Closing the Gap: One School's Approach (abridged)
The Dayton's Bluff neighborhood is located just east of downtown St. Paul, on a high ridge overlooking the Mississippi River. The streets are lined mostly with single-family houses, some recently renovated, many in disrepair. The drone of freeway traffic fills the air. Income levels here are low, the crime rate is high and families move in and out at a transient pace.
And then there are the kids.
"Half of them don't have proper clothing," said Zolena Winne. "They don't have beds. They don't have tables. A lot of them get evicted. The mothers are alcoholics or drug addicts or drunks. And it makes a big difference to these kids because they're suffering."
Winne lives in the neighborhood and works there too. She's an educational assistant at Dayton's Bluff Achievement Plus Elementary School. Winne says conditions at the school used to make her cry. Four years ago, test scores and morale hit rock bottom. It was one of the worst performing schools in the state. Students and teachers were frequently absent.
St. Paul School District Superintendent Pat Harvey took drastic action at Dayton's Bluff in 2001.
"It was at a point that the only way to make it better was to start all over again," Harvey said. "When things get so bad that the staff doesn't believe it can get better, then it's time for something different."
Harvey cleaned house; the technical term is "reconstitution." Teachers had to reapply for their jobs. The district rehired about a quarter of the staff, those who showed the strongest commitment to helping needy kids. The rest went to other schools. Harvey also brought in a new principal to shake things up. Strong leaders are often the key ingredient in turning around failing schools. She hired Von Sheppard, a former college football player and coach. His education experience was limited, but Harvey saw a lot of potential.
Von Sheppard stands near the school entrance every morning as students arrive. He's a large, imposing African American man with the thick neck, broad shoulders and massive arms that come from years in a football weight room. He starred at St. Paul Central High School and the University of Nebraska. Sheppard shows his soft side as he greets each student.
Sheppard is now in his fourth year at Dayton's Bluff. The school serves about 350 children in kindergarten through sixth grade. Nine out of 10 students live in poverty. His approach is to love them, then push them.
"These kids live in a tough neighborhood," Sheppard said. "They need to come to an environment that is conducive for learning, to an environment where they're cared about, to an environment where they're believed in and where the expectations are high."
Sheppard's formula is working. Test scores have climbed significantly each year he's been in charge. The school has avoided the state's list of underperformers, because every subgroup of students, including African American, Hispanic and Asian, is doing well.
At the same time, discipline problems have declined. When he started at the school, Sheppard would often have to carry unruly kids from their classrooms.
"Some of them would be kicking and screaming," Sheppard said. "But what I found, particularly with some of the black males, is they would just melt in my arms. Some of them just needed to be held."
Sheppard used a system called the Responsive Classroom to bring order to the school. It's a strategy aimed at improving both the social and academic climate.
Fourth grade students play a name game as part of the daily ritual known as "morning meeting." In every classroom, students greet each other and share personal experiences, like what they've watched on TV or problems at home. They also play a game. Afterwards, it's time to start learning. Teacher Brandon Phillips says it's a good way to start the school day.
Sixth-grade students sit at their desks talking out a disagreement that boiled over earlier on the playground. Words were exchanged and feelings were hurt. The offending student explains her actions, and then offers an apology.
Teacher Lynn Hisdahl says she uses blowups like these to make a point.
"If there was a behavior that I feel is worth discussing, because its behavior that a lot of the kids have and it's a behavior that disrupts teaching and learning, yeah, then I'll stop everything," Hisdahl said. "And we'll deal with it, with the idea if we deal with it now we can keep it from happening over and over again and wasting more time."
The school-wide crackdown on discipline at Dayton's Bluff was just the start. In addition, it cleared the way for even bigger academic changes.
Von Sheppard meets regularly with key members of his teaching staff to talk strategy. The staff turnover allowed Sheppard to surround himself with young, enthusiastic teachers, who share his tough-love approach. He also hung on to some dedicated veterans.
Marilyn Wojtasiak is one of the teachers who were rehired. She's has been at Dayton's Bluff for 12 years. Her current job is to coach fellow teachers on how best to reach students.
"Before, it was a school where teachers would come and they'd go into their room and close the door and try to teach," Wojtasiak said. "Now, it is definitely a big collaboration effort, where teachers are coming either to us or their colleagues saying help in this or this isn't working, can we have a discussion of how to have the students achieve?"
Wojtasiak says the switch to a new curriculum, called America's Choice School Design, has made a big difference in student achievement. It's a framework for teaching that's helped boost performance in struggling urban schools throughout the country. Wojtasiak says the curriculum sets high standards and pushes everyone to meet them. Everybody is on the same page. Excuses are not tolerated.
Small class sizes also help. There are no more than 20 students in any classroom. That's a big advantage over most schools, where the average is closer to 30. It's also a huge benefit for students who often need more personalized instruction. But to pay for the teachers, Dayton's Bluff had to save money elsewhere. There are fewer computers than in most elementary schools, no teaching assistants and no librarian.
Principal Von Sheppard says caring teachers are the most important resource for helping children succeed.
"You've got to care about the kids and believe in them before they're going to allow you to teach them," Sheppard said. "You know it's just like coaching. Once that athlete knows that that coach has some interest and knows that he or she may play, they'll do whatever it takes in order to get some playing time. It's about hard work. It's about being prepared and it's about putting that carrot out for that student or for that athlete to help them reach their full potential."
A disadvantaged child enters school already behind. Researchers say that achievement gap is more easily closed when the student is young. Kindergarten students at Dayton's Bluff are placed in one of three groups based on their learning ability. The expectations are high. Students learn the alphabet and letter sounds, and then they start reading and writing. They're eager to show off their work. Lorenzo Reese read from the story he wrote about a class field trip to the Minnesota Zoo.
"We went on the school bus to the zoo," Reese said. "I saw red signs, stop signs, and whales and girls."
Teacher Patty Jilk is one reason Lorenzo and his classmates are reading so well.
"When these kindergartners came to school they did not know any letters or any sounds," Jilk said. "Now they know all their letters, all their sounds and they can read about -- you won't believe it -- 50 sight words."
"If I wanted to grade Dayton's Bluff, I'd give them an A plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus," said Kayla Steward, age 10.
Steward is a bright, energetic student, who started attending Dayton's Bluff in kindergarten. She lives with her mother and two brothers, Devonta and Seven in a small house on St. Paul's east side. Last year, she was in Mr. Phillips' fourth grade class. It was a good year for Kayla, who proudly boasts that she's now reading at a seventh grade level. Her test scores also are also climbing. Kayla is an African American student who's bridged the achievement gap.
Sitting on the floor of her small bedroom, she shows off the some of her recent writing projects. Kayla's writing is mostly autobiographical. Like most aspiring writers, she writes what she knows. She writes about working hard in school, making friends and overcoming life's obstacles. One poem is about her uncle Cody, who was killed by gunfire when Kayla was seven years old.
"The name of this poem is called How Can You Forget Cody?" Kayla said.
It was just like a day
Students and staff gathered in the gymnasium at Dayton's Bluff last spring during the final days of the school year. It was a time to say goodbye to the teachers who wouldn't be back next year. It was also time to celebrate another year of improvement. Results of the state third- and fifth-grade tests showed more gains in math. Third-grade reading scores also climbed, but fifth-grade reading scores fell.
The results were better on the Stanford Achievement Test, a nationwide exam. In every grade, at least two thirds of all students were at or above average in reading and math. There's a lot to be proud of.
Since the school was reconstituted three years ago, student demographics at Dayton's Bluff have changed little. It's the same families and the same challenges. The difference now is the children are succeeding in the classroom. Still, successful students like Kayla Steward will come and go. Von Sheppard knows that's one factor he'll never control.
"It's tough," Sheppard said. "We've invested a lot of time in these kids. But as soon as one leaves, one will come in."
And when those new students arrive at Dayton's Bluff, the first lessons for them are clear: do your best work, you will learn, there are no excuses.
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