Four of the lowest-performing schools in Montana recently got some good news.
All four saw improvement in the annual state tests that measure how well 10th-graders are doing in math, reading and science, said Denise Juneau, state superintendent of public instruction.
“The number of students scoring ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ on state tests in reading is higher than it’s been in five years,” Juneau said.
The schools are Frazer High in northeast Montana, Lodge Grass High, Plenty Coups High in Pryor and Lame Deer High. All the schools are on Indian reservations and all fall into the lowest 5 percent of the state’s Title I schools in academic proficiency.
Frazer and Pryor had the largest test score increases — 15 points higher both in math and reading scores, Juneau said. All four saw increases in average scores in math, science and reading.
The news is of particular interest to Juneau because the state just completed the first year of what Juneau called an “unprecedented partnership between a state agency and local schools.”
To remedy the dismal academic standing of the schools, the Office of Public Instruction secured an $11.5 million, three-year Title I school improvement grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
To be included in the program, the districts had to agree to partner with OPI in making changes to help struggling students achieve better results. That meant relinquishing a certain amount of autonomy.
Under the program named Schools of Promise, OPI brought in advisers to work with each school district and community.
“What we did is we added components we thought would help: a community liaison, a school board coach, an instructional leader to work with teachers and a transformational leader to work with administrators,” Juneau said.
Schools of Promise also included Pryor Elementary and Pryor 7-8. Those two schools also saw uniform increases in test scores in reading and math.
For students in grades three through six, the percentage of students who tested in the advanced or proficient categories in math nearly doubled last year’s number, and the reading scores are up 10 points. At Pryor 7-8, 30 percent more students fell into the advanced or proficient category in math than in 2010 and reading results also saw a big boost in the number of advanced readers.
For the 2010-11 school year, all four high schools adopted new math and English curricula. Teachers received training before the start of the year.
At the start of the school year, Juneau said, every student took a diagnostic test to see where he or she was performing in reading and math skills. The new curriculum placed the students according to their skill level, and as they mastered skills, they moved up to the next level.
During the year, teachers got regular collaboration time, said Calli Rusche-Nicholson, an instructional leader in Pryor.
“Teachers would sit down every day and talk about how to be better teachers, how to increase student learning,” said Rusche-Nicholson, who will move to Frazer this year.
Part of her job was bringing in speakers to help teachers boost their expertise. But she also spent a lot of time in the classroom, coaching teachers and lending support.
Not all teachers bought into the new program, but the first-year successes will encourage support and participation, Rusche-Nicholson said.
The schools also started implementing a daily student advisory time, in which teachers and other adults on campus would meet with small groups of students.
“It could be as simple as ‘let’s look at your grades for the week’ or as in-depth as bringing in elders from the community to talk about cultural components,” Rusche-Nicholson said.
Connecting Native American youth with their culture is important, said James DeHerrera, community liaison for Frazer. Knowing who they are helps ground students, he said.
The downside is the historic trauma that can color a person’s perception. For example, Native adults who as children were forced to go to boarding schools can be left with a negative view of schools.
That can keep parents from wanting to get involved, DeHerrera said.
To counter that, Frazer this coming year will implement a parent-teacher home project. Teachers will call and meet with parents at a time and place that suits the parents.
“Too many times in the past, teachers were setting the time, setting parent-teacher conferences,” DeHerrera said.
Teachers reaching out to parents can create strong bonds that will ultimately serve the students, he said.
A similar program was implemented in the Poplar schools, where DeHerrera lives, so he’s familiar with how it works. The Poplar program seems to have boosted parental involvement, he said.
Dan McGee, new superintendent of Pryor Schools and new principal at Plenty Coups High, said he, too, is excited about connecting with parents and families outside school. The immediate goal will be to improve attendance, which, in turn, should boost test scores even more.
“We want to work with parents so they can reinforce the importance of education,” McGee said. “With such a small school, we want to make sure they feel welcome and participate in all we have to offer.”
McGee said his initial meetings with the school’s SIG team have been positive.
“The OPI team is very easy to work with,” he said. “They have a lot of good ideas, a lot of energy.”
Looking back over the past year, Juneau said that she and her staff heard many anecdotes about positive things happening in the schools.
“But then to have data to back it up, it’s very heartening,” she said. “Just recently I visited with Lame Deer, Pryor and Frazer school boards and they were very excited with the results. Everybody is recommitted to work even harder this year and I think we’ll see even more positive gains.”
With the good news, Juneau said, an evaluation of the grant’s first year showed some areas in need of improvement. For instance, to boost communication, her office will streamline the process by giving districts one staff person to deal with rather than a management team.
OPI also wants to reach a broader audience by connecting with tribal leaders on each reservation. In addition, the state agency received a $600,000 grant from the Montana Mental Health Settlement Trust to serve each of the schools and the broader community.
“We’re trying to get a support system for each child in those schools so they’ll be able to move into the classroom ready to learn,” Juneau said.
Reflecting on the first year of the partnership, she said implementing some of the grant’s federal requirements has been difficult.
For instance, all principals in a participating school who had been in place longer than two years had to be dismissed. That meant two principals were replaced, but both moved to different positions in the schools.
She is pleased with the decision to introduce advisers to work closely with the different populations, a concept she calls “Montana-made.”
Juneau recently attended a conference where others inquired about the success of Schools of Promise.
“Because of this unprecedented collaboration between schools and OPI, we have nice news to share,” she said.