National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Collaborating Toward Success – Fennimore Elementary School, Fennimore, Wisconsin

A class of students is grouped together, perched on top of a scenic overlook of a state park with a reiver running through the background. A naturalist stands on top of a rock near the students and points to an object in the distance.

Fennimore Elementary School students on a field trip to a nearby river. Credit: Fennimore Elementary School.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Fennimore Elementary, a preK–6 school with 440 students, is located in a rural region in the western part of Wisconsin. Half of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. When Wisconsin increased the passing scores on its statewide assessments in reading and mathematics for school year (SY) 2011–2012, there was as much as a 20 percentage point gap in achievement between Fennimore’s economically disadvantaged students and those who were not disadvantaged. The school adopted what it calls SMART (Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Results-oriented and Timely) goals, focused its grade-level Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) on reaching them and began closely monitoring students’ progress and intervening as soon as they began falling behind.

In 2013, 45 percent of the school’s students were proficient or advanced in reading, up from 34 percent in 2008. In mathematics, 56 percent of its students were proficient or advanced, compared to 41 percent five years earlier. Only one in four students with disabilities was proficient or advanced in SY 2008–2009 as compared to almost one in two in SY 2012–2013. Over that same period, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students who were proficient or advanced in mathematics math rose from 29 percent to 51 percent.  Gains were similar in reading.

The school receives Title I funding, which allows it to hire two additional full-time teachers and one part-time teacher. The Title I teachers are highly qualified and intervene with students needing extra help. The school also receives Title II money that it uses to purchase technology and a Title VI Rural Education grant it used for professional development sessions in the summer and new mathematics textbooks.

Q. How did you narrow the achievement gap in your school?

Jamie Nutter, superintendent, and Carmen Burkum, principal, Fennimore Elementary School. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Jamie Nutter, superintendent, and Carmen Burkum, principal, Fennimore Elementary School.
Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Jamie Nutter, superintendent: Collaboration is the key. We formed grade-level professional learning communities (PLCs) and created a common language, so that when we were talking about strategies, everybody knew what everyone else was talking about. That created more coherence within the organization so that, for example, our third-grade teachers weren’t all doing their own things. They were working toward the same objectives and goals.

Carmen Burkum, principal: The single most important factor was that we defined success as measureable success, instead of being how we thought we did. We had baseline and benchmark data, and we used the data to monitor our progress. We made sure that, at , the data were not included in teacher evaluations. We told the teacfirsthers we will never include this in your evaluation as long as you respond when students aren’t achieving. Had we included that in their evaluations, teachers would have set that bar low. Saying it wasn’t included raised the standards.

Q. What are you proudest of at your school?

Burkum: I’m proudest of the relationships we have at our school. We’re a small district.  That allows us to really get to know students and their families, and we can really drive the curriculum toward what students actually need. The entire community is very supportive of what we do and it creates a very positive culture and climate in the school.

Q. How do you think about college and career readiness in Fennimore?

Nutter: Our poverty rate is more than 46 percent. But we want our kids to know that just because you’re from Fennimore doesn’t mean you can’t be a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher. You can be whatever you want to be if you have the work ethic. We’ve seen a culture change at the high school. A few years ago we had only two percent of our students in AP classes; now it’s 20 percent.

You can learn more about Fennimore’s efforts and success here.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Creating a Path to Higher Education – Early College High School, Farmers Branch, Texas

Students from Early College High School gather outside of the school to celebrate being chosen as a 2014 National Blue Ribbon School. Students at the center of the picture are holding the National Blue Ribbon School banner that the school received with the award.

Students at Early College High School celebrate being chosen as a 2014 National Blue Ribbon School. Photo Credit: Early College High School.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Early College High School on the campus of Brookhaven College in Farmers Branch, Texas, has 315 students in grades 9–12. Eighty-five percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, and 65 percent are English learners or had previously learned English in school.

The school is the highest performing high school in the district, and 100 percent of its seniors graduated in 2012. Sixty-nine of the school’s 89 graduates had associate degrees by the time they graduated, and 90 percent of them enrolled in a four-year college.

The school receives funding from Title I, which it used for Saturday school to provide extra support for students. To hear more from Michael Arreola about Early College High School’s philosophy and how the school uses Federal Title I funds watch this video.

Q. How do you promote high performance?

Michael Arreola, principal: Many of our students will be the first in their families to go to college, so we have to eliminate mental obstacles. We have student advisories, and in them we focus on growth and teaching students grit, perseverance and resiliency. We teach them the behavioral science behind the mindset we want to instill. We teach them that their future is not determined by IQ or by what people say you are.

In our professional learning communities (PLCs) for teachers, we don’t just discuss strategies but go into the science and the research behind the strategies.

We have high expectations for students and use innovative strategies such as project-based learning and peer mentoring by current college students. We encourage our students to be the very best they can be, and the staff provides a lot of emotional support.

We don’t focus on what’s missing, the TBUs—true but useless. Since not all of our students’ parents went to college we help them learn how to encourage their students to adopt habits that will lead to success in school and college.

With the help of parents, our school is the light that will lead our students to success.

Q. What other strategies do you use?

Arreola: Of course, we focus on academics and the rigorous things students need to do to be successful. All ninth graders are placed in all pre-Advanced

Placement core courses as well as in dual-credit elective courses, and all of our high school courses are designed to have our students completely college ready, according to the Texas Success Initiative standards, by the end of their ninth grade year.

We also celebrate successes. Every Thursday, we have a bell-ringing ceremony. Students who have been accepted to college parade through the hallways ringing a bell to be celebrated by students and staff, and we post acceptance letters on the bulletin board. Younger students strive to be part of this ceremony. We also have a senior walk ceremony, during which we recognize students who have earned scholarships and associate degrees.

We are constantly telling students that what they work for, they can get. We are trying to change family trees—even if the seed we planted won’t grow until the next generation. We are growing citizens. Our valedictorian in 2014 came to the United States in sixth grade as an English learner. He is now going to Harvard and wants to go home to Mexico after college to create opportunities for people there through government and education.

You can learn much more about Early College High School’s efforts and success here.

Tennessee Teachers Learn How Peers in China Team Up to Improve Instruction

Peer observations, feedback and collaborative planning lead to increases in student learning.

In Shanghai, China, in one of the highest performing school systems in the world, teachers routinely observe their peers, give them feedback, work on lesson plans in teams, try out new lessons and collaborate on revisions—all to continually hone and sharpen their teaching.  This is very different from systems in the United States, where teaching historically has been a private activity and in-class observations are conducted mostly to evaluate performance.

Sign with the state of Tennessee on it reading, Teacher Town USA

Photo Credit: US Department of Education

Partners at Vanderbilt University, the Tennessee Department of Education, East China Normal University in Shanghai and 26 Tennessee schools are trying to make teaching more public and collaborative. Supported in school year (SY) 2013-2014 by one of eight TN LEAD grants from the State’s Race to the Top funds, the Tennessee-Shanghai Leadership Collaborative has for the past two years sent principals and teachers from high-achieving schools to observe practices in Shanghai.

The purpose of the TN LEAD grants was to help school leaders do more to improve student outcomes. Several research studies have shown that leaders are the second most important school-based factor in student learning, after teachers. The programs that received grants worked with school and district leaders already on the job as well as those still in training to increase their effectiveness.

State officials said the focus on school leaders would continue benefiting students long after the grants ran out.

Principals at the schools that participated in the Tennessee-Shanghai Leadership Collaborative formed Teacher Peer Excellence Groups (TPEGs) to try to emulate the collaboration among teachers in Shanghai. They were assisted by researchers from Vanderbilt’s Peabody School of Education.

Robin Newell, principal of Mitchell-Neilson schools in Murfreesboro, told Vanderbilt that the collaborative model has already proven beneficial. In SY 2013-2014, when teachers first began working in TPEGs, “we had the highest growth numbers in the district, and we blew our math scores out of the water,” Newell said. “I definitely attribute a great deal of that to the TPEGs …. The collaboration process was more valuable than any professional development I could have sent the teachers to. At the end of the year they said, ‘We can never go back to the old way of teaching—why didn’t we do this sooner?’”

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Top Atlanta Teachers Put Good Teaching on Display

Students sitting in English class

Eighth graders in Naja Freeman’s English language arts class practice their debating skills.
Credit: Reform Support Network

Demonstration classroom teachers help peers improve their instruction.

On a recent morning in Atlanta, eighth-grade English language arts (ELA) teacher Naja Freeman sat in the media center at Bunche Middle School describing to two visiting teachers the lesson she was about to deliver to her 27 students. Freeman told her visitors that she was going to use the Socratic Method, posing questions designed to get her students to think critically and discuss reading material aloud, while weaving in a lesson on metaphors.

“I don’t know what that’s going to look like,” she said as she told the others to join her in the classroom at the end of the hall. “I’m excited to see how it’s going to turn out.”

Freeman is a demonstration teacher—one of about 12  elementary, middle and high school standouts in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) who volunteered to open up their classrooms and allow colleagues to observe and learn from them. The program began in school year (SY) 2013–2014 with the costs covered by Race to the Top and district funds. The costs include a $1,500 stipend for the demonstration teachers, convening the demonstration teachers, salaries for substitute teachers filling in for the visiting teachers and, more recently, video technology to record the demonstration lessons so that more teachers can see them.

Georgia, like more than 20 States across the country, adopted more rigorous college- and career-ready standards for English language arts and mathematics. To implement the standards, teachers are providing opportunities for students to do critical thinking and problem solving, read more complex texts, and communicate their ideas. The standards require a shift in teaching practices and the demonstration classes are helping Atlanta teachers make that shift.

Typically, new teachers are afforded opportunities to watch more experienced mentors in action; however, Atlanta’s demonstration classrooms are open to all teachers, new and experienced alike.

The project showcases teachers who know the content, have a solid grasp on Georgia’s new college- and career-ready standards and are able to effectively engage students in their learning. It is one of many professional development tools the district relies on to help teachers improve their instruction, and it stands out for its innovative approach. Teachers say they like that the demonstration classrooms occur during the school day and offer them a chance to see what really works with students in a classroom led by one of their peers, instead of listening to lectures by non-teacher experts after school or on weekends.

Dr. Qualyn McIntyre, APS’ lead induction specialist, said the district chose the demonstration teachers based on interviews, recommendations, a classroom observation and their willingness to learn, even as they teach others. “We wanted reflective practitioners, because as long as you want to grow, you’ll help others grow,” she said.

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National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Reinforcing Interventions for Success Anaconda High School, Anaconda, Montana

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Anaconda High School is located in an old mining community in the southwestern region of Montana, a region that has seen significant economic change. As a result, the school’s enrollment is falling, and more families qualify for low-income assistance. The school now serves 314 students. Forty-two percent of them are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, and the special education population is twice the State average.

To meet all students’ needs, Anaconda partnered with a nearby community college to offer dual credit in seven classes. That allows students who pass those classes to start college with as many as 24 credits. The school works with the colleges to ensure that its graduates are ready to study college-level technical classes right from the start, without having to take remedial classes. A partnership with the Montana Digital Academy lets students take advanced classes in mathematics, science, technology and foreign languages. Another program makes it possible for students to obtain certification in a trade while still in school. Collectively, these programs give students the opportunity to make their own educational goals and pursue them.

This graphic has a quote from Paul Furthmyre, the principal of Anaconda High School: “The key is to know what the big audacious goal is and to not change the goal even if you don’t get the results you want right away.”The school is making significant strides in improving student performance, increasing the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the State mathematics test from 37 percent in school year (SY) 2008–2009 to 61 percent in SY 2012–2013. At the same time, the school’s graduation rate has steadily increased, reaching 81 percent in SY 2012–2013.  Attendance is up and tardiness and referrals for discipline are down.

Q. How do you promote improvements in student achievement?

Paul Furthmyre, principal: A lot has been thrown at our staff, and I am really proud of their resiliency. We were losing students and staff. So we formed a leadership team with an English teacher, science teacher, librarian, special education teacher and intervention teacher. The team identified the assessments we needed to get data on student needs as well as the strategies that could meet their needs.

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National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Open to New Ideas Stella May Swartz Elementary School, Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois

Students at Stella May Swartz cheering

Students and teachers at Stella May Swartz Elementary School celebrate after learning their school had been designated a 2014 Blue Ribbon School.
Credit: Angeline Ross

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

 Stella May Swartz Elementary School, a grade 2–4 school located in suburban Chicago, has a diverse student body of 160 students, 45 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. In 2012, 100 percent of the school’s third-grade students met or exceeded State standards in mathematics, and 91 percent met or exceeded State standards in reading on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. The school uses Title I funds for reading specialists, reading materials and professional development.

In 2011, nearby Salt Creek Primary, which serves pre-kindergarten through first grade students, and Swartz adopted a new reading and language arts program that provided teachers with a wealth of materials, allowing them to differentiate instruction according to students’ needs. The materials were more advanced but students were able to rise to the challenge. Teachers closely monitored students’ progress and used data to tailor interventions to their specific needs. The staff took a similar approach in mathematics.

Q. How do you promote teacher and leader effectiveness?

 Angeline Ross, principal: Our teachers never say no and keep things positive—we are trying to teach that behavior to our students. Our teachers are always trying something new—we introduce at least one new strategy each year. One year it was guided reading; another year it was using smart boards. Our teachers are always brainstorming and problem solving because they care about more than just the kids in their grade levels. They care about all kids. I try to schedule common planning time for the teachers and they team teach. We also do a lot of professional development. I will go to a professional development workshop and bring information back to the school or bring in an outsider to the school.

Deborah Butman, fourth-grade teacher: It starts with the principal. She gets her hands dirty and is very collaborative, suggesting different ways to teach a specific piece. If the principal is willing to take risks and be open with teachers, teachers will be more open with each other and with the kids.

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National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Rigorous Expectations in a Supportive Environment University High School, Fresno, California

University High School Building

University High School, Fresno, California.
Credit: University High School Permission: University High School

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

University High School in Fresno, California, is a grade 9–12 college-prep public charter school. The school focuses on liberal arts and music and is located on the campus of California State University, Fresno. The high school has about 500 students, and all of them graduate having earned as much as two years of college credits. The school draws students who want a college-prep education from 35 zip codes in 9 cities.

In school year (SY) 2012–2013, the school earned the seventh best score in the State on the California Academic Performance Index. Ninety-seven percent of students scored proficient or advanced in reading on the State test.

Q. What strategies do you use to promote high performance among students?

James Bushman, principal: It starts with our belief that kids can do rigorous work. We are a college prep school, requiring students to take four years of English, with Advanced Placement (AP) both junior and senior years; three to four years of a foreign language, including two years of Latin; four years of science, including college courses in biology and environmental science; and four years of math, including Algebra II freshman year and AP Calculus and Statistics in junior or senior years. We also require students to take music all four years. And all of our students graduate having taken at least one year of college courses.

We also have a required elective session at the end of each semester. These elective sessions vary from seven to ten days but all students sign up for one or two intensive classes during this period. These classes provide students a unique experience separate from the academic work they take during the regular semester.

Because all students are required to take Algebra II freshman year, everyone must have passed Algebra I with a grade of B or better to be admitted. But Algebra I preparation varies a lot depending on what school our students attended previously, so we are looking at ways to make learning more personalized and student centered.

Jim Torrance, teacher: Another thing we do to promote high performance is our 48 Books initiative, which has contributed to our success in English language arts. We require continuous reading outside of class every year of high school, so we buy a book a month and give a copy to every student for all four years. All of these books are integrated into the English language arts classroom. It becomes a shared library, and we choose books that help them become better adults.

It’s amazing what students can do when they have support and everybody is having the same experience. In my English class, everybody turns in every paper. We aren’t forcing students to be in class.

Bushman: We have an obligation to make sure no child is left behind.

One strategy we use is to focus on character education. Character really does matter. Students treat each other better and are more motivated than in a traditional high school. Five years ago, we wrote a code of character with three pillars: being understanding, being honorable and being studious. It was a joint effort with students and the faculty.

We do a lot to promote the code of character, even before students come to the school. On orientation day, we discuss it and teachers talk about it in the first week. We do surveys and teachers model behavior. You can push hard, but students need a lot of nurturing, and teachers have to respect the students. We have a teaching staff that cares and creates an environment of acceptance and tolerance.

Q. What other strategies do you use?

 Bushman: For the past five years, we also have had students fill out feedback forms for each class they take, which has made our teachers much more responsive. Students will say things to teachers such as “no more pop quizzes, just be clear about expectations.” And teachers are responding to this feedback—the students don’t say the same things about teachers that they did five years ago. In fact, we used to do the survey at the end of the year, but now we do it in December, so we can incorporate the feedback from students into classrooms right away.

 One of things we are proudest of is the environment we created at our school. Parents love it, and students drive an hour each way every day to get there because they couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Teachers say it is the best place to work because they have the autonomy to teach what they want and students love to learn.

You can learn more about University High School’s efforts and success at the here.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Learning by Doing Genesee Community Charter School, Rochester, New York

Students painting around table

Students at Genesee Community Charter School are immersed in art across the curriculum.
Credit: Genesee Community Charter School

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

One in four of the 217 kindergarten through sixth-grade students who attend the Genesee Community Charter School (GCCS) are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches and one in ten are students with disabilities. Admission to the school is by lottery but the school has worked hard to bring together a school population that is diverse racially, ethnically and socio-economically. Three-quarters of the school’s third through sixth graders are proficient in both mathematics and English language arts.

GCCS students are immersed in the arts, local history and culture. They learn about science, geography and the social history of Rochester by working with local experts, going on educational field trips and completing projects that often are made public. Classes share their understanding of skills and concepts through music and dance, writing, interactive presentations and media projects. Sixth graders complete what the school calls a “Portfolio Passage,” which gives them a chance to develop written and oral presentation skills and demonstrate how GCCS has prepared them to be active citizens in their community and the wider world. The school received a four-year Federal Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination grant to advise other schools on how to integrate the arts across their curriculums.

Genesee Community Charter School Principal & curriculum specialist

Lisa Wing, principal, and Lisa O’Malley, curriculum specialist, Genesee Community Charter School
Credit: U.S. Department of Education

Q. How is your curriculum different from other schools’ curricula?

Lisa Wing, principal: We use the Expeditionary Learning curriculum. We’re unique in that we connect children deeply to the place in which they live, which forms a foundation for them to understand how social, natural, geographic, political and economic forces shape people and places over time. We spiral kids through six periods of history on a two-year cycle—three periods per year. The whole school studies the same time period at the same time. We spend a lot of time with the kids out in the community. If we’re studying the early days of the community, we study the seven original settlements along the Genesee River that combined to form Rochester. We visit a graveyard in King’s Landing, led by a local history expert; students take notes about the people buried there and then go back to the school and research them.

Lisa O’Malley, curriculum specialist: To study the effect of immigration on local history, we travel to Ellis Island and we visit the Tenement Museum in Lower Manhattan. We go to Lowell, Massachusetts, to learn about early industry. Our fourth through sixth graders travel all over the country as part of their studies.

Our sixth-grade curriculum focuses on one hot topic in Rochester each year. One year, the city was building an art walk, and the steering committee asked our sixth graders to recommend types of public art that would appeal to children and families. So, the sixth graders studied ancient Roman art, then the science of rust and metal and materials. They learned about how artists choose certain materials for their art. They traveled to five cities known for public art—Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, the District of Columbia and Frederick, Maryland. They came back in the spring and studied more about the role of public art in a community. Then they designed some recommendations and made a presentation to the commission working on the project.

Q. How do you pay for those trips?

 Wing: We pay for most of the cost out of our regular allocation. We ask parents to contribute but we also provide scholarships if they can’t afford it.

Q. How important are the arts in the curriculum?

Genesee students dancing with fans

Dance and art are prominent in the curriculum of the Genesee Community Charter School.
Credit: Genesee Community Charter School

O’Malley: The arts are alive and well in our school in an era when art is often chopped to meet other priorities. In our school, the arts are one of the priorities.

The regular teachers and the art teachers plan curriculum together so that visual arts, music, dance and creative movement become another language that children can use to express what they’re learning in the classroom. That deepens their understanding of a concept, a culture, a time period or the content.

Wing: There are three ways that art connects to content. One is literal: if you’re studying a river you can make river paintings and sing songs about rivers. The second is historical or cultural: you can study the art, music and dance from the time period you’re studying. If you’re studying slavery you can study African drumming. The third is conceptual: you can create art that connects to a big idea. For example, if you’re studying space you might compose music that has cycles in it. If you’re studying rivers, you could choreograph a dance that has movement and change.

Q. How is your school year organized? 

Wing: Our teachers loop with their kids, staying with them for two years: kindergarten and first grade, grades 2–3 and grades 4–5. Sixth graders have a teacher for only one year. Each grade has one class, and each class has two teachers and an assistant. That provides teachers with more flexibility in forming small groups, doing interventions and managing behavior. We have three 12-week sessions each year, and our teachers have three weeks of professional development in August and 12 professional development days during the year. We also let the kids go early on Wednesdays when the teachers work together from 1:45 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Our kids have more hours of school than usual, but they are spread out differently to give teachers more time to learn and plan and be thoughtful about their work. So, when things such as the Common Core State Standards come along, the teachers don’t freak out because we have time to deal with it and prepare our teachers for those challenges.

Q. How do you decide what to use that professional development time for?

O’Malley: The whole faculty decides what to focus our professional development time on. Our sessions are really dedicated to learning, and they’re structured so that everyone is involved and they really own it. And because we’re all focusing on the same thing, we can dive into the classroom and try things out. We have time to plan our expeditions and critique other teachers’ plans.

You can learn more about Genesee Community Charter School here.