DA Op-ed: Partnerships help a high poverty school beat the odds

By: and | Issue: March, 2019
March 18, 2019

The vast majority of students at Maples Elementary School are English Language Learners (ELLs). Maples, located in Southeast Michigan, has a student population of 675 students. It is one of 34 schools in the Dearborn City School District.

Beginning in 2010, the school underwent a significant transformation from being the lowest performing elementary school—in both the district and the state—to one of the highest performing for high growth/proficiency. In large part, this was due to creating a culture of ownership among staff, parents, and students.

From bottom to top

Maples Elementary School was identified as a low performing school by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) and was on the brink of being on the state take over list. Under new leadership, the school achievement and growth have increased from the 12th percentile rank to the 70th percentile rank on the Top To Bottom state ranking, earned the title of Reward School by MDE for three consecutive years from 2012 to 2014.

In addition Maples was named Champion School by Bridge Magazine, Beating the Odds for outperforming schools with similar demographics by MDE, and continues to implement sustainable and effective practices. Most recently the school received the National Title I distinguished school from the U.S. Department of Education.

In spring of 2017, The Mackinac Center for Public Policy (School Context and Performance Report Card) recognized Maples for outstanding achievement based on three-year look at M-STEP results (2014-1016). The CAP Report Card rates schools for long-term performance over eight years of measured data and highlights improvements made over that time.

Leading change

In 2010, I was an assistant principal at another school in the district when I was asked to take over as principal at Maples and turn it around.

To lead sustainable change, we formed a leadership team and invited them to lay out a plan for improvement. That plan included the following essentials: informed parents/guardians, high expectations for students, a focus on growth toward proficiency, developing a viable curriculum despite the gap between current student performance level and expected performance level, and removing barriers to instruction.

In addition, the staff was engaged in productive data analysis including demographic, achievement/outcome, perception, and process data to develop ownership and a data driven approach to success.

Although student performance was an issue at the school, the average staff seniority was 10-12 years. According to the teaching staff from perception and process data, one of the barriers to success was the lack of consistency and focused leadership.

Despite decline in funding and typical barriers to success, we reconfigured existing budgets and resources to create strong models that focused on student achievement. The school support staff (such as Title I and bilingual resource teachers, Title I highly trained paraprofessionals, special education and other support staff) improved the quality of services that they provided to students. Rather than pulling students out from their classrooms, they shifted to a full push in model that consisted of small group and coteaching, side-by-side with the classroom teacher.

Emphasis on skills

Rather than adopting any branded initiative or program, the staff tailored research best practices to meet the needs of all students. A schoolwide, uninterrupted Maples Literacy Intervention plan (MSLIP) was established. Each day all students receive 35 minutes of reading instruction at their ability level in addition to a 90 minute block of Tier I reading instruction using grade level resources.

Despite decline in funding and typical barriers to success, we reconfigured existing budgets and resources to create strong models that focused on student achievement.

Furthermore, support staff co-taught process writing with classroom teachers. The literacy and math initiatives were implemented consistently starting the first year based on thorough data analysis and staff collaboration in Professional Learning Communities. As a result of the strong literacy and math models, the school has witnessed an increase in standardized assessment in both reading, writing, and math.

Maples students continued to show growth and proficiency from 2011 to 2017 that exceeded those of the district, and the state on local DRA assessment and MSTEP MDE standardized assessment.

Nurturing a positive culture

The administrators worked closely with the teachers to set realistic goals—stressing gradual student growth, not immediate proficiency. Teachers were told that growth was good enough as long as it was on the path to proficiency.

Teachers were empowered by being informed of how accountability was calculated and what metrics were used. While the teacher evaluation model was an accountability tool, it has served as a progressive strategy to help teachers focus on student growth and their own professional development.

Another barrier to success the school community worked on was protecting instructional time from non instructional activities. Office staff collaborated with the parent teacher association and the leadership teams to eliminate classroom interruptions during instructional time including phone calls and pulling students out during instruction. For example, assemblies, school activities, and other events were strategically scheduled as to avoid such distractions.

Students and parents perception of growth and proficiency went through a paradigm shift where parents attended monthly and sometimes weekly workshops on how to help their children at home. Parent education classes reflected the classroom content and teacher expectations of what learning is happening in the classroom. A parent community liaison played a key role in monitoring student progress and attendance along with the administrative team through individualized parent and teacher meetings to address specific needs.

In addition, the parent community liaison translated oral and written communications to insure that no parent was kept uninformed. Teachers were empowered to select and keep programs/initiatives that carried highest leverage for student learning.

The power of creating and sustaining a positive culture and ownership is key to a successful professional learning community. Institutionalizing consistent, systemic, and continuous process in the school promoted teacher retention, positive culture, and high level of parental engagement.

Fatme Faraj was principal of Maples Elementary School from 2010 to 2016, when she became Executive Director of Student Achievement in Dearborn Public Schools.