Checking in: Idaho’s lowest-performing schools

For Ryan Cantrell, the worst part of having two schools named to the state’s list of lowest-performing schools was the first day.

That was Aug. 15, when news stories came out reporting that two Bruneau-Grand View schools — Bruneau Elementary School and Rimrock Junior-Senior High School — were included on the list of Idaho’s 29 lowest-performing public schools.

The lowest-performing schools list is a new program created through Idaho’s new accountability plan. Once all the factors were calculated and weighted, the state identified schools that fell in the bottom 5 percent for performance.

Criteria included:

  • Student achievement in math and English language arts on the Idaho Standards Achievement Test.
  • Student growth at the K-8 level.
  • Growth to proficiency among English language learners.
  • Student surveys.
  • High school graduation rates.
  • College and career readiness indicators.

Thinking back to the days of No Child Left Behind, Cantrell was worried about what would happen after the list went public. He feared it would be name, blame and shame all over again.

“Initially you’re irritated because nobody likes to see their name in the paper, especially when you’ve seen positive changes over the last two or three years,” Cantrell said.

“Those of us who have been here four or five years know where we were coming from,” he continued. “Culturally and academically we’d seen huge gains. It was demoralizing, but like anything it will become what you make of it.”

Cantrell and Bruneau’s teaching and administrative teams soon realized sitting around feeling sorry for themselves wouldn’t improve the ISAT scores and other student outcomes that landed them on the list in the first place.

Through the state’s accountability plan, Bruneau connected with school turnaround expert (officially called a capacity builder) Earnie Lewis. Since September, the retired longtime teacher and Vallivue School District administrator has spent two days a week in the Bruneau school. His role is to help the district’s leadership team develop a turnaround plan and put it into action.

Lewis spent about half his time in classrooms, observing instruction and classroom management techniques and providing feedback to students and teachers alike. Lewis is also helping the district with teacher evaluations.

After spending the year in Bruneau, Lewis said it is obvious that the administration and teaching staff are taking positive steps to promote a healthy culture of accountability and mutual respect. Many of the district’s teachers and administrators are in their first couple of years on the job, Lewis said. And even though some of them are beginning their career at a school in need of improvement, they have accepted that responsibility.

“Part of my role is to help a district see that you can turn it around and help them know there is a life beyond underachievement,” Lewis said.

Lewis and Cantrell also identified some so-called easy wins — small but tangible victories that the district could document and celebrate. Those took the form of improved Idaho Reading Indicator scores in another of Bruneau’s schools or improved homework completion rates in the two low-performing schools.

“If we can do this, we can do the other stuff too,” Cantrell said. “We have to celebrate those successes.”

Cantrell’s team also visited about 20 other schools with similar demographic profiles to find out what they were doing right and how Bruneau could replicate that success.

They knew math was a weak subject for their district. As a result, Bruneau has decided to reset its math curriculum next year and invest in extra professional development for teachers.

“We know we needed to improve,” Cantrell said. “Although we had a mechanism in place to start the process, this accelerated the process.”

Because the low-performing schools were only identified at the beginning of the school year, there isn’t yet any data available to judge whether they are beginning to turn things around.

Furthermore, nobody expects an overnight success story. The 29 lowest-performing schools will remain in that designation for three years as they work to turn things around.

Even so, Lewis has said some of this year’s preliminary test data is showing positive results that leave him optimistic.

And state officials said they are also seeing seeing positive signs.

Each low-performing school had to submit a turnaround plan by March 1, and the SDE approved all the plans by April 1, said federal programs director Karen Seay and director of assessment and accountability Karlynn Laraway.

State officials have also had two group meetings with teams from the lowest-performing schools, once in September and again in March.

Seay emphasized that the program’s purpose is to provide schools with support so they can focus on improving student achievement. She said Bruneau’s team has been especially responsive and adopted a growth mindset.

“One thing I’ve been so impressed with (Cantrell) is that as soon as he was identified, he started reaching out to other schools across the whole Treasure Valley to see what they were doing,” Seay said. “He attended every check-in we had. He has been so attentive and so willing to learn and wanting to do better.”

Cantrell said his district is taking ownership of student achievement and realizes it’s not enough just to get off the lowest-performing schools list in two years. He wants to develop a sustainable plan that can benefit Bruneau-Grand View for years to come, not just while the district is under the microscope.

“What was initially an unpleasant experience turned out to be something positive for the district because of who we worked with and how they helped,” Cantrell said.

Further reading: Click here for the list of Idaho’s lowest-performing schools and an explanation of how the schools were selected.

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