Feature                                                 Pages 14-19


Freedom Within Fences

A Baldrige Award-winning Wisconsin school district drives student achievement through a rigorous systems approach


Consider the way student data are handled typically at many schools — often tucked away in a teacher’s folder or sequestered in a central-office file cabinet until it’s time to prepare student report cards or work on placements for the coming year.

That’s not the case in Pewaukee, Wis., where at Pewaukee Lake Elementary School there’s a student data wall displayed prominently outside of a staff development room. For each student there’s a three-by-two-inch card attached to the wall,

Data Wall
Pewaukee, Wis., Superintendent JoAnn Sterkne (right) and Deb Ristow, principal of Pewaukee Lake Elementary School, examine the student data wall outside the school's staff development room.

 color-coded by grade and complete with a photo, to capture how the student is doing on the Common Core standards, offering a quick visual report to teachers.

This visual shortcut, says the school’s principal, Deb Ristow, “is a way of tracking the data at the classroom level, the grade level and the building level.” It’s easy to see which students are meeting benchmarks and which need help.

“Every six weeks we have a day when we review all school data,” Ristow adds. “This data wall is a low-tech visual interpretation that we could use for any kind of data.”

The data wall of the 950-student school, serving kindergarten through 3rd grade, is emblematic of Pewaukee’s rigorous, relentless approach to managing data — and pretty much everything else that goes into successful school district management. That adherence to systematically collecting and analyzing data illustrates part of why the small, homogeneous district in Wisconsin’s Waukesha County between Milwaukee and Madison earned a prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in fall 2013. Pewaukee is only the seventh school district to receive the recognition since 2001. (See related story, page 19.)

The commitment to total quality management, at the heart of the Baldrige honor, probably explains why the 2,760-student Pewaukee district has done so well on so many other metrics, too. In 2012-13, Pewaukee achieved a 97.4 percent graduation rate, one that was higher over the previous four years than other nearby high-performing districts. All of the district’s schools have met the adequate yearly progress standard under No Child Left Behind. Pewaukee increased its academic rigor during that time by nearly doubling the number of offered Advanced Placement courses to 17.

A Liberating Approach

At a time when accountability, evidence-based practices and an emphasis on data-driven pedagogy inform public education, Pewaukee’s adherence to systems offers a model that other districts might emulate, even if pursuing a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award may not be the ultimate goal.

Nothing escapes the data-driven force field that Pewaukee applies in areas ranging across back-office and school operations; professional development (see related story, page 18); academics and student extracurricular involvement; the annual budget process; facilities and grounds; and even how the district uses the talents of parent and community volunteers (see related story, page 17).

“Everyone often thinks that innovation is a lightbulb in the middle of the night,” says Superintendent JoAnn Sternke, who has been Pewaukee superintendent since 2001. “We’re about following a systems approach and (are) regimented about process and policy.”

Instead of being constrained by systems, there’s a paradoxical liberation from following process. For Sternke, it’s about “freedom within fences, where the four schools have freedom to do what they want to, because they’re clear about the district’s aims.”

That core mission, continual student improvement and high performance, isn’t left to chance, anecdotal evidence or observation. The school district’s motto, “Opening the door to each child’s future,” is a visual reminder that’s inescapable. It’s clearly displayed in each building, appears atop every district publication and prominently on the district’s website, and can be recited by bus drivers and cafeteria workers as well as classroom staff without prompting.

The mission statement is “the first thing employees see when they turn on their computers. It’s on the buildings and on employees’ name tags,” says Sternke. “Everyone understands our mission and how to make the mission come to life. We really work hard to make sure people understand the mission. The ‘B’ — Baldrige — word isn’t important. It’s that people understand we look to continuously improve.”

Sternke, along with 12 other administrators, the school board president and two other school board members, welcomed the chance to share what Pewaukee does best with leaders of other school districts and nonprofit organizations at a major Baldrige conference in Baltimore in April, but the superintendent readily insists the award itself wasn’t as meaningful as the process of working toward it.

 Rosenberg Sister School
Tommy Oyet (standing), headmaster of  Pewaukee's sister school in Uganda, visits with 6th graders at Horizon Elementary School to learn about Pewaukee's system of applying data to personalize instruction.
A Baldrige Lens

Applying the Malcolm Baldrige Education Criteria for Performance Excellence for seven years prior to winning the award helped Pewaukee focus its energies on what continuous improvement means at all levels.

Sternke had been superintendent for about a half dozen years when the district decided to implement the Baldrige program after experiencing a strategic plan that she said had “reached a plateau.” The district examined everything through the lens of the Baldrige strategies.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology manages the Baldrige program, which recognizes nonprofit and proprietary organizations for using specific strategies that ultimately lead to improved outcomes. In the case of schools, the organization looks not only for improvements in student performance, but school districts that demonstrate successful management of their finances, respond in welcoming and transparent ways to their local community (including parents), provide a supportive work environment for teachers and other staff members and operate in a socially responsible manner. (The other recipient with Pewaukee is a 48-bed acute care hospital in Davis, Calif.)

In Pewaukee’s case, the seamless alignment of its practices with the stated criteria helped contribute to Pewaukee’s selection. The criteria are in seven systems-driven categories: leadership; strategic planning; customer focus; measurement; analysis and knowledge management; workforce; operations; and results. Robert Fangmeyer, director of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program at NIST, says while the “criteria came out of the business community, it’s tailored to schools. Baldrige is all about sharing best practices.”

Shared Lingo

The long buildup to the Baldrige recognition provided a common language to those in Pewaukee. “It gives us a shorthand,” Sternke adds.

The shared vocabulary helps Pewaukee focus on applying data within carefully structured systems to keep improving.

“Processes, systems and data are embedded in everything,” says Marty Van Hulle, principal of the 815-student Pewaukee High School. “Everything has a process. Student results are data-driven.”

When each quarter ends, administrators drill down on student report cards, searching, Van Hulle says, for “kids who are struggling or below proficiency. We’ll assign each student to a resource block, to get them on a cycle of improvement as soon as possible. One of our building goals is trying to decrease the number of students below proficiency.”

The high school even examined the benefits and downsides of the traditional nine-week term. The data analysis led the high school to switch to six-week terms “to have more informative checks along the way,” Van Hulle says. “We’ve got a lot of data points we collect on kids.”


Managing volunteers systemically

Personnel operations the Pewaukee way

Previous Baldrige districts

Additional resources

Even something such as a bell system, which most districts use almost reflexively, came under a systematic review in Pewaukee. “We began to question how bells influence our practice and herd students into batched groups, like an assembly-line model,” says Randolph R. Daul, principal of the Asa Clark Middle School. “Some students work outside the system of bells. It’s now a pilot, but in moving to a standards-based approach, we’re asking, ‘Can we eliminate them altogether?’ ”

Full Transparency

Each of Pewaukee’s schools has its own literacy plan and a math plan. At Horizon Elementary School, Principal Pete Gull says, “there are numerical goals, like saying that 70 percent of students will score at the proficiency or advanced level, and then we build a plan to get there. There are not the same goals for all classrooms because kids are different.”

The process ensures that what happens in the classroom and the building “rolls up to the district,” says Gull. “We send an assessment report to the district every six weeks, and then that’s posted to the website. I know what the expectations are, and it’s transparent from top to bottom.”

Everything relates back to the core mission of student learning, using the accumulation of data to craft appropriate individualized learning for each student.

“That’s allowed us to be innovative in the area of personalized learning,” says Sternke. “We have lots of data to individualize instruction.”

As Daul, at the middle school, says, “There’s a cycle of looking at data and what’s been accomplished to make decisions and adjustments. Students progress on their own abilities and interests. Rather than batching kids, they can move at their own particular pace. It’s a different pathway. … The student is doing more of the heavy lifting, with more of an understanding about what standards need to be learned.”

Tailored Delivery

By performing continual self-assessment and analysis, the district refuses to remain static.

“People, money and time are all resources,” Sternke says. “If we can use time differently, or people differently, maybe we can use money differently. We don’t just look at money as the ultimate problem solver. How can we flex time, in terms of teaching and personalized learning?”

When Pewaukee wanted to help middle schoolers do better in math, the data analysis argued for placement of students according to needs, whether more instruction for those falling behind or accelerated material to challenge others.

“There might be a kid who can get the curriculum done in less than a school year,” Sternke says. It’s not “make the kid fit time, but make the time to fit the kid.”

Maintaining a transparent system helps, too, in communicating goals to students and the community.

Students and parents can access a website where the standards and goals are explained, enabling students to “move at their own pace, develop their own projects and meet these standards in a way they design,” says Daul, principal of the 424-student middle school. “They learn all the skills — critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, using technology and communication — needed to get information and think about what that information means. They’re developing college- and career-readiness skills.”

The Pewaukee administration uses data to assess student extracurricular activities, too, surveying students to gauge whether the existing array of clubs and sports is engaging them. Daul learned 27 percent of his students weren’t involved in any extracurricular activities, information he shared with club advisers. “We look at trend data,” he says. “Why is there a decrease, or increase? How do we move resources?”

Ultimately, Sternke admits, one of the biggest benefits of using the Baldrige criteria and working through the 50-page application is this: “You get to know yourself better. That helps us know students better, where their needs are, and develop a system to understand where they’re at.”

Merri Rosenberg is a freelance education writer in Ardsley, N.Y. E-mail: merri.rosenberg@gmail.com






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