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.


This Franklin Township principal says simple, focused teaching is driving his school’s success on state exams

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Physical Education teacher Kathy Staton leads a class at Bunker Hill Elementary School in Franklin Township.

Walking into the echoey gymnasium at Bunker Hill Elementary School, a cluster of kindergarteners surrounded their physical education teacher, Kathy Staton.

Staton was explaining the day’s lesson and its end goal, which in Bunker Hill lingo is known as  a learning objective.

“Let’s read our first learning objective,” Staton said.

Her students answered her slowly, but enthusiastically: “I … can … leap!”

“What about the second?”

“I … can … dribble!”

The students then fanned out across the gym in four straight lines and moved on to calisthenics — putting their feet out in front of them to try to reach their toes and holding planks.

Even in gym class, said Principal Kent Pettet, students and teachers are focused from beginning to end on what skills they should be learning. It might seem simple, he said, but it’s at the center of how he and his staff are helping the already high-achieving Bunker Hill to do even better on the state’s ISTEP exam.

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

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 the possible lessons for other schools.

Pettet, who has spent about two years at the Franklin Township school, had previously worked at a school in the Franklin Community school district — a city about 20 miles south of the southeastern Marion County Township. He helped his previous district improve from a D to an A.

Bunker Hill, which has about 600 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, has maintained the state’s highest rating of an A grade since such ratings began in 2009. This year, the school’s scores jumped 8.5 percentage points to 77.8 percent of students passing both English and math exams. Bunker Hill, unlike many schools in Marion County, 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 Pettet still says it’s his job to help kids do better, regardless of where they started from. Indeed, the school saw more kids improve in 2017 from 2016, as well as more students pass both state exams.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Pettet 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?

You always look at the letter grades and you feel proud when you see that the school did well. We’ve been fortunate enough that we’ve been an A for a while, but something that you’re always looking for is to continue to improve, and that’s where the growth piece comes in. We really want to look and see, are we growing our kids? We continue that growth, so it was a nice confirmation of the things that we’ve been doing.

What do you think made the difference?

One of the things that I talk a lot about is you stay simple — you’re focused, you’re intentional and you repeat. Sometimes through the pressures of all the standards and all the test scores, we really push a lot into a lesson that might not need to be there.

What we do here is the teachers do a ‘learning objective’ that they create with the kids. Our goal is that any kid can tell you that. And the end is some kind of formative assessment — it’s as simple as an exit slip, one question. The exit piece should be the learning objective in question form.

Teachers look at those immediately and then there’s some kind of reteaching. We keep it small so we can track it. We’re very data-driven in in everything that we do.

It becomes safe and predictable, and we know from research that when kids feel safe and predictable, that’s where learning happens. When a student walks into a room they can take a risk because they know what’s expected of them. When the teacher says the learning objective, every student understands what that is, every student is able to see and evaluate whether or not they are there. The more students own their own learning, the higher the achievement is going to go.

What is your school community and culture like?

We are, I believe, just under 70 percent Caucasian. It falls under the umbrella “Asian,” that category has a few of your different ethnic groups that have continued to grow. Indian is the leading percent of that.

We are very blessed that in our community that parents very much value education. They show up for events, they call and email wanting to know how they can help their child. So that’s a huge blessing for us educators — we all know there is a correlation between that parent involvement and that student achievement.

What is your approach to leadership?

You have to have a very strong and clear instructional expectation, and I think that you really have to simplify education to, what is the purpose of that lesson and the skills of that standard? Where is that student at at all times, and how do we help that student get there? And you keep that simple, and you repeat the process.

I’ve always felt like curriculum will come and go. At the end of the day, those change. I’m not sure curriculum is where you are going to grow the student. I think it’s the systematic approach where student growth comes from.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”