Horseshoe Bend emerges from scandal to win Blue Ribbon nomination

A thousand sets of eyes were trained on Cora Larson as she walked to the front of the stage last month and accepted the biggest award her school has earned during her teaching career.

Larson grew up in Horseshoe Bend, went to school there and has spent her career teaching there, but she was still a little unsure of how to accept such an unexpected award in front of so many other teachers.

“It took a little while to sink in,” Larson said “When I got to accept the award, what I said was ‘Just three years ago we had a completely different type of award from the State Department of Education. It was called a two-star rating, and it didn’t feel the same as this.’ It still continues to amaze me that we’ve made this much progress in this short of time.”

Superintendent Dennis Chestnut and lead teacher Cora Larson

Larson serves as a lead teacher at Horseshoe Bend Elementary, and played an integral role helping the school become one of two Idaho schools nominated by the State Department of Education for this year’s national Blue Ribbon Award.

SDE officials picked Horseshoe Bend Elementary because its students ranked in the top 15 percent of all Idaho schools in last year’s state assessment test and because 40 percent of the student population comes from a disadvantaged background, such as being eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

“Horseshoe Bend Elementary has worked very hard to increase student achievement over the past several years, and has an average score for students who scored proficient or advanced in English language arts and Mathematics that is well above the state average putting the school in the 95th percentile of all schools,” SDE spokesman Jeff Church said in a written statement released this week.

But, for years, Larson wasn’t used to accepting awards. In fact, any time Horseshoe Bend was in the news, it seemed to be for all the wrong reasons.

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  • In 2012, then-Superintendent John Cook was placed on administrative leave and resigned amid polygamy accusations.
  • In 2013, former Horseshoe Bend business manager Robb Thomas Greiner resigned and was eventually charged with four felony counts of misusing public money. In 2015, Greiner struck a deal with prosecutors allowing him to plead guilty to one felony count of misusing public money.
  • In 2014, Cook’s successor, Vicki Renfro, abruptly resigned.
  •  In 2014, before state officials repealed the five-star ratings system, Horseshoe Bend earned just two stars out of five on the statewide accountability system.
  • In 2015, the IRS came calling, demanding $68,000 in unpaid taxes from the district.
  • In March 2015, Horseshoe Bend patrons voted down a proposed $600,000 supplemental levy by just 22 votes.

“It was clear there was dysfunction at the top, it wasn’t a secret it was right out there in public,” current Superintendent Dennis Chestnut said.

A new beginning

The district began its turnaround in 2015 by promoting Chestnut — a longtime teacher and coach turned principal — to superintendent. In the process, Chestnut became the fifth superintendent in three years — counting two outside, interim superintendents that were brought in to clean up the district’s bookkeeping practices, pay the bills and meet compliance regulations.

Having survived the worst of it, Chestnut’s goals were to regain the community trust that had eroded throughout the small town of about 700 residents that’s situated 20 miles north of Boise.

“While it was obviously a dysfunctional administration, I thought our teachers were really, really professional in the ways they keep that disfunction from impacting what we are doing in the classroom,” Chestnut said. “We tried to insulate our students from that dysfunction.”

Under Chestnut’s leadership, Larson and education consultant Amber Pearson partnered to transform education at the elementary school and throughout the district.

  • Larson was empowered to serve in a role more traditionally suited for a principal than a teacher.
  • The district developed and adopted a data-driven approach to education and achievement.
  • District leaders invested in a new Measures of Academic Progress assessment and tested students three times a year to more precisely identify students’ strengths, weaknesses and learning gaps.
  • Administrators tweaked the daily bell schedule to build in 30 minutes of intervention time for each student every day. Under that system, students who fall behind in certain areas are given extra resources to catch up. Meanwhile, students who are progressing on track are accelerated and challenged with more advanced material.
  • The district also refined its curriculum, with Chestnut and Larson insisting all teachers teach with fidelity to a uniform curriculum, rather than going out on their own.

“The first thing we did is stop blaming student’ circumstances for achievement, and started having high expectations for all students,” Larson said. “We have to hit a homerun with every student who walks through our door, we can’t let some fall through the cracks.”

With a new plan in place and leadership solidified at the district level, things began to change.

Third grade teacher Andrea Sullivan prepares her students for their end-of-year research project.

“When I first arrived, the norm was we were getting kids anywhere from one to two years behind grade level,” said third grade teacher Andrea Sullivan, who is now in her eighth year teaching at the school. “We were trying to catch kids up as well as teach the grade-level curriculum, and it was really hard work.”

Over the past two or three years, Sullivan noticed more pronounced changes.

“The kids we were getting at the beginning of the year were slowly over time getting closer and closer to grade level, and it was having an affect on kids,” Sullivan said. “Because of that, we wanted to keep at it.”

Expecting success

Although the mindset has changed, Larson has more than a positive attitude to back up the education reform effort at Horseshoe Bend Elementary. She has the state-level blue ribbon and three years worth of MAP test data that shows growth.

MAP test average results, first grade math

  • Winter, 2014-15: 13th percentile
  • Spring, 2016-17: 71st percentile

Map test average results, first grade reading

  • Winter, 2014-15: 12th percentile
  • Spring, 2016-17: 63rd percentile

Even a few years ago, Larson would leave school and sometimes feel like crying all night. Rumors were flying everywhere, and it was difficult overhearing parents and neighbors pile on the latest controversy.

Today, Larson overhears parents spreading news of the blue ribbon and speaking optimistically about the school and what the students are accomplishing.

“For me, it is a dream come true,” Larson said. “I love Horseshoe Bend. I grew up here. This community has been so good to me and I just wanted to come give back. Now, I finally feel good about what I do to support the community.

“School really is center of the community, and when the school is healthy and thriving, then the community is as well,” she continued.

This year marks the second time a school Sullivan teaches at won a blue ribbon. Her previous school in Hawaii won the award after overcoming similar district-level controversies, she said. Sullivan never dreamed she would celebrate a second blue ribbon, but she realized something special was going on a year ago. Last May, Horseshoe Bend students excelled at the Khan Academy math challenge known as LearnStorm Idaho. Horseshoe Bend students were recognized for both mastery (understanding math skills) and hustle (demonstrating perseverance and grit).

Now, Sullivan is so proud of her students that her voice cracks and she almost tears up when talking about how her students performed.

Winning, it seems, is no longer considered an impossible task that only other students achieved.

“It felt like they really pulled off something incredible, and I don’t think those kids will ever forget that,” Sullivan said.

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