Tracy Poduska has her eye on educational equity.
The Jackson Elementary School principal knows she and her teachers need to track their lowest-achieving students, but this year she has a bit of extra motivation. Jackson Elementary is one of two schools falling below state expectations, and Poduska (like all other Teton County principals) has a detailed school improvement plan.
“You have the data, the facts, the successes you’ve had in the past,” she said. “My take on it was to make it as meaningful as possible.”
School improvement plans are state-mandated documents that principals and administrative staff write based in part on standardized test results from the previous school year. Schools are ranked on achievement, as well as on student growth and educational equity, a measure that compares the growth of the lowest-performing students with that of the highest-performing ones.
The Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees approved the school improvement plans at its Oct. 9 meeting after a presentation at the board workshop by Superintendent Gillian Chapman.
Though the plans are required, district administrators avowed they are crucial to the improvement of each school. Using data from WY-TOPP, the state’s fairly new standardized test system, principals can delve into data at a classroom or student level, giving them detailed insight into which standards may be more difficult for kids.
“I love our assessment,” said Sandra Dudzik, principal of Moran Elementary School and vice principal at Munger Mountain Elementary School. “It tells you exactly what the students did and the grading and the why.”
For Poduska and the administrative team at Munger (the other school not meeting expectations), the school improvement plans are a critical piece of improving their scores on the Wyoming Department of Education Report Card. The state report is what determines whether a school is meeting expectations.
If a school doesn’t meet expectations for two consecutive years, the state sends consultants to help it meet standards. Since WY-TOPP is only two years old, and the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act changed the requirements for schools, no school in Teton County has yet had the state come in, Information Coordinator Charlotte Reynolds said.
To help schools like Jackson and Munger, which scored lower in overall student growth and equity than Jackson, the state provides some tools. WY-TOPP tests students based on end-of-year standards, so not every student may have the skills to excel on it early in the school year. But the state’s interim exams and short, skills-based assessments can give teachers a handle on where students’ abilities are lacking.
“The interim assessment gives practice with the format,” Chapman said. “We aren’t required to do the interim, but it’s good practice.”
Implementing the plans starts with Chapman’s monthly meetings with administrative teams at individual schools, but the principals said much of the work happens in teachers’ professional learning communities. The groups meet weekly to discuss grade-level standards, curriculum and student interventions.
That process played out last year at Jackson Hole Middle School, which did not meet state expectations in the 2017-18 school year but is now doing so.
“When we meet on Mondays, we are diagnosing and troubleshooting,” Principal Matt Hoelscher said. “That weekly meeting brings a common purpose and commitment to the process.”
Even though Hoelscher’s school is meeting expectations this year, he said, the school improvement plan is just as important as it was last year. The “living and breathing” document helps him find ways for the school to continue improving beyond the minimum state requirement.
In writing the improvement plans, the schools set SMART goals, a type of aspiration that creates a plan. For the smaller, outlying schools, the goals focus on how teachers collaborate. Teachers at the larger, central schools in the district are able to meet with the professional learning communities weekly, which helps them plan and monitor students.
For teachers at Moran, Kelly and Alta elementary schools there may not be enough teachers under one roof to create a learning community. In their improvement plans, they have set goals to codify the way the groups work. Because their schools are so small, Dudzik said, they work with teachers from the other schools and meet biweekly.
Teachers at the schools might not be seeing the same problems, but their colleagues may have expertise that proves useful.
“The teachers see extreme value in that,” Dudzik said. “We’re putting in a lot of effort and making it individualized so they can hear support from other outlying principals and teachers.”
No matter an individual school’s situation, whether it has high test scores but fewer opportunities like the outlying schools or a diverse student body with myriad needs like the bigger ones, the school improvement plans are part of the district’s commitment to serving students, Chapman said.
And in the case of Jackson and Munger elementary schools, the plans are the backbone of the effort to bring them up to state requirements, something Chapman anticipates happening.
“Given their plans, we fully expect to see improvement at both Jackson and Munger Mountain,” she said. “They were both very close, and they’ve done a nice job putting their plans in place.”