Stories of Promising Practice: Stukey Elementary turnaround
Friday, March 17, 2017
Stukey Elementary School in Adams 12 Five Star School District sits in a section of old Northglenn that features moderate-sized homes and winding, quiet streets.
The neighborhood, once solidly middle class has, over the past 15 to 20 years, become lower income. Families have doubled- and tripled-up in what were once single-family homes.
“This is generational poverty,” said Stukey Principal Lori Bailey. “The parents and grandparents of many of our students attended this school. As housing has become more expensive in the area, adult children have had to move back in with their parents, and some of those families are really struggling economically.”
Today, the student population at Stukey reflects those changing demographics. About 87 percent of Stukey’s 400 students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, an indicator of poverty. Just under two-thirds of the students are Latino, and 25 percent are English language learners.
The school has struggled historically with student achievement, according to Bailey. In 2012, Stukey students significantly lagged in state averages in median growth percentile and performance on state achievement tests.
And when she arrived in 2011, there was a pervasively negative attitude among the staff about how far they could take their students toward proficiency.
“The belief system among too many of the staff was impoverished kids can’t, can’t, can’t. One of the first things we had to do was to clarify expectations,” Bailey said.
In April 2014, during Bailey’s third year as principal, Stukey applied for and was accepted into the Colorado Department of Education’s Turnaround Network.
Becoming part of the network meant receiving targeted support, resources, membership in a cohort of turnaround schools, and professional development, all in exchange for enhanced state oversight.
And thanks to the network, and the hard work of district and school leadership and staff, the school has made strong student learning gains in a short time (see Results section of this report).
When CDE accepts a school into the Turnaround Network, it requires the district to assign a senior central administrator to the role of “district partner.” That’s because turning around a school is impossible without enthusiastic district support and participation.
“A lot of the work is districtwide even though the network is intended to focus at the school level,” said Peter Sherman, CDE’s executive director of district and school performance, which oversees the Turnaround Network. “It can be tricky because we are asking district supervisors to push upwards in the district structure.”
It was an easy call for the district to have Stukey apply to the Turnaround Network, said Adams 12 Chief Academic Officer Tracy Dorland. “We could see there were layers of support from the turnaround network that really complimented what we were doing as a district. It created a perfect storm in a lot of different areas.”
Sherman said the Turnaround Network focuses schools on four conditions for success: a culture of performance, academic systems, talent management, and operations.
“Turnarounds need to focus and prioritize,” he said.
Stukey’s entry into the network began with a diagnostic visit spanning two days by a team from turnaround specialists from Mass Insight Education, a national nonprofit that partners with schools and districts to assist in reform. “They did horizontal and vertical reviews and talked to everyone from custodial staff to librarians to parents to teachers,” Bailey said.
Using data gleaned from the Mass Insight diagnostic visit, network staff worked with Adams 12 administrators and Bailey’s leadership team on “diagnostics and goal-setting” around the four conditions, Sherman said.
Bailey enthusiastically enumerates the many ways the Turnaround Network has benefited her school. But near the top of her list is the network’s performance management tool, a constantly iterating, multi-tabbed online spreadsheet that has helped Stukey hone its approach and zoom in on specific areas for improvement, thereby dramatically boosting student learning.
Using the tool, Stukey identified annual major improvement strategies, including detailed implementation benchmarks – evidence for monitoring progress. The tool also tracks school culture on a monthly basis, measuring a host of factors including absenteeism, minor and major office referrals, transitions and classroom environment.
“I will beg CDE to let me keep using this tool even after we’re out of the network,” Bailey said. “It provides such a great template for monitoring our progress.”
Another key piece of the Turnaround Network’s offerings was having Bailey enroll in the Relay Graduate School of Education. Bailey said it was the best professional development she’s experienced in her career. Through Relay, Bailey learned new instructional strategies, and through Relay’s partnership with Uncommon Schools, she was trained in a program called Great Habits, Great Readers, which aligns reading instruction with Common Core state standards.
Kim Walsh, Adams 12 executive director of schools, has served as Bailey’s District Partner throughout the turnaround process. She said Relay provided Bailey with “an extended toolkit for observation feedback, for building student culture, and for setting a clear trajectory” for Stukey.
In late January 2017, Bailey took a team of her teachers, coaches, and Assistant Principal Theresa Gilbreath to Morristown, N.J., for a two-day Great Habits, Great Readers training.
“I can’t underscore enough the importance of taking teachers out of their environment and giving them the opportunity to sit with teachers from across the country who work in schools just like theirs,” Walsh said.
Attending such training sessions are also big morale-boosters for teachers, Walsh said. “They feel that the school is really investing in them,” she said.
Yet another key piece of the Turnaround Network is the close working relationship that develops between network staff and the chosen schools and districts. Tomi Amos, a CDE turnaround support manager, spent a half-day every six to eight weeks meeting with Bailey and Walsh.
Those meetings consisted of a check-in about progress and status of goals, visits to classrooms or teacher meetings to gather data about goals, and reflection on progress and setting of new goals.
The sessions kept the state, district and school in close communication and aligned in goals and priorities.
Finally, and probably most important, Stukey has adopted short (four to six weeks) data-driven instruction cycles. During each cycle, grade-level teams focus on one “high-leverage” Colorado academic standard.
After just one year in the Turnaround Network, Stukey improved from Priority Improvement, the state’s lowest rating, to Performance, its second highest. This means the school will exit the network at the end of the 2016-17 school year, though some supports will remain available.
In 2016, Stukey exceeded state averages on median growth percentile in reading and math. Bailey said math results weren’t as strong as she’d like, primarily because the school focused most of data-driven instruction efforts in 2015-16 on literacy.
This year, there is heightened emphasis on math, which she said should show results.
Teachers say the focus on rigorously data-driven instruction has made a big difference in how they approach their craft.
Working collaboratively with in-house coach Nancy Ciancio, grade-level teams create an exemplar piece of work, a rubric, and a pre-assessment. Once they’ve determined where each student falls on the rubric, they craft specific strategies for getting students to achieve the standard. They then write weekly formative assessments and a post-assessment.
This intensive, data-driven instruction “holds you accountable for using student work,” said fourth grade teacher Kari Hvidevold. “You’re basing your next instructional moves on what each student can and cannot do. And this makes you look at the work differently and makes your teaching much more intentional.”
Every school professes to use data driven instruction, Hvidevold said, but at Stukey, it’s truly driven by student work, and that approach has completely altered her teaching.
“I will take this with me wherever I go in the future,” she said. “It’s that valuable.”
Is there anything Bailey would change about her experience in the Turnaround Network? Having a team or at least a partner from the school go through Relay with her would have simplified the task of shifting culture.
“I first had to build my own understanding then apply that understanding here. I was the keeper of all knowledge, and that was hard,” she said.
It also would be almost impossible for a principal new to a building to lead a turnaround effort, Bailey said. The fact that she had been at Stukey for a few years before entering the network made the task somewhat less difficult.
Bailey said she has learned a great deal from the network, but is confident she and the district can chart Stukey’s course without such close state oversight.
“We love you but we don’t want you back,” she joked to Sherman and Amos during a December visit.