Against All Odds

by William H. Parrett

Cloud is a confident and successful 7th grader. He is getting good grades and scored at the proficient level on his latest state reading test. But for this student at Lapwai Middle School in Lapwai, Idaho, things weren’t always so optimistic.

As a 4th grader, Cloud was reading at a 2nd-grade level. He didn’t like school, was oppositional in his classroom and hated to read. He spent many recesses in detention instead of playing football on the playground.

Then good things began to happen that were to make a big difference. At school, teachers studied student achievement data and used it to make instructional decisions. They initiated a high-performance reading program and collaborated to share ideas on what was working best. Cloud and his classmates increased their reading time in school to 90 minutes per day. At home, his parents encouraged him to have a positive attitude and read with him each night. Within a year, he gained two grade levels. Two years later, he continues to read at grade level. Cloud’s entire perspective about school has changed.

A Success Story

Lapwai Elementary School, located on the Nez Perce Reservation in northern Idaho, serves a K-6 population of 302 students, 84 percent of whom are Native Americans. Seventy-nine percent of the students live at or below the poverty level. The remarkable success of this school in teaching minority children represents just one of dozens of schools nationwide that have reversed a history of underachievement and low performance.

To accomplish this feat, the superintendent of the Lapwai School District, Harold Ott, established what he called “a different approach to the daily business of educating our students.” Eight components of improvement clearly drove the success this school accomplished.

In 1999, only 16 percent of Lapwai’s 3rd graders were achieving at or above the state’s proficiency level in reading and only 17 percent were doing so in math. Dissatisfied with a tradition of low performance, a team of teachers and administrators received school board support to aggressively address the achievement of their students.

The staff started from a position of shared core values, characterized by collaboration, determination, an openness to consider dramatic changes and a relentless energy to help children achieve. They studied school data and crafted a course of action that set measurable goals focused on achievement, attendance and community engagement and satisfaction. The staff expanded the leadership team by adding community members and high school students and embarked on a complex agenda.

The staff also secured significant external funding from the state and federal governments and a charitable foundation to support their program improvements. The additional funds represented an increase of approximately 10 percent to Lapwai’s annual budget of $5 million. They included 3-year awards from the J.A. & Kathryn Albertson Foundation ($1.2 million), a $150,000 Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration grant and a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant ($700,000).

Well Positioned

First, they tackled their curriculum to align it to state standards and assessments. They made time for this work by adjusting the daily schedule to gain two hours of common planning and professional development each Friday. They worked with the school board to establish policy to guide the district’s efforts to monitor and manage their newly aligned curriculum.

The leadership team focused its work on the implementation of effective reading and math programs and interventions. They initiated full-day kindergarten, reduced class sizes, initiated looping, extended afterschool tutoring and increased daily instructional time in reading and math for all students. The teachers and administrators participated in assessment-literacy-learning teams, which focused on both the assessment of learning and, more importantly, assessment for learning. Content benchmarks and clear learning targets became the norm.

As these improvements and interventions took effect, the leadership team shifted its effort to build district and classroom capacity to better use data. Through grade-level and schoolwide professional development activities, Lapwai educators became both proficient and comfortable in allowing data to guide decisions. As the state implemented a new testing program, the school district was well positioned to make immediate use of the additional student performance data.

The team also focused on improving community collaboration, engagement and satisfaction. The superintendent launched a monthly Lapwai Educational Summit. Held in the Nez Perce executive tribal chambers, this group of community leaders, parents, educators and students gathered for one morning each month to consider progress, offer input and focus on engaging the community in improving achievement and school success for the students of Lapwai.

A multicultural coordinator was hired to work closely with the students’ homes and families. Enhancing cultural understanding and appreciation through teaching Nez Perce language and history also bolstered their work. Through these and other efforts, Lapwai Elementary succeeded in connecting more parents and community members to the school and more educators to the community.

Most importantly, the administrators stayed their course and maintained relentless commitment. The results were impressive. In spring 2004, 91 percent of 3rd-grade students (compared to 16 percent in 1999) and 89 percent of 4th-graders (versus 32 percent in 1999) now perform at or above state proficiency in math. Seventy-three percent of 3rd-grade students (17 percent in 1999) and 77 percent of 4th-graders (27 percent in 1999) now perform at proficient or advanced in reading. Eighty-two percent of Lapwai kindergartners now read at or above grade level.

Student attendance has increased five percentage points to 94 percent. Parental satisfaction has increased dramatically. Last March 79 percent of voters said yes to the community’s first large bond in more than 20 years for building a secondary school.

Each of these gains and accomplishments resulted from five years of focused leadership and relentless work by the Lapwai superintendent and staff. Between 1999 and 2004, the superintendency did not turn over and the building principals have remained in place as well as most of the teaching staff. Access to additional funds permitted the district to hire its first curriculum director who continues to date in this role. The school board membership has changed frequently during these years, yet a constant focus on student achievement has remained in place. When school board members have departed through natural attrition, they have consistently been replaced with new members committed to the improvement of learning for Lapwai students.

Eight Components

No silver bullet exists to guide this work. Nonetheless, an emerging pattern of school improvement that encompasses eight essential components of intervention has become common to schools like Lapwai that have reversed low-performance trends.

The components overlap and are fluid. They are present in no common sequence, yet they consistently appear.

  • Ensuring effective district and school leadership.

    Effectively leading high-poverty/high-minority school districts and schools may well be the most challenging work in public education. Virtually every study regarding schools that are successfully teaching low-achieving poor and minority students emphasizes the importance of focused, data- and results-driven district and school leadership.

    Leaders in these districts and schools eliminate failed policies and practices such as retention, tracking, ineffective classroom teaching and misaligned curriculum that continue to produce unacceptable results. They create a climate of shared vision and high expectations for every student.

    Leadership focuses on establishing successful interventions (particularly in reading) for low-performing students, establishing specific measurable goals, and developing aggressive timelines to achieve them. Leaders support and participate in the development of professional learning communities. They diligently work to recapture lost time and resources to accommodate necessary restructuring and seek to reallocate funds to support improvement efforts of priority.

    The leadership of the Lapwai Board of Education and district demonstrated each of these characteristics in their successful journey to improve.

  • Understanding the culture of poverty.

    Children of poverty, particularly minority students, have many cultural and family supports and experiences that enrich and strengthen their resiliency. For these children, the start of school often precipitates a collision of values and cultures. Far too many children arrive at school suffering from poor health, nutrition, inadequate housing and limited vocabularies and language skills.

    As in Lapwai, educators must work to better understand the pervasive influences of poverty and to address the specific challenges these families and students bring to school. To accomplish this work, the superintendent in Lapwai focused early efforts on creating a districtwide culture of caring and open communication with the community. When the superintendent arrived in summer 1999, one of his first actions was to write a letter to all Lapwai households inviting them to drop in and visit his office. Between July 1 and August 31, 83 parents and community members took him up on his offer to discuss what they liked about the school district and what improvements they wanted to see.

    These meetings helped create the superintendent’s first action agenda and laid the groundwork for the creation of a monthly Lapwai Educational Summit for parents and community members. These actions also prompted the building administrators and teachers to increase their communication and authentic interactions with Lapwai’s parents and families. The leadership and teaching staff of the Lapwai district clearly demonstrate that to address specific challenges of poverty, one must first establish trusted communication and relationships with parents and families.

  • Targeting low-performing students, particularly in reading.

    Lapwai’s efforts began with a goal of every student achieving reading proficiency. Students who are behind require access to programs that work, teachers with high expectations and better connections between home and school. This shift in focus and priority requires new or different instructional approaches and changes in the allocation and distribution of resources.

    Lapwai’s success with low-performing students has resulted due to a relentless focus on individual student needs followed by the selection and implementation of proven, targeted instructional strategies and interventions. Many of these interventions (such as reading, math and language programs and the curriculum director position) were originally funded externally but now have become part of the general fund operating budget.

  • Starting as early as possible and extending instructional time.

    In schools like Lapwai, where minority students are achieving proficiency, leadership has increased the instructional time in reading and/or math for their low-performing students. This begins with assessing the school readiness of young children and intervening individually as needed. It continues with providing quality preschool, all-day kindergarten and other targeted strategies for the children that require them.

    Once in elementary school, these students will often need additional instructional time in core subjects as provided through looping, extended-day and summer programs. Lapwai provided all three.

  • Instituting curriculum and instructional improvements.

    Improved schools like Lapwai Elementary vertically align their curricula to articulate with state standards and assessments and ensure that all students are enrolled in rigorous academic programs. They also use assessment data to identify the most effective teachers of underachieving poor children by subject and grade level and invite them to share successful instructional lessons through collaborative planning and lesson study.

  • Building data and assessment literacy.

    An understanding of how to use data at the classroom level was critical to fostering a culture of assessment literacy at Lapwai Elementary. Teachers collaborated to develop clear targets and assessments to use as sequential subject matter benchmarks. Student data then informed instructional decisions regarding mastery of content.

  • Engaging parents, schools and the community.

    Schools like Lapwai have sought to create what Gloria Ladson-Billings, author of several books on diversity in schools, refers to as “cultural congruence.” For classroom teachers, this means actively connecting content to social and cultural characteristics and backgrounds of students and their families and eliminating classroom practices that place diverse students at risk.

    Lapwai found a direct connection between improving relationships, community support and student achievement.

  • Supporting effective teaching.

    Teachers must reflect a sincere belief that every student will achieve. Teachers must collaborate to use assessment data to guide professional decisions. They also must create caring environments in which the students and their families feel welcome.

    As in Lapwai, teachers can provide a surrogate family atmosphere that encourages comprehensive learning. It is the teacher, especially when supported with the preceding interventions, who will make the critical difference for minority children. As Kati Haycock, director of The Education Trust, emphatically concludes: “Teachers matter a lot.”

A Replicable Model

One might question that if substantial improvement in achievement can occur in a school of primarily Native American students, historically the group with one of the lowest graduation rates of any student subgroup, can it occur anywhere?

The Lapwai superintendent believes his primary purpose is to serve as “a messenger of hope” to the students and their families. This message, supported by clear evidence of substantial achievement gains, has permeated the community. A revived sense of hope and vision for the children of Lapwai, in the words of the superintendent, “has been far more important than any infusion of external funding.”

This shift of community trust and support will continue to sustain Lapwai’s successes. As of fall 2004, only the funding from the 21st Century grant remains, yet student achievement continues to advance.

While Lapwai Elementary has experienced significant gains, the district’s middle and high schools also have progressed. Between 1999 and 2004, Lapwai 10th graders’ reading achievement elevated from 38 percent to 67 percent scoring at the advanced and proficient levels on state-required assessments. During the same time, reading achievement of 8th grade students increased from 35 percent to 53 percent of students scoring proficient or advanced. Language usage has grown to a 66 percent proficiency pass rate for grades 7 through 10.

By design, the early work of improvement focused on the elementary level, building trust and getting families better connected with school. Most external funding was targeted for elementary interventions. The secondary schools have proven more difficult to affect due to the typical circumstances found at this level: content-driven classrooms, diminished home-school connections and the challenges of adolescence.

Profound Influence

While the work of school improvement manifests differently in districts and schools, the importance of effectively leading the confluence of the eight components is critical to influencing achievement gains for minority students. The work of Rick DuFour, Michael Fullan, Kati Haycock and Richard Stiggins profoundly complement and influence Lapwai’s progress toward the successful implementation of these components.

Successfully educating underachieving minority students presents a most formidable challenge to public school educators, yet it is not insurmountable. Any school district can attain and sustain these successes if they employ the pattern of improvement components, as did Lapwai, in their classrooms and schools.

William Parrett is professor of education and director of the Center for School Improvement and Policy Studies at Boise State University, 1910 University Drive, Boise, ID 83725. E-mail: wparret@boisestate.edu. He is co-author of an upcoming book, Teaching the Children of Poverty: Catching Up the Kids Left Behind (National Education Service). The author gratefully acknowledges the help of faculty colleague Robert Barr and Harold Ott and Teri Wagner, superintendent and curriculum director, respectively, of Lapwai Schools in preparing this article.