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: 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.