What if money wasn’t the answer? What if student success was actually more impacted by staff perception of what school should be, and the willingness to team up for change?
Phew, on one hand, there will always be a struggle for revenue. Ugh, on the other, because this means adults must be willing to take risks, work really really hard in a way they haven’t been stretched before, and deeply trust each other. Control is a concept that brings a sense of autonomy. The example we will explore here is the exact opposite. It is relinquishing classroom control to the entire staff body. It is being transparent to colleagues about data and areas of growth. It is fully sharing student outcomes. It is scary and it can produce amazing results.
Wahitis Elementary School, in the Othello School District in rural Washington State, was at the bottom. The type of student outcomes the state flags and parents if aware would do anything to get their children out of that building. While Wahitis could have hid behind demographics, and just continued doing what they could in the same model, they didn’t. Pete Perez, Principal (who started his career as a Para-educator in the district and is now Assistant Superintendent), found a Sherpa.
Pete searched the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) site for schools of similar demographics (high poverty, high minority, high transitional bilingual populations), who were beating the odds with high achievement. Lisa Horn, an English Language Arts specialist for Gildo Rey Elementary School in Auburn, Washington became the guide to help Wahitis Elementary, on the other side of the mountains, transform. Fortunately, by the time they met Lisa they had already begun the first steps of revamping their math instruction. They were getting results and they were ready to tackle Literacy while also applying what they were learning from her to their work in math.
Pete called a staff meeting. You may be picturing all the teachers. This was more. This was all adults in the building. And this was the message: “If our school took the Smarter Balanced Assessment, only 20 kids in the entire school would pass Reading. That’s our “Why”. We need to try something different. We are a team. We are all teachers. We cannot allow a single student to not achieve. We have a plan. Here’s how you fit in.”
They threw out the reading curriculum. Evaluated what state standards were the base building blocks for learning, and wrote lessons to practice those standards. Justin Johnson, English Language Learner specialist and then building instructional coach (now Director of Data and Innovation for Othello), spearheaded the standards based reading system development with a leadership team. Yes they did as much preparation for staff as possible. Yes that required team planning for all teachers. Yes accountability for every student was ramped up. So was as much support and training as each adult needed. No this did not create a staff vs. administration mentality, because these adults knew the effort they put in was going to lead to learning and success for every student. They understood the “Why”.
What does school look like at Wahitis?
The length of the school day stayed the same. The rest looks dramatically different. All staff are trained in intervention. The hallways, lunchroom, and an extra computer lab become classrooms. Students move fluidly and efficiently from learning group to learning group. Since students are moving around each day to different teachers and/or paras for their differentiated instruction, that means teams have to closely plan lessons and stay tightly aligned to common pacing calendars. All staff data review meetings are frequent and positive. “What are the kids telling us? What do we know about this kid?”, which then changes tomorrow’s plan.
To build a tight system of reading instruction, Lisa taught them how to effectively deliver both Core and differentiated reading instruction daily to all students. This means students get 60-90 minutes of Core ELA instruction every day along with 45-60 minutes of differentiated instruction to address their specific needs. A master schedule was built to support this system in both ELA and Math, in which students also get both Core and differentiated instruction daily. Certified staff along with non-certified staff (including one quarter of Wahitis classroom teachers, a statistic that mirrors rural parts of the state), now immediately pour in to the office to discuss how ‘their’ kids did on common building-wide assessments that are given every 6-8 weeks.
Students are key partners in their learning. They celebrate grit. They know they will not be allowed to give up. Students have hard conversations about their data with adults. “You are reading at a 3rd grade level and you are in 5th grade.” Students know the end point for each year. The staff does too. Small instructional groupings constantly adjust, including consideration for which staff member has what a student needs, moving that child to the best present placement.
Through Justin’s data spreadsheets on every child, Wahitis knows what standards and concepts each student is struggling with in both reading and math, and they realized poverty is by far the greatest opportunity gap to close. They have become very intentional about using common instructional practices and language. For example, if students are asked to identify the Central Idea, and don’t know that is the same as a Main Idea, they will not be able to demonstrate understanding. All staff, Kindergarten-5th grade, teach the concept the same way.
What advice does Wahitis have for schools, willing to leave little changes and minor results behind?
- Building leadership must be willing to make the change and willing do the work alongside staff
- Find a mentor (or Sherpa) to advise you along the journey
- There is not one way
- Find your “Why”, establish non-negotiables, and develop a plan
- Invest money in people instead of a new curriculum
- You can’t do 17 things well. Focus and then build
- Data Data Data
What shifts are necessary?
- While it didn’t require any MOUs, Wahitis administration worked closely with both the teachers’ union and the paraeducators’ union. This partnership with both associations allowed them to change schedules and work assignments for paras. Assigning paras to kids, not teachers, was one of the biggest shifts.
- At the state level, it would have been easier if there was more flexibility in the uses of bilingual funding (Title III). The time and energy worrying about compliance rather than being innovative and doing what was best for kids, was frustrating.
In 3 years where has the work brought Wahitis?
From the BOTTOM of the barrel to…
- 4th grade English Language Learner students outperform ELL students statewide by 14% in English Language Arts
- 5th grade non-ELL students outperform statewide peers by 12% in ELA
- All students combined, now outperform students statewide, in math
- ELL math students outperform the ELL state math average by 18%
- ELL 3rd grade math students outperform their statewide cohort by 23%
- Non-ELL 5th grade math students outperform the state non-ELL math students by 23%
Wahitis Elementary can’t wait to celebrate upcoming student growth in year four
More money does not buy results; strong leadership and teaching does.