Voices: Turnaround for a school, and for Maria

Nelson Van Vranken, principal of Hanson Elementary in Commerce City, says the work of turning around a school requires laser-like focus – but the rewards more than make up for the long hours.

When Maria arrived at Commerce City’s Hanson Elementary School in 2008, she was non-English proficient and significantly below grade level in all subjects.

Without a tremendous turnaround, Maria would remain off-track, likely to lose more ground in middle school. Statistically speaking, she was heading toward becoming a high school dropout.

When Maria moved on to middle school this fall, she was fluent in English and performing at grade level in all TCAP tested areas. She is back on track for success.

Maria is not alone.

She is one of many students who have thrived at Hanson because of the targeted school change efforts that our school community initiated in 2009.

The reform work at Hanson has been a collaborative learning journey for our community. It has involved all stakeholders coming together to change the school’s focus and purpose. We’ve learned that together we must narrow our focus and stay disciplined as we execute the intense reforms required to turn our school around.

In 2009, Hanson was identified as persistently low-achieving, meaning it was rated among the lowest five percent of schools in the state and nation. We were provided an opportunity to apply for a Tiered Intervention Grant (TIG) to help fund critical improvements in our school.

As we began planning for reform in 2009, the community concluded that fostering highly effective classroom instruction was the only way to ensure lasting success. It was clear that there were no shortcuts to get there – there would be no overnight success. Research on school reform clearly states that improving instruction has to be the top priority. Therefore, our essential areas of focus have been improving instruction and solidifying a school culture that supports learning. By implementing our three-year school improvement plan, we are addressing these six areas:

  • A school culture that supports distributive leadership, transparent decision making and trust;
  • A school-based coaching model to deliver high-quality professional development aligned with instructional goals;
  • A deep connection between individual student data and instructional practices;
  • Improving the delivery of reading interventions and Response to Intervention (RtI) fidelity;
  • A consistent approach to developing language with English Language Learners; and
  • A parent involvement program centered on helping parents support their children’s academic learning by supporting parents’ understanding of literacy and math assessment data and how to work with their children at home to meet individualized goals.

One would expect a school identified as persistently low-achieving to have a dysfunctional school culture, and Hanson did. What we have learned is that we must work together as a team to build trust and respect. It sounds simple but it must be intentional, authentic and a daily focus. For Hanson, the outcome is a collegial, welcoming school culture with teaching and learning as the top priority.  We hold one another accountable and we expect that our community will also hold us to very high standards. The children, families and staff at Hanson expect and deserve this.

This fall, we invited Maria and three of her classmates to speak with our teachers about how Hanson has changed since 2009. These former students, with whom we grew through our school improvement efforts, shared how the changes had positively impacted their lives.  The students discussed how the level of expectations and accountability for students had risen and how classroom instruction that previously had been dry and uninspiring had become dynamic and engaging. It was very powerful and moving for our teachers to hear how we helped so many students to see themselves as capable learners ready for successful futures.

Hanson’s students had the eighth highest growth in writing in Colorado last year. In addition, Hanson students performed so well in 2012 on TCAP that our school moved from the lowest performance category (Turnaround) to the highest category (Performance).

The work our community is doing is paying off for our students. Lives are being positively impacted, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Turnaround funding has been essential to our efforts and now we are creating our sustainability plan to ensure our school’s continued success – success that depends on Hanson’s strong foundation of teaching and learning.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.