discipline referrals, and use that data to select evidence-based interventions to help students reach specific, measurable goals. For i3 project director Lewis, the philosophy is simple: “If you want to change education, you have to change what happens in the classrooms and how teachers perceive their work.” As she explains, “When teachers analyze and understand data, it helps them understand a child’s true potential.”
With the increased use of data, Lewis has observed that many teachers exhibit a greater sense of urgency about ensuring student mastery of content and skills. But access to student achievement data was only part of the I-SS effort to improve performance. The district recognized that teachers had to be supported through the changes that COMPASS was asking them to make. Consequently, targeted professional development for teachers may be the most important aspect of Data Days. Following each Data Day, workshops are offered by the i3 team and are structured to meet teachers’ identified needs based on students’ universal screenings and assessments.
Workshops often focus on differentiated initial instruction, as well as math or literacy strategies and interventions. Speaking about COMPASS, a principal said: “One thing I really appreciated is that the support we’ve gotten this year has really been differentiated based upon the needs of our school … [the COMPASS team’s] support has been very unique and tailored to our schools and what our teachers need.”
Further professional development opportunities for I-SS teachers and staff have included an “Innovation Showcase” to share best practices, curriculum trainings, and meetings with cross-functional teams. When teachers were surveyed following the COMPASS trainings, 100 percent felt it was a positive experience.
Positive signs that gaps are closing
Many positive changes have occurred in I-SS since 2010 when the district was awarded its i3 grant. Graduation rates increased for target student groups, including a rise from 65 percent in 2010, to 87 percent in 2011, and to 90 percent in 2012 among students identified as high-needs — those students who had previously made no or negative growth in at least one course. Throughout the district, teachers also are meeting their professional objectives to help their students achieve. For example, at the end of the second year of implementation, 85 percent of teachers participated in weekly professional learning, which increased to 92 percent in 2012, and 80 percent demonstrated an increased understanding of and ability to use technology.
While the i3 grant can’t make up for decreased education funding elsewhere, it has helped the district use its resources more efficiently. As Associate Superintendent of Instruction and Curriculum Melanie Taylor puts it, educators are “working smarter.” According to Taylor, prior to the implementation of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the district was seeing gaps close overall, with gains in data metrics for students in almost all subgroups. While CCSS presents new challenges to I-SS students’ academic performance on district assessments, the COMPASS team expects to quickly close those gaps again as teachers grow more confident and experienced with the Common Core.
Lewis notes, “None of this would have happened without the grant.” It permitted I-SS to create the cross-functional staff team that serves its schools in a way that has never been done before. Students now are making important advances as a result of the new culture in their schools: one in which data is used to inform instruction; students and teachers are provided with additional support; and everyone is focused on closing the achievement gap.
Even though implementation of the new standards has been a difficult process at times, I-SS students outperformed North Carolina’s state average in every single assessment, in grades three to 12, except one.
And at N.B. Mills Elementary, children’s lives are being positively impacted in powerful ways. “Since the 2011–12 school year, students have achieved higher proficiency levels in reading than ever before. For example, 62 percent of last year’s first graders were proficient in the overall DIBELS Composite, but this school year, 82 percent of first graders scored “proficient” on the mid-year DIBELS Composite assessment. This trend is found across five of the six grade levels — students are performing at or above the proficiency level at mid-year where previous years’ students ended the grade, Principal Kim Mitchell reflected. The i3 team didn’t settle for the idea that “our kids are not comprehending,” according to Mitchell. The COMPASS team showed Mills teachers how to peel back each layer and find out what was getting in the way of each student’s learning and what they could do about it.
N.B. Mills’ vision is to develop highly qualified citizens through relationships and authentic instruction, which is a constant conversation in their trainings and daily instruction.
New opportunities to excel
But the progress won’t stop there. The district has plans to keep improving. Last year, I-SS received a $19.9 million dollar U.S. Department of Education Race to the Top-District (RTT-D) grant, which will be used to support bold innovations in teaching, learning, and technology that will continue to support student achievement and educator effectiveness for the district’s middle and high schools. Although I-SS leaders feel that work still exists to be done on behalf of educators, students and families, they know that the support of the i3 grant has helped to propel the district to an innovative level of authentic support and positive student outcomes — exactly as the creators of the I-SS i3 initiative intended.
Sherry Schweitzer is a senior communications specialist in the Office of Communications and Outreach (OCO). Denise Gerda served as an OCO communications intern in 2013.