Cross the threshold at Evergreen Heights Elementary and you enter a learning environment where the spirit of generosity finds a home. Here is a teaching staff generous with its instruction and mentoring time, a staff that shares its expertise and empathy without bias or self-interest. Here is a principal who gives freely of her power to advocate and support and for whom the passion to educate has never lost its luster. And here, too, is a community that recognizes the boundless, lifelong value caring adults can bring to young children.
Title Funding Key to Exemplary Programming
Demographics signal the great diversity of the community that depends on Evergreen Heights to educate its young children. Among the 450 K-5 students, we can hear 17 languages spoken — 25% of the kids enrolled are English Language Learners. And impossible to overlook: Auburn is also an area of the state where many families struggle to provide the basics.
In the 2011-2012 school year, the percentage of children coming from low-income families eligible for the federal free- and reduced-price meals program soared to 64% of the school population. The recession is felt keenly in this community. These factors qualify Evergreen Heights for federal funding under Title I. However, true to the hard financial realities that face low-income area schools, it is the Title funding that makes possible many of the exemplary programs Principal Anne Gayman and her staff can deliver. Poverty chips away at the community but inside these walls, the spirit of generosity creates a surfeit of academic and cultural riches.
Turnaround is Team Work
This is Evergreen Heights today but it wasn’t always this way. “The best thing that ever happened to us was failing to make AYP in 2008-09,” says Gayman. “It initiated change and created urgency.” She and her staff launched an across-the-board turnaround that reconfigured instruction, assessment and operations. And it began with a simple idea — that every staff member is responsible for every student.
Pull Together as a Team with a Clear, Single Focus on Each Child’s Success
Gayman and her staff put two important strands of change into play — assessment data as support for instructional decision making, and professional development to augment the skills and expertise of the teaching staff.
- The team built a data carousel, a review tool used often in school improvement planning, which makes it possible to contextualize a student’s results across multiple data sets. Opened out into a comprehensible visualization, teachers can make connections between data that comes from different sources, at different times. The carousel proved to be a handy way to pinpoint individual skill deficits in math and the ability to learn in English. Drilling down into the math and reading data, small teams of teachers researched best practices for instruction and assessment.
- In parallel, the Evergreen Heights staff designed a strategy for professional development. Gayman threw her support behind the improvement of each teacher and made sure her instructional staff were trained in Guided Language Acquisition Design (GLAD) for the growing number of English language learners in her classrooms. Developed during a recent training session, this flip chart captures the intensity and commitment of the Evergreen Heights team.
- The teaching team formed professional learning communities (PLC) through which they could look closely at specific data and figure out how to target instruction to reach struggling learners. They talked about what was working in their own classrooms and coached each other through the process of changing an approach to a given standard. Together they shared new information and best practices related to instruction, and they worked as a team to create common assessments as a source of customized formative and summative data.
Safe Setting for Meaningful Professional Development
True to the school’s motto — these motivated, dedicated teachers “did their best and helped the rest.”
Over time, Gayman and her staff noted a new transparency in the way they worked together — built on trust and accountability. With everyone focused on the same goals, teachers began to share assessment data freely, which might prompt a conversation related to instructional practice or assessment or student support. That conversation in turn, would lead to a deeply reflective dialogue through which teachers could share their strengths and weaknesses in a safe setting.
- 450 students
- 25% ELL
- 64% F/R meals
- 9% special education
Framework for Academic Success
Here is a high-level look at the Evergreen Heights approach to teaching and learning.
- All students receive small group instruction in reading and math every day.
- All teachers participate in grade-level teaming, during weekly Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). The focus is student data examined closely through common assessments, instructional strategies, interventions and the close evaluation of individual student need. Take a look at the PLC note-taking form at work in these meetings.
- The Evergreen Heights team stopped relying on a published curriculum. They created and compiled their own curriculum based on state academic standards.
- The instructional framework includes small group, grade-level instruction in a walk-to-math and walk-to-read format. In a walk-to instructional model, children are grouped and regrouped, often crossing grade levels based on performance. Teachers might also group by ability, or put the students in clusters that might place all high-achieving students in a single group. This grouping is highly flexible and changes weekly as teachers analyze formative assessment data.
- All teachers use the GLAD strategies for learning to support young learners of the English language.
- Teachers adopted the practices of gradual release of responsibility, or GRR, as a way to move young learners from dependence on the teacher for performing a teaching/learning task to a state of confident independence through which the student can direct his or her own learning. Think of GRR as “I do, We do, YOU do!”
Technically, the turnaround is over, but continuing improvement is the norm. One sign that this high-performing school environment is on the national and state radar is its recent recognition (2011-12 school year) with a Title I Distinguished Schools award, which honors schools that have achieved “exceptional student performance in reading or math for the two most current school years, and significant progress in closing the achievement gap in reading or math for the two most current school years.”
Academic progress at Evergreen Heights is clearly evident. But perhaps even more important, the cold, hard numbers of progress have emerged within a setting that manifests of surfeit of kindness and respect, care and support, challenge and opportunity for kids and adults alike.
We Can Make the Connection
The turnaround at Evergreen Heights developed traction as the staff formed a single idea by which they would all approach their work. Anne Gayman puts it this way, “We developed a philosophy that all staff is responsible for all students.” When this forming notion comes into play early on, it is one of the biggest drivers of success in the Nine Characteristics of High-Performing Schools.