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Promising Practice - All Means All - Greeley-Evans District 6 Story
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All Means All
Greeley-Evans District 6
In Steve Graff’s fourth-grade math class in Greeley’s Centennial Elementary School, three teachers walked around the portable classroom as 25 students quietly worked on a series of problems.
One was the teacher, Mr. Graff, another was math interventionist Shannon Thompson and another was Taite Henderson, a student teacher from nearby University of Northern Colorado. The trio of educators offered the students nearly an 8:1 ratio, providing blanketed support for the classroom full of students with varied levels of math skills.
“This is how it works,” said principal Anthony Asmus, excitedly, watching the math class on a recent morning.
Every student, no matter their skill level, was together, receiving differentiated instruction and multi-levels of support. The class contained students who were exceeding grade-level expectations, students who could hardly speak English and some kids with IEPs who were significantly below grade level. Yet, the instruction continued. Everyone was learning.
Greeley-Evans School District 6 is experiencing a dramatic academic turnaround that has seen eight of 11 schools move off of the state’s accountability clock for poor performance. The success is the product of an ambitious district-wide strategic plan with robust goals and action strategies all built around the equitable notion that all students can and will learn. It is particularly impressive because District 6 has a challenging population with nearly two-thirds of students eligible for federal lunch benefits –a sign of poverty – and 26 percent English language learners.
Centennial Elementary School
Centennial Elementary School – a Title 1 school in Evans with 87 percent minority students and 93 percent of the students eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch - moved off of the Accountability Clock in 2018 after four straight years with a rating of Priority Improvement, which is the second to the last rating on the state’s School Performance Framework.
In 2018, the school jumped to the top rating of Performance.
“At Centennial, equity is an important part of the process,” Asmus said. “We support all students with co-teaching, and every child receives grade-level instruction every day. We have such a dedicated staff that truly believes that all kids can learn and will be successful.”
Success at the school is built around the notion of never giving up on a student and that everyone can do work at grade level. Asmus said the change began to happen when they stopped pulling out students for extra help and instead brought that extra help into the classroom.
“There was a time when we thought language learners and students with disabilities needed education at their own level and we would pull them out, but we never saw growth. They never caught up,” he said. “It wasn’t until we actually put them in the classroom and gave them the scaffolding that we saw the difference.”
Centennial’s turnaround success is mirrored across Greeley-Evans School District 6, a work in progress being put into action under Superintendent Deirdre Pilch’s leadership.
“I believe so deeply that every child can achieve,” Pilch said. “I believe that in my soul. Whether we are talking about a little, bitty child or great, big child, we must do whatever it takes to make sure they can succeed. I don’t think anyone can have a conversation with me without hearing that point.”
Pilch came to Greeley-Evans School District 6 in 2015 from the Boulder Valley School District, where she was a deputy superintendent. Immediately, she began making changes, eliminating 17 central administration positions and creating three new ones: Director of Cultural Excellence, Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools and Director of English Language Development.
“When I first got here, I found we had a lot of people and layers, but we were a long, long way from the classroom,” she said. “We looked at what is the work we must do in the district? What is the talent we need to do that work and who are the people we can put in those positions?”
With the backing of a committed school board, Pilch and about two dozen people created the district’s Innovation2020 Strategic Plan – a blueprint that guides the district’s priorities. The plan includes Board of Education goals as well as priority actions and measurements for the district.
“From improving personalized learning for all students to creating strong partnerships in the community, Innovation2020 is more than just a plan,” according to the district website. “It is the guiding force behind all the work we will do in District 6 for the next several years. … We expect every child to graduate District 6 with a specific plan for college, a career or military service, and the skills they need to attain their future goals.”
Among the district’s four goals are mandates that every student will have personalized learning and every student will have the same access and be treated with equity. But what does that mean, exactly?
The word “equity” is often used in education but has different meanings to each user. In District 6, it is not just a word, but a philosophy.
“It means whatever it takes to even the playing field for that child to be able to be successful in their classroom, that is what we are going to do,” Pilch said. “We’re not going to expect that child to meet us where we are. We are going to meet the child wherever he or she is. We’re going to figure out what tools need to be used – blending learning, extended days, Saturday school, partnerships with the United Way for reading corps, strong partnerships with the university and community college.”
It means placing the best teachers and principals into the schools that need it the most, she said.
It also means keeping a laser-like focus on equity. Each month district leaders attend intense training sessions on increasing awareness and cultural proficiency.
“My advice to schools attempting a turnaround would be, first and foremost, you have to have staff at the upper level and a board of education that all truly believes that every child can achieve and deserves the right to achieve,” she said. “I know people say all means all. But all really does mean all. All doesn’t mean 30 percent can’t read by fifth grade. You have to have a deep-rooted belief that all kids will be successful.”
She encourages districts to be open to different ways of doing things and bring in outside agencies to help.
“That means bringing in outside experts to evaluate how you are doing and listen to that hard conversation,” she said. “We have done that. We will continue to do that for our struggling schools.”
District 6 has developed strong partnerships with outside agencies and groups, including the Colorado Department of Education’s Turnaround Network, UnboundEd for professional development, Relay Graduate School of Education for teacher preparation.
“One of the first things we connected with was CDE’s Turnaround Network,” said Wes Tuttle, assistant superintendent. “Through that we got access to some professional development, providing that PD for our coaches, for our principals, for our assistant principals in their leadership and how to do this turnaround leadership in their schools.”
Nicole Monet, support manager with CDE’s Turnaround Network, has been working with Centennial Elementary for three years. The first step, she said, was to fix the school’s culture.
“We do this so kids are set up for success; they know what to expect,” Monet said. “This will allow the school to maximize instructional time. Without having clear expectations, it’s difficult to get that instructional piece going.”
What that meant is showing students what the Centennial Way is – how students are expected to when they arrive at school, how they behave at lunch, in the hallways and in the classroom when the teacher is talking. The emphasis has been positive behavioral conditioning – not punitive.
“I have definitely seen a building-wide shift,” said first-grade teacher Stacey Morgan. “By focusing on the positive in the classroom and focusing on students who were doing the positive things, not calling attention to the negative behaviors, has caused a shift in our building’s culture.”
For the first half of the 2018-19 school year, there were only 12 referrals to the office. The school used to have 500 a year.
“Students are focused on doing the best they can and to reach the highest standards,” Morgan said. “They want to take risks and dig into the gritty academics. It has been such a shift. The kids love to come here. They say, ‘I want to do it because…’ They embrace that idea of being a scholar.”
With school culture addressed, the next step has been rigorous instruction. Centennial teachers receive constant feedback and coaching. They are taught how to collect and analyze data. Each class has an interventionist, who helps the main teacher.
“We have such a dedicated staff that truly believes that all kids can learn and will be successful,” Principal Asmus said. “I am most proud when I come to work each day because students believe in themselves. They have confidence they can do the work at grade level and I’m proud of the teachers who never give up.”