Each morning, Thornton Elementary School teachers try to make eye contact with every kid they greet. Students are expected to speak in complete sentences in class. Reading at the school has gotten a complete overhaul, with teachers working from more focused plans.
These and other changes over the last three years — some small, others substantial — helped spare Thornton Elementary from state sanctions just in time, school leaders believe.
As a handful of Colorado school districts and a dozen schools face possible state intervention for persistent poor performance, strategies employed by schools that avoided that fate provide possible lessons for those wishing to drop off or never join the state’s academic watch list.
Preliminary school ratings show Thornton Elementary, part of the Adams 12 Five Star School District, has fallen off that list.
Districts and schools that didn’t make enough improvement now face action including the possibility of closure or takeover by a management company or charter school operator.
It will be the first time under the current accountability system the state reaches the step of handing out consequences to schools or districts that have five consecutive years of low ratings.
Administrators and teachers at Thornton Elementary have been tracking data about their nearly 400 students for the past few years and knew things were improving, but say having the data from the state helps.
“It’s really affirming to us,” principal Betsy Miller said. “The things we’re doing are working. Now we stay the course. We have to continue the great things we have started.”
About 39 percent of students in the school aren’t fluent in English. About 76 percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, a measure of poverty.
Thornton Elementary students had higher academic growth than the state this year, but the number of students reaching or exceeding expectations on state reading tests is still low. Based on PARCC tests, 21 percent of third graders in 2016 met or exceeded expectations on reading tests, up from 14 percent who met or exceeded expectations from 2015’s third-grade class.
The large number of students learning English, and the large number of students with trouble reading, led Miller to focus changes on improving literacy.
“We know that kids have to be able to learn to read,” assistant principal Tracie Stauffer said. “If they have strong literacy skills, it spills over to other areas.”
One of the school’s big changes was adding new reading material that included books and teacher lessons that tie to state academic standards. The curriculum supplement, from Mondo Educational Publishing, gave teachers lesson suggestions, rather than asking teachers to piece lessons together from different books and sources. This way, there is a threaded focus in all the lessons, Stauffer said.
The materials also help teachers adjust lessons for students who aren’t fluent in English yet.
Most of the day, English language learners are in mixed classrooms with students who already speak English. They also spend about 45 minutes in the middle of the day with one of the school’s three language coaches — grouped by their level of English proficiency.
The Mondo curriculum support is now used in 10 of the district’s schools. But whether or not to adopt it is up to school leaders, not mandated by the district.
“We are not necessarily a one-size-fits-all district,” said Tracy Dorland, chief academic officer for the Adams 12 school district. “We do believe in common curriculum. We do believe that schools need some flexibility. I believe in Adams 12 we have really found a balance between shared commitments across our district and across our schools and the flexibilities we sometimes need to give.”
Then there are the more modest changes the school put in place.
One recent morning, third grade teacher Molly Stenzel asked her students to tell her one good choice they would make on their field trip later in the day. The question was written on the whiteboard in front of the children sitting on the carpet. They raised their hands and repeated the beginning of the question to form their answers in complete sentences — a requirement.
In a class of first graders next door, a teacher asked her students to remember an adventure from a story they had all read. Some spoke slower than others, but all formed their complete sentences. Their teacher reached and gave them high-fives or clapped after they answered.
Last year, the school also got the added help of a full-time counselor, paid for by the district, to help lower discipline issues in the school. Surveys from the start and end of the year showed kids reported feeling less stressed and more confident.
Other schools in the Adams 12 district also showed improvement and dropped off the state’s watch list, but Thornton Elementary was the only one facing a deadline this year to show improvements before facing consequences. The one remaining district school on the list has more time to improve.
One takeaway from Thornton Elementary that Adams 12’s Dorland said the district would like to replicate at other schools, especially struggling schools, is the ability to send more school leaders to the same training that taught Miller and others a new way to critique teachers.
It’s a cycle of teacher observation, about once a month at Thornton Elementary, followed by “bite-sized feedback,” suggestions on making that change and then more observations. The training was from the Relay Graduate School of Education, a stand-alone, graduate charter school with master’s, teacher residency and principal fellowship programs. The New-York based program now operates a Denver campus and does work with several area districts.
“They worked incredibly hard to give teachers bite-size feedback that isn’t really global,” Dorland said. “It’s more like, ‘Try this tomorrow.’ That made a huge difference. Now our teachers really want that feedback.”
At Thornton Elementary, teacher coaches will soon get the training, too.
Dorland said Thornton’s improvements are evidence that the training worked.
“We have some results that we’re pretty excited about,” Dorland said. “Results matter.”