Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of stories featuring Wyoming public school districts that excel in one or more of these literal indicators: test scores, graduation rate, student-to-teacher ratio, spending per student.
Each district differs in size, location and approach to education. Each performs relatively well on standardized tests and graduates more students than the state average. Each has points of pride and areas for improvement. Each has its own sense of community and who they are. In many cases, schools in these districts aren’t doing anything radical or unique. But it works.
COKEVILLE — The first meeting of the school year could have been a celebration for Cokeville elementary and high schools.
The school had tested high — in some cases 80 and 90 percent proficient or advanced — in the previous year’s state standardized test, the Proficiency Assessment for Wyoming Students. Keith Harris, principal of Cokeville elementary and high schools, told faculty and staff members that he was OK — if they were — with having 80 percent of students test proficient or higher.
“If you’re OK, then we can call the parents of each of those 20 percent and tell them we don’t care about their kids anymore,” he said.
Good is never good enough here in this school district in extreme western Wyoming.
“We’re not satisfied where we are,” Harris said. “We’re proud of what we’ve got, but we’re not satisfied.”
In Lincoln County School District 2, test scores are high. The bad scores aren’t that bad. Excluding the science tests, the district didn’t dip below 60 percent of students testing proficient or advanced in 2008 on the PAWS.
School trophy cases boast regional and state championships. Teachers and administrators talk a lot about community: supportive and involved, with high expectations.
When the Cokeville schools trimmed summer classes and set aside time after school, the coaches changed their schedules to accommodate.
“There are good people in Casper, Kemmerer, Cody — but this is something special,” said Jon Abrams, superintendent of the district that also includes schools in Star Valley. “There’s no pressure from the board. There’s a drive to educate.”
Abrams painted his goals on the wall above his desk. One is to improve communication.
How can communication in a tight community improve?
Positive phone calls.
Abrams set a goal for faculty and staff members to make 18,000 phone calls. Usually, a teacher only calls home when the student has been in trouble or fallen behind. Abrams figured that if every person — teacher, secretary, school bus driver — made one phone call each week, the number would exceed 18,000 by the end of the school year.
The first phone call of the year was to Abrams’ mother, saying her son was doing a good thing.
The district wasn’t in dire straits when Abrams moved to Wyoming from Idaho five years ago. Abrams didn’t turn the district upside-down; rather, he moved into it. His children attend the schools. The alternative high school program has classes down the hall from Abrams’ office, and he pokes his head in every once in a while. He and his wife cooked dinner for staff members at the elementary school, but he didn’t want you to know that.
“We just do stuff you can’t do anywhere else,” he said. “We just have the resources to do it right. If we fail to educate in this state, we can’t blame the Legislature.”
Reading is elementary
The. Volcano. Exploded. Snap.
The volcano exploded. Snap. A group of 10 third-grade students read short sentences to the rhythm set by teacher Briant Teichert’s snapping fingers. Their own fingers trace the words on the page in front of them. Distraction disappears when four of the five senses are at work.
Students read aloud in groups of three, six and 10. They read words in pieces: gall-on. They learn definitions by substitution: A tangle means a mixed-up mess, and tangle is used from then on.
The lesson changes quickly, combining methods to keep kids on their toes.
The district uses Reading Mastery, a highly structured curriculum that incorporates a variety of teaching strategies. Students are tested often and grouped by reading level. Small-group teaching requires all hands to be on deck. Teachers, librarians, aides and staff members lead reading groups. An average day in second grade includes more than two hours of reading time. Math is scheduled for 30 minutes.
“If you can read, you can learn the other stuff,” Abrams said.
Cokeville Elementary continues the program in grades four through six. Half of the school reads at a time so every available staff member can get involved. The most popular reading group belongs to Mr. Thompson, the school’s maintenance man.
Afton Elementary School runs 95 reading groups in kindergarten through third grades every day. More than half of the third-graders are reading at the highest level, two grade levels ahead.
“We have a few who fall through the cracks,” said Allen Allred, principal at Afton Elementary. “The growth impact is the same if not higher with gifted kids than sublevel kids.”
Strobe lights lit up the stage at Afton Elementary.
Second- and third-grade students danced across the stage — backward — while the rest of the school cheered. These students met their individual reading goals, earning the chance to moonwalk in front of everyone.
“Parents told me they couldn’t leave for spring break until after this,” Allred said.
With all the pressure for students to perform well on tests, the reading reward celebrations add fun. All students attend a weekly assembly where they sing songs and honor students who have reached their goals. The celebrations follow a different theme, such as “under the sea” or “camping,” which changes every year.
The first time a student is recognized, he or she receives a silly hat decorated to match the theme. The bar gets raised, and the rewards increase in value. When kindergarten or first-grade students achieve independent reader status — can select a book, read the book and pass a test on the book all by themselves — they walk around school with a 30-inch helium balloon.
“We do motivational things to make it fun,” Allred said. “But because of high standards and expectations we all face, kids have to perform.”
About a mile away, Star Valley Middle School celebrates student success with ice skating trips and hikes along Swift Creek to see the intermittent spring. Students earn points for good citizenship, which includes maintaining acceptable grades. Points are deducted for low grades and discipline problems. At the end of the quarter, only those students with enough points can go on the reward trips.
“Middle schoolers want rewards but at the same time have to be responsible,” Principal Kem Kazier said. “We’re trying to teach responsibility and respect at the same time.”
Students can earn back points with volunteer work. Some students help clean the school. Some students make little games to send to children in Africa. At least 10 students each week choose to visit retirement communities, where they read, play games and talk with the residents.
“It’s made a terrific change,” Kazier said. “Our discipline has gone down.”
Kids have gone to retirement communities and struggled because they don’t have grandparents nearby, Kazier said. But when they come back, most ask if they can go again. Students often form personal connections with residents and return week after week, even when they don’t need the points.
Just as in school and sports, good is never good enough.
Contact Jackie Borchardt at email@example.com or 307-266-0593.