Q&A

This township school had average scores, but a renewed focus on culture and collaborative teaching put it over the top

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Kindergartners walk down the hallway at South Creek Elementary School.

As Principal Toni Stevenson walked out of a kindergarten classroom at South Creek Elementary School, a student walked right up to her with a giant smile on her face.

The girl stopped and proudly held out a slip of paper, beaming.

“I was being quiet in the hall!” she told Stevenson.

“Lauren!” Stevenson said excitedly. “Good job!”

Lauren tucked the slip of paper into a little mailbox outside her classroom door and returned to her teacher.

The brief exchange showed what Stevenson believes is a central part of the culture at Franklin Township’s South Creek — a focus on positive character traits to build community and school spirit. When students are seen being respectful or exemplifying another positive trait, they get a ticket. The more their class collects, the better shot they have at small prizes and schoolwide recognition.

Stevenson, who has been at the school six years, said this work — as well as renewed teacher collaboration, digging into student data, and a reduction in population that allowed everyone some room to breathe — has contributed to her school’s recent gains on the state ISTEP exam.

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

This year, the school’s scores shot up 15 percentage points to 80.6 percent of students passing English and math. South Creek, unlike many schools in Indianapolis, has demographics that historically correlate to high test scores — few students living in poverty, a majority of white students and relatively small populations of English-learners and students with special needs.

But the school’s previous state grade, a C, showed that about one-quarter of kids weren’t passing state tests, and even more worrying to Stevenson, students’ test scores weren’t improving. This year, that changed — the school received an A grade from the state and students advanced considerably.

Chalkbeat sat down with Stevenson recently to talk about her school’s progress. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you’d made this year?

I was ecstatic. People have different feelings about being recognized by grade, but I felt very happy.

What do you think made the difference?

The preceding year, 2015-16, we had always been an A school and we dropped to a C. When I had to tell our staff that we went from an A to a C, it was very emotional.

In (2015-16), we had 700 students in the building — we were just full. Everyone was just really exhausted. It felt like the teachers’ morale was going down. So last year, the district noticed how we need to re-balance. We lost about 10 teachers and 200 kids — it was bittersweet. After we lost those students and those teachers, we really focused on … How do we bring joy back into the classroom? No one is going to be happy if we’re not happy teaching.

We talked to all K-5 teachers. Just because you don’t have a test in the lower grades, it still contributes to what we do in the upper grades. Everyone talks about collaborating, but collaborating as a staff and as a grade level is not as easy as you read about.

Our teachers were always very good at what they did. I saw that when I did walk-throughs, but they were very timid in sharing what they did, even within grade levels. So our instructional coaches said, “I want to bring teachers in during prep and see what you are doing.” Nobody volunteered in the beginning.

Slowly, you saw that gradual change where the teachers were very proud opening up their classroom. You saw this ripple effect going through the school, and they opened up their classrooms, and they started sharing.

What is your school community and culture like?

We do not have a high (free and reduced-price lunch) population here. Do we have challenges? Of course we do. The parents’ expectations are so high here — it’s just really hard to explain if you aren’t working in that environment. If a child is not challenged or a child may be getting a B or the child may not have a good day — I mean, it’s a big deal. The expectations are really high and it’s been a little hard for some of our newer teachers. Parents aren’t hands-off here.

I attribute that (parental concern) to these intentional relationships that those teachers have with those parents. They know those families.

What is your approach to leadership?

I cannot do everything, and I’m not good at everything. So I really have to rely on the teachers and staff to contribute to what we want to do. This is your school, this is your work environment — everybody should want to be here and come work here.

(Teachers) need to be happy, just like the kids. I always tell them … I am not going into your classroom to catch you doing something wrong. I want to see all the great things you are doing.

Q&A

A commitment to reading and tracking data helped students at this arts-focused school improve

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
First-graders at William Henry Burkhart Elementary School tackle the xylophone to prepare for an open house performance.

Chalkbeat is talking with principals across the city at schools that made some of the biggest ISTEP gains in 2017 to explore what was behind their school’s progress and identify possible lessons for other schools.

As the five William Henry Burkhart Elementary students clustered closely around two tables full of xylophones, they turned toward their teacher, awaiting her signal.

“Ready, let’s see!” said the music teacher, Sandy Rogers. “We’re going down first. One, two, ready, go.”

The first-graders plunked their mallets on each bar, methodically moving down the scale as they said each note aloud. Then they repeated the exercise, this time going up the scale. But one boy in a crimson sweatshirt struggled to make the transition. Rogers went over to him to demonstrate more closely.

“It’s amazing to watch them grow and learn,” said Principal Darlene Hardesty, who was observing the class. The boy was an English-learner who was new to the school last year, she said, and he’s already made significant progress with his language skills.

A minute later, the students repeated the exercise, and this time everyone got it right, including the struggling boy. After the last note, Rogers cheered.

“Ahh, that’s it!” she exclaimed. “High five, great job!”

Hardesty, in her 12th year at the school, said Burkhart’s focus on fine arts sets it apart from other schools in Perry Township. But that’s not all it has to be proud of this year — once again, the 733-student school posted strong state test scores, along with keeping its A grade.

Burkhart’s ISTEP passing rates jumped 9.4 percentage points to 63.2 percent of students passing both English and math exams, higher than the state average. Both figures — passing rates and growth — factor into a school’s letter grade.

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

Almost 80 percent of Burkhart students qualify for subsidized meals, and 38 percent are learning English as a new language. Many of those English-learners are also refugees from Burma, a trend across the district.

The district as a whole last year was focused on tracking student progress on English and math skills though a new system called Evaluate. Students and teachers both track results from tests together each month, using a stoplight model — red, yellow, green — to indicate in their records what a student has mastered and what he still needs to work on.

Of the Marion County township elementary schools with the highest ISTEP gains, four were from Perry Township. Every Perry principal who spoke to Chalkbeat this fall mentioned the new data tracking system as a key to their improvement.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Hardesty to talk about her school’s progress. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you had made this year?

I was so excited for our students and our staff. They’ve all worked so hard to close the gap and to make significant gains. You can look from the last year to this year and you know in both English language arts and math, though we continue to accept refugee students and our population continues to change, we are still helping children grow. That’s what we do, that’s our business, and I was so excited to see where we were improving from last year. I was very proud of them.

What do you think made the difference?

One of the things I think really helped us drive instruction this past year, and that we’re using again this year, is a program called Evaluate. It’s a benchmark assessment …  that really helped our teachers to give more focused instruction and our students to gain from that.

Also, in Perry Township we all have master teachers who lead our professional development each week. Each school sets a goal, and our goal was in the area of (English) to increase from last year. We were focused specifically on reading small groups — looking at core vocabulary and things of that nature so we could target what teachers were teaching and then applying that with our students so they could improve.

With Evaluate, students take a monthly assessment in the area of English language arts and the area of math, and then students track that data to see how they are improving. Are they growing in the area of proficiency or getting above threshold for grade level standards? They also would set goals each month: What is something I struggled with? What did I do well with? How could I do better?

Teachers, you’d see them participate in assessment of their own data. There are reports they can access and see by skill, which children are showing mastery and which are not. We meet as teams of teachers to discuss what are strategies we can put in place. What are lesson ideas and things we can do to meet the needs of our students.

What is your school community and culture like?

We are a very diverse school community. (Many) of our students are English-learners, some of those being brand new to the language and some of those getting close to exiting the program.

Burkhart, we like to affectionately call it “Beautiful Burkhart.” It really is a unique place to teach and for children to learn. We do have a focus on the arts. You’ll notice as you go through the building, we have stained glass pieces that our students have created, mosaic tiles. Things where we’ve invited visiting artists in and do unique learning opportunities for our kids. So that’s something that makes us special.

We have a choir called All That Jazz … they perform quite a bit for churches, organizations and community endeavors. They go to Gatlinburg (in Tennessee) every spring and compete in the Smoky Mountain Music Festival. We have an incredible music teacher who really supports the development of our students in that way.

We’ve been working on building our volunteer base trying to get support from our community friends. Several church groups volunteer, and parents and grandparents come and spend time reading with students and working math facts. We’re so grateful for our community support.

What is your vision for Burkhart and how you want to move the school forward?

We’re always looking to continue to grow and to learn more. It’s that constant assessment of our own work — is what we’re doing effective? And how can we continue to help kids get to that next level?

We know we get them for such a short amount of time. The school days go by so quickly, and the years go by so quickly, so our time is limited and giving them everything we can in that limited time is the focus we always come back to.

Q&A

This township principal says leadership and patience are key to moving kids ahead academically

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students work in teams in a classroom at Glenns Valley Elementary School in Perry Township.

Chalkbeat is talking with principals across the city at schools that made some of the biggest ISTEP gains in 2017 to explore what was behind their school’s progress and identify possible lessons for other schools.

Two years ago, the students at Glenns Valley Elementary School saw three principals in a single year.

So when Dave Rohl arrived in 2016 with a brand new leadership team alongside him, he knew consistency was key to helping the school make gains on state tests — consistency and a lot of patience.

So far, it seems to be working: Glenns Valley, which has almost 800 students in preschool through fifth grade, moved from a C grade from the state in 2016 to an A in 2017.

The school’s scores jumped 10.4 percentage points to 60.9 percent of students passing both English and math exams, higher than the state average. Both figures — passing rates and growth — factor into a school’s letter grade. Last year, Glenns Valley had especially high growth, particularly for struggling students, which helped offset lower passing rates.

“We did better last year, we did better this year, and we’re going to be a lot better in three or four years,” said Rohl, who has spent more than 20 years as an educator in Perry Township. “It takes a while to get things going exactly the way you want them. These are cruise ships, not speed boats.”

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

About two-thirds of Glenns Valley students qualify for subsidized meals, and about one-quarter are learning English as a new language. Many of those English-learners are also refugees from Burma, a trend across the district.

The district as a whole last year was focused on tracking student progress on English and math skills though a new system called Evaluate. Students and teachers track results from tests together each month, using a stoplight model — red, yellow, green — to indicate and record what lessons or skills a child is mastering and where he or she is struggling.

Of the Marion County township elementary schools with the highest ISTEP gains, four were from Perry Township. Every Perry principal who spoke to Chalkbeat this fall mentioned the new data tracking system as a large factor in their ability to raise their scores.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Rohl to talk about his school’s progress. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you had made this year?

We mostly saw that we achieved what we thought we were going to achieve based on the data that we had. One of the difficult things that has been facing schools lately is trying to get data that is, even if it’s not predictive, it’s at least leading in the right direction of how your kids are going to do on ISTEP. So a tool that we had access to last year was this test called Evaluate. That test is able to more closely provide students with the experience of ISTEP.

We didn’t think we were going to do quite as well as we did. Some of our kids that weren’t predicted to do well passed ISTEP and did pretty well on ISTEP. That was kind of a great surprise.

What do you think made the difference?

Evaluate — we do it every month in English language arts and math. That was allowing our teachers not only to watch our students progress throughout the year, but also see how they were attacking these kinds of questions while they were on the computer, while they were doing it.

Our teachers did a very nice job embracing (Evaluate) even though it was new and they were giving up class time, and great teachers hate giving up class time. They quickly decided we are going to use that to our advantage, we’re not going to see this as a hindrance that’s just taking up my kids’ time. I was very proud of the way they quickly went from, “This could hurt us because I’m giving away teaching time,” to “We’re going to figure out a way to squeeze some great information from this that in the long run is going to help our kids.”

The next phase of what we’re trying to do, you start to quickly realize you have to individualize instruction as much as you can. It’s impossible for any teacher, no matter what school you’re in, to individualize seven hours of each student’s day perfectly to exactly what they’re needing that day. So we’re figuring out ways to do that more and more.

What is your school community and culture like?

Glenns Valley’s English-learner population has shifted dramatically. So this school went from pretty high-income, middle-income, very stable English-speaking, to all of a sudden we had 200 students in our building that were new to the U.S. As it would with any community, that rocked this community a little bit.

Now we’re kind of settled in. My background has been with students who need those extra supports, families that need those extra supports.

I couldn’t be more proud of the families that exist at Glenns Valley from a neighborhood standpoint. They have been embracing, they have been welcoming. I like to tell people that families pay big bucks for their kids to go to international schools, and they get it for free through public education that we have here at Glenns Valley. (Diversity) really is an asset, and it’s the way we all live our lives now, especially in central Indiana.

What is your approach to leadership?

My leadership style is servant leadership. So I believe that the most important person in this school is the child. I want parents to understand that, I want teachers to understand that, I want students to understand that.

I want them to know I love them, but I have high expectations for them. Parents need to know that that’s our focus. Mentally, academically, socially, all those things are important. But we play the role in their life of academic success.

That’s what my vision is. We’re all going to be asking each other questions, we’re all going to be holding each other accountable for growing our children academically with those high expectations. The best thing that ever happened to assessment was growth. When you start comparing schools and comparing classroom effectiveness, growth is really where it is. If we’re not growing, we’re not doing our job.