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.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Closing Achievement Gaps Garfield and Harrison Elementary Schools, Brainerd, Minnesota

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.

Garfield Elementary and Harrison Elementary are two of the six elementary schools in Brainerd (Minnesota) Public Schools, all of which were awarded Blue Ribbon status by the U.S. Department of Education in 2014.

Garfield is a K–4 school with 388 students, of whom 50 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches and 20 percent receive special education services. Harrison, also a K–4 school, serves 258 students, 66 percent of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches and 16 percent who receive special education services.

On State tests, both schools have reduced achievement gaps significantly. In 2010, Garfield was directed by the Minnesota Department of Education to focus on increasing the reading skills of students with disabilities. Two years later, the State recognized it as a School of Celebration because of the progress it had made. In 2013, it achieved Reward status, meaning that it was among the top 15 percent of the Title I schools in the State based on student proficiency, growth and progress toward closing achievement gaps.

Both schools used Title I money for early literacy interventions such as Reading Recovery and the Leveled Literacy Intervention System.

Picture of Principal Clark

Jonathan Clark, principal, Garfield Elementary School. Credit: Reform Support Network

Q. What did your school do to close achievement gaps?

 Jonathan Clark, Garfield principal: The programs and initiatives that helped Garfield Elementary School win these honors are not fancy, new or secret. They are comprised of hard work, team building, fidelity of instruction and data-driven decision-making.

At Garfield, all teachers, school, staff, and students have the same expectation—that everyone will achieve. We raised our expectations above State standards. All of our students—from gifted and talented to special education—are constantly being challenged.

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Celebrating Progress: Learning Lessons from the 2014 National Blue Ribbon Schools

The first in a new series of blog posts with stories about National Blue Ribbon Schools, highlighting ACGC Elementary School in Atwater, Minnesota.

In the fall, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recognized 337 National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2014, based on their overall academic excellence or their progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups. The schools were honored at a recognition ceremony in November 2014, and the PROGRESS blog is sharing some of their stories and lessons learned. To hear two principals of National Blue Ribbon Schools talk about the value of the program at the recognition ceremony, watch this video.

The series highlights the stories of 14 schools that, collectively, serve approximately 4700 students and represent 11 States, including three schools from Minnesota and two from Texas. Three of the featured schools are high schools, one is a kindergarten through eighth grade school in a thinly populated area of Alaska and two are traditional elementary schools serving grades kindergarten through sixth. The other eight schools are elementary schools serving different grade configurations.

Strong themes that emerge from the schools’ stories include high expectations for student achievement, a collaborative culture, the use of variety of data to inform decision-making and an openness to new ideas.

Teacher sits on the ground with students around her.

Kindergarten teacher Tricia Lagergren and her students. Credit: ACGC Elementary School

First up is ACGC (Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City) Elementary School in Atwater, Minnesota.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Using Data to Drive Student Success ACGC (Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City) Elementary School, Atwater, Minnesota

The students at ACGC Elementary School come from three small rural communities in Minnesota. Fifty percent of the 400 students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches and about 15 to 20 percent of them are students with disabilities.

Three years ago, the school was in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the State and was designated a priority school by the Minnesota Department of Education. Two years later, it had improved to reward status and was among the top 15 percent in the State.

The school used a Federal Early Learning Challenge grant to double pre-kindergarten from two half-days a week to four half-days without increasing the cost for parents. The school also used Title I funding for interventions to support struggling students.

Q. How did your school achieve such a turnaround in only two years?

Kodi Goracke, principal: We kept our School Improvement Plan very focused, starting with creating a safe and welcoming climate. That includes weekly anti-bullying lessons led by the school social worker and providing mental health services. Our staff is key to our success. I am so proud of how dedicated they are; they go out of their way to create the proper climate for learning and connect with parents.

For two years, we also focused on intensive training in the Marzano Framework for Evaluation for all administrators and teaching staff. And we established PLCs [professional learning communities] and set aside time weekly for teachers to come up with strategies for student success and plan ways to reduce achievement gaps, all while focusing on data-driven decision-making. Through this work, we find each other’s strengths and make it okay for teachers to network and share practices. We find different ways to tackle issues—what works for one group one day might not work for another group the next.

Principal Kodi Goracke

Kodi Goracke, principal, ACGC Elementary School.
Credit: Reform Support Network

Q. How do you use data to drive decision-making?

Goracke: At the beginning of the school year, students are given district and curriculum assessments. The teachers use these data to start a year-long data map on each student. Students in the 40th percentile and below are flagged for additional support through our Title I program. In addition, students receive tutoring from Minnesota Reading Corps and Minnesota Math Corps to support their growth.

We use the data to help determine how to use what we call WIN—What I Need—time. It’s 30 minutes daily. Teachers, working with Title I and special education teachers, review the data and determine interventions for students. We do that intervention during WIN time for six weeks and then reassess. So we do this four times throughout the year.

We also use informal assessments. Each morning, teachers establish a goal for the day and assess students throughout the day. Students also assess themselves. If they give themselves a 3 or 4, they move on. We use data a lot. Teachers used to have to be reminded to bring data to PLC meetings, now they just do it.

You can learn much more about ACGC Elementary School’s efforts and success here.

Ohio Builds Principals’ Leadership Skills to Increase Student Achievement

A student, seated at his desk, is assisted by a teacher who stands over him and looks at the student's work.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education

Lessons in leadership and management from business applied to turning around low-performing schools.

In her first assignment as a principal, Maria Carlson led a small school in Cleveland where 40 percent of the students were receiving special education services and a third were learning English.

“There was a whole perception that ‘We’re the kids who can’t succeed, and that’s why they put us all together,’” she said. “The kids would say, ‘No one expects anything from us except for us to go to jail.’”

At the time, Carlson was among a group of principals of low-achieving schools enrolled in the Ohio Executive Principal Leadership Academy at The Ohio State University (OSU), which was supported by the State’s Race to the Top funds. She said one of the lessons she learned from the leadership academy was the importance of establishing a school “brand,” a lesson from the world of business.

The leadership academy was a partnership between OSU’s Fisher College of Business, OSU’s College of Education and Human Ecology and the Ohio Department of Education (ODE). Its purpose was to give the principals of the State’s lowest performing schools a crash course in leadership and management.

Carlson said her students at the Community Wrap Around Academy, one of three schools-within-a-schools at Lincoln West High School, had begun thinking they had been assigned to the “dumb school” and that was not a good brand.

To change that perception, she told students and teachers alike to turn expectations upside down. “Be the unexpected,” she would say. “If they were fighting or arguing, or if a teacher was late or unprepared for a lesson, we could discuss what the perception of the school is and reflect on the fact that this is what everyone is expecting.”

In addition to getting students and teachers to think differently about their school she involved everyone in setting targets—just as many for-profit companies do and something she learned at the leadership academy. She worked with her teachers to establish a personal growth target for each student which, when combined, became a target for each classroom and then the entire school. The teachers met with each student to help them set interim goals for their performance on benchmark exams. The school’s professional learning communities keyed their discussions to hitting those targets.

The year after Carlson attended the leadership academy, her school’s proficiency rates on the Ohio Graduation Test rose by 13 percentage points for English language arts (ELA) and 2 percentage points in mathematics. The gains continued in subsequent years and exceeded those of the other two schools housed at Lincoln West.

Six groups of principals attended four intensive two-day sessions spread out over six months, with assignments, such as preparing a case study on their school and devising an action plan, to complete in between sessions. In total, 300 leaders from 155 of the State’s lowest achieving schools attended the academy between January 2011 and June 2013, followed a year later by a culminating gathering to which all were invited.

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Tennessee’s TEAM Coaches Cultivate Supportive, Professional Relationships

TEAM Coach Jack Barnes consults with Kyle Loudermilk, associate principal of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Kingsport, Tennessee.

TEAM Coach Jack Barnes consults with Kyle Loudermilk, associate principal of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Kingsport, Tennessee. Photo credit: Jack Barnes.

Last month, PROGRESS featured the Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model (TEAM) program that provides coaching and support to Tennessee principals to improve the quality of teacher observations and feedback.  This month, we feature a Q&A with Jack Barnes, a TEAM coach.

The effectiveness of teacher evaluation and support systems depends in large measure on principals being able to observe teachers accurately and give them helpful feedback. To ensure that principals could discern differences in teacher performance and provide constructive feedback, Tennessee hired eight coaches to work with them side-by-side over the course of a year. In the first two years, those coaches worked with the principals at 116 Tennessee schools. One of the coaches was Jack Barnes, who had been a principal, principal supervisor and director of schools. He says serving as a coach was a “great learning experience” for him as well as for the educators.  With the Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model now in its fourth year, Barnes says “everyone is becoming more tuned into what needs to be happening.”

Q. How did you approach the schools you worked with?

A. The first thing is to cultivate a relationship not only with the district but the school as well. Sometimes when you tell them you’re coming from the State that shuts them down. We come in with the attitude that we are a resource and we’re here to do whatever we can to help you so that you not only grow as an administrator but also help your teachers grow. If you can get their confidence and trust, that’s half the battle right there.

Q. How did you help principals handle the difficult conversations that are sometimes necessary in order to help teachers or anyone else improve the quality of their work?

A. We tried to get across three things to administrators and teachers. First, when difficult conversations have to happen, you have to go back to the core belief that everyone can always improve. Second, when you’ve done an observation, you have evidence that this is what happened and in these conversations you go back to the evidence. Try to stay as impersonal as possible. This is not about you, it’s about the lesson. Third, focus on what’s good for kids. If students are not performing, we have a problem. A principal should ask the teacher, ‘what can we do together to work on this?’ Sometimes that might mean having the teacher visit other classrooms or schools, taking classes online, working with the professional learning collaborative at the school or collaborating with other teachers.

Q. What was your biggest success?

A. Last year I had an elementary school that was a Level 1 on a 1 to 5 scale based on growth in student learning. Yet most of the teachers were highly rated. A new principal came to the school who had previously been an assistant principal at another school. We talked about the importance of the principal’s relationship with teachers and the importance of culture. This young man did it. The school went from a Level 1 school to a Level 5 school in one year, simply because he worked with the teachers and was able to get them the resources they needed, and they knew he wanted to do the best for them and for their students.


Learn more about the TEAM approach and Tennessee’s results here: Tennessee Principals Receive Coaching on Observing Teachers and Providing Feedback

Rhode Island Partners with Low-Performing Schools to Help Them Improve

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Schools examine data frequently to identify what is driving improvement and revise improvement plans.

When administrators at Veterans Memorial Elementary School in Central Falls, Rhode Island, began closely analyzing data in January 2014 to find ways to increase student achievement, they determined that low student attendance was contributing to low proficiency rates.

“We can’t improve scores if our students are not here,” Veterans Memorial principal Ann Lynch said.

One of the steps Lynch and her team took to change things was to recruit and train a dozen “parent navigators” to help them communicate the importance of regular attendance to parents and guardians and identify issues contributing to absenteeism. Another strategy was for these navigators to reach out to parents whose children are missing a lot of school to enlist them as partners in increasing attendance.

Every day a student does not come to school, his or her family is automatically notified by telephone of the absence. Separately, parent navigators and the school counselor meet regularly to look at aggregate attendance data, discuss trends and decide which families should be contacted personally.

Other strategies include distributing flyers about the importance of being in school and talking about attendance in student assemblies and, when there is a problem, asking parents to pledge to make sure their children come to school. In addition, the school works with families to identify the cause of absences and determine how administrators, counselors and others can help, such as by providing transportation or other social services such as housing assistance. Another strategy the school has used is offering rewards for strong attendance such as school dances, breakfast with the principal, and free homework passes.

The effort seems to be paying off at Veterans Memorial, where the strategy was fully launched in the fall of 2014. The number of absences dropped from 358 during the first 30 days of school year (SY) 2013-2014 to 256 during the same period in SY 2014-2015.  Chronic absenteeism, which is defined as 18 absences or 10 percent of the school year, was cut in half in the fall quarter compared with the previous spring.

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Tennessee Principals Receive Coaching on Observing Teachers and Providing Feedback

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Accurate observations pinpoint strengths and weaknesses, and specific feedback helps teachers improve instruction, leading to increases in student learning.

At the end of school year (SY) 2011–2012, the principal at Erin Elementary School in Houston County, Tennessee judged nearly 90 percent of the school’s teachers to be exceeding expectations based on observations of their classroom performances.

But, according to results of the State’s assessment system, their students weren’t doing nearly so well.

How could this be?

The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) discovered the mismatch at Erin and many others when it analyzed results from the first year schools used a new teacher evaluation system that includes multiple measures such as test scores, observations, student surveys and other elements to help identify teachers strengths and areas for improvement.

Many States have introduced such evaluation systems over the past several years, responding to strong evidence that teaching is the single biggest in-school influence on student learning. However, if principals cannot accurately discern differences in the performances they observe, they cannot provide teachers constructive feedback on how they can do more to increase student achievement.

After its analysis, the State identified schools with the biggest gaps between principals’ observations and student achievement. It then hired eight coaches over the next two years to work with the principals at 116 schools.

Improved Feedback, Improved Teaching, Improved Student Achievement

After the coaching, principals were able to give teachers better feedback, teachers’ performance improved and student learning accelerated, according to a State analysis. Luke Kohlmoos, the former director of evaluation at the TDOE, said observation scores changed immediately after coaching. But, he said, that was not the goal.

“The change is what happens after you score accurately,” Kohlmoos said.  “This is about feedback and development of teachers; it’s not necessarily about the number of teachers getting high observation scores.”

Kohlmoos said the coaching “was way more effective than anticipated” in terms of the improvements in teaching that resulted.

Student achievement across the schools that received coaching in the first year rose, on average, faster than the gains made statewide. The same thing happened during the second year of coaching at other schools in SY 2013-2014. “We are very optimistic that these gains are real,” Kohlmoos said.

But he said the State won’t know for sure until the results have been reviewed independently. He said the State is doing a formal evaluation to determine if the changes in student achievement were due to the coaching, resulted from other factors or occurred by chance.

Meanwhile, the State is continuing the coaching in SY 2014–2015, using a combination of State funds and foundation grants. For the current school year, in addition to working with schools with large disparities in ratings, coaches will work with principals’ supervisors to help them.

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Rural District Collaboration Increases Opportunities for Ohio Students and Teachers

State Superintendent Richard Ross stands with staff members at the front of a classroom. Meanwhile, four students sit at tables at the front of the classroom working on laptops.

State Superintendent Richard Ross visits a dual enrollment class at Maysville Local Schools in September 2014. Photo Credit: Battelle for Kids

More advanced classes, more professional learning available when small districts work together.

Like small school districts in rural areas across the United States, those in the Appalachia region of Ohio face particular challenges—teachers are harder to recruit and retain, professional learning opportunities are infrequent for the teachers who are there, and advanced classes are limited because there are too few students to justify offering them. Not surprisingly, perhaps, only 30 percent of those who graduate from this area of southeast Ohio go straight to college, less than half the national rate. The percentage of adults over the age of 25 with college degrees in the region is 12 percent, also less than half the national rate.

Believing that they could better address those issues if they worked together, 21 small school districts in the southeastern part of the State decided in the fall of 2009 to form the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative (OAC). The districts were small, with some having fewer than 500 students. Collectively, however, they had 34,000 students; only Columbus and Cleveland school districts had more.

The districts in the OAC have leveraged this partnership to attract more than $25 million in public and private grants from a variety of sources, including the State’s Race to the Top grant and Straight A Innovation Fund. That financial support made it possible to give teachers more opportunities for professional learning about formative instructional practices, the use of value-added data to adjust their instruction, college and career readiness planning, and change leadership. It also connected them with peers in other districts who they can learn from, and helped increase the number of advanced classes offered across the collaborative.

“The glue that brought the districts together was the goal of enhancing opportunities for kids in rural communities,” said Brad Mitchell, who facilitates the collaborative on behalf of Battelle for Kids, a Columbus, Ohio-based not-for-profit that works with school districts on instructional improvement through the use of data.

Those efforts are paying off: the graduation rate among the districts increased from 85 percent in 2010 to 92 percent in 2012, more students are earning college credits while still in high school, more students are taking the ACT college entrance examination, and college enrollment is up.

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