PRYOR — What does it take to help low-performing schools boost their test scores?
That’s what a federal official came to find out during his daylong visit on Tuesday to Pryor, a small Crow Reservation town whose schools have had their share of academic struggles.
As proof of that, in the 2009-10 school year, 60 percent of Plenty Coups High’s 10th-graders ranked in the novice category in math and reading in state test scores. But after one year as part of the state’s Schools of Promise initiative, only 20 percent landed in the novice category, with the other 80 percent at the proficient or near-proficient level.
How that happened is what brought Jason T. Snyder, deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, to town.
“Our goal is to learn what’s going on here in Pryor and to share those lessons with other schools that are taking on this really challenging work across the country,” Snyder said on Tuesday morning.
He spent the day with state and school administrators and elementary and high school students to talk about Pryor’s involvement in Schools of Promise. He also met with community and Crow tribal leaders and attended a student rally that featured tribal elder and historian Joe Medicine Crow.
Plenty Coups is one of five high schools in the lowest 5 percent in academic proficiency of the state’s Title I schools. All five are on Indian reservations.
In 2010, Plenty Coups and three other high schools joined the initiative developed by the State Office of Public Instruction. Pryor Elementary and middle school also signed on board.
The three-year project was funded by a $11.5 million Title I school improvement grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
To participate, the districts had to work with the OPI on changes to help students achieve better test results. That meant allowing OPI to bring in specialists to collaborate with district administrators, teachers school boards and the community.
Now nearing the second year of the three-year initiative, Pryor and Frazer high schools have seen the largest increases in state tests that measure how well 10th-graders are doing in math, reading and science.
Snyder toured both the elementary and the high school in the morning. Among his stops was a visit to Duane Spildie’s third and fourth grade combination class.
Several girls greeted him or shook his hand, and fourth-grader Trinity Plain Feather presented him with a colored picture of an eagle.
“How many of you are going to go to college?” he asked the girls.
All of them raised their hands.
“Did you know the president of the United States has set a goal to be No. 1 in the world with college graduates?” he asked them. “So if you guys all go to college, you’ll help us meet that goal.”
Spildie, in his second year at the school, told Snyder that things at the school are changing for the better. He praised district administrators for their leadership, saying teachers are responsible for what they’re doing in their classrooms “which is a good thing.”
“It’s a challenge, but we’re moving in the right direction,” Spildie said.
Snyder met with members of the OPI Schools of Promise team. They were joined by Mandy Smoker Broaddus, OPI’s director of Indian Education, who oversees the Schools of Promise initiative.
Snyder asked what elements are helping the schools progress. Stevie Schmitz, who is Pryor’s school board coach, said giving the school board the right tools to be a positive force for change is important.
“School boards can be part of the problem in school reform,” she said.
Schmitz added that it’s important to talk to students to find out what they believe they need to succeed.
David Stringfield, transformation leader, agreed that the school board can be the precursor to all of the elements coming together to help a school progress.
Savannah Sinquah, community liaison, said that involving the community helps to boost children’s academic performance. The school must be a welcoming place for students and their parents, she said.
To get a clear picture of how a school is doing, it’s important to gather all kinds of information, not just student scores, Broaddus said.
To succeed, she said, takes everyone coming together.
“If you just go at it from one angle, you’ll never see a deep level of impact made,” she said.
At the high school, Snyder visited a number of classrooms with tour guides Bayleigh Bird Hat, student body president, and freshman class president Cherith Little Light.
He saw everything from students dissecting worms to a class figuring out what cable company would provide the best deal. Snyder also saw a trio of students building wood cars and others practicing putting golf balls in their gym class.
Snyder asked his two tour guides what changes they had seen in the past couple of years.
“There’s more student involvement,” Bayleigh said. “They’re starting to ask students what we want, instead of telling us.”
In an interview, Snyder said that 1,300 schools across the country are involved in the school improvement grant program. Part of his job is to visit schools that are succeeding to find out exactly what they’re doing right.
“What we’re seeing in the communities that are undertaking this challenging work is that it can’t be done alone,” Snyder said. “It takes collaboration between the school system, the state, the parents and the community to really make a difference in the lives of the kids. And that’s what’s going on now in Pryor.”
What it comes down to, he said, is courageous leaders, community members and teachers coming together to make schools into places “where teachers want to teach and students want to be.”