For her leadership in the areas of teacher quality and educational equity and reform, the Learning First Alliance has named Stanford professor and accomplished author Linda Darling-Hammond as our 2013 Education Visionary Award winner.
Going the Distance
Story posted August 20, 2009
• In 2008, 73% of students met or exceeded state proficiency standards in mathematics, up from 35% in 2004 (statewide proficiency rose only 4% over that time)
• Reading proficiency increased 19% between 2004 and 2008 (statewide proficiency saw only slight improvement over that time)
Even before the advent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Mountain View Elementary was cast as a struggling school. In 2000, only about 20 percent of the Title I school’s third-graders read at grade level. “It was our highest need school in the sense of the highest poverty rate, a very high mobility rate, and very low student performance,” remembers Carol Comeau, who became Anchorage School District’s superintendent that year. “Even though they worked really, really hard, it was just a low-performing school overall.”
In the infancy of NCLB, Mountain View continued to post some of the district’s lowest scores and was labeled “in need of improvement” after not making adequate yearly progress (AYP) for two consecutive years. But, change was afoot in this older one-story building. A charismatic leader, committed staff, additional district and federal funding, and an emphasis on direct instruction in reading helped the school start turning around.
Reading proficiency went from 29 percentage points below the state average in 2003–2004 to 8 points below in 2005–2006. While the school has given up some of those gains since, scores were still 19 percentage points higher in 2007–2008 than four years before. In math, Mountain View more than doubled its proficiency rate in that same four-year period, going from 31 percentage points below the state average to three points above it in 2007–2008.
The gains catapulted Mountain View into the ranks of schools making AYP for three consecutive years—a remarkable achievement for one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the state. More than 40 percent of the students receive English as a Second Language services. A huge number of Hmong students fill Mountain View’s desks, along with Alaska natives, Pacific Islanders, Samoans, Hispanics, African Americans, and multiethnic youngsters. In 2007–2008, only 19 of 210 students were identified as Caucasian.
Although the K–6 school barely missed the AYP mark last year, it no longer carries the stigma of its past.
Ask what made the difference at Mountain View and the answer is likely to be Roger LeBlanc. A United States Air Force veteran—and current Major in the Alaska Air National Guard—he brought a single-minded focus and strict discipline to the new battlefield of Mountain View. Arriving in 2001 for what was his first principalship, LeBlanc found the school mired in a stereotype. “It had been underperforming for so long that it had become the norm,” he says. “It wasn’t so much that there weren’t good teachers, they just needed someone with an untainted view to spearhead what needed to be done in order to provide the best education for the children.”
Third-grade teacher Paula Mariscal had been at the school for three years before the change in leadership. “Roger was a take-charge kind of leader … with a single-minded goal of bringing scores up,” she recalls. “He reminded me of my own father, who was in the military: ‘You’re going to do it my way, or the highway.’ That’s not insulting. In any military family that’s just how it is.”
Reading coach Patricia Jackson also describes LeBlanc as a “very strong, no-nonsense leader” with clear expectations. “He never said ‘if you don’t want to do this, leave.’ But, we all knew if we weren’t going to, then we needed to move on somewhere else,” says Jackson. Although about a third of the staff turned over when LeBlanc arrived, the remaining faculty didn’t balk at the new regime. “There was a lot of excitement, especially in the people who had been here before,” Jackson remarks. “They were hungry for good strong leadership and they got right on board. We started to see results almost immediately with the kids.”
Improvements everyone can see
Making highly visible, “quick-win” improvements is one of the hallmarks of school turnarounds. At Mountain View an all-out commitment to the Reading Mastery curriculum was largely responsible for those wins. The switch to the direct instruction program preceded LeBlanc, but the school was experiencing varying degrees of success with the adoption. Under LeBlanc, all resources were concentrated on making it work.
Although no other Anchorage school had adopted Reading Mastery for all primary grades, it proved to be the perfect fit for Mountain View’s polyglot student body.
Intensive training helped teachers implement the program with fidelity. LeBlanc comments that “outside professionals came in to work with the staff, but not just for one- or two-day inservices. We had them for the entire first two years of the program, so teachers had experts available all the time, every day, to help them through the process.” Extra funds from the district helped pay for that expertise, and LeBlanc also received moral support from the district’s director of elementary education, Patricia MacRae, who had a strong background in Reading Mastery and in using data to improve student achievement.
Mountain View’s master schedule was overhauled to allow for two and a half hours of reading instruction, including a 90-minute block in the morning where students “walk to read” at their instructional level. Pull-outs for gym, library, art, and music were scheduled at the same time for all students in a single grade level so their teachers could meet once a week during the school day. “Roger insisted we take notes at our meetings, which really helped focus us,” says Mariscal, “and the focus was always going to be reading.” Bimonthly all-staff meetings also centered on reading instruction.
Another change was the shift to data-driven instruction. “We started doing DIBELS the first year,” says Jackson, “though we joke now that we were admiring the data and not analyzing it.” As teachers became more adept at mining the data and targeting their classroom practice accordingly, they saw student progress jump. Improvements were visible as early as the second semester of LeBlanc’s first year.
Jackson recalls how students would stop her in the hallway and ask for help with projects they were working on. “If they’re stuck, I’ll always say ‘read the directions.’ Now, even the little first-graders can and that wasn’t the case when I first got here,” she says. “It always brings a smile to my face, reflecting back on how far we’ve come.”
Reading wasn’t the only subject to see gains. The skills picked up in Reading Mastery spilled over into writing and math. “As kids and teachers started to see and experience success in one thing, it transitioned into others,” says LeBlanc. The same approach to professional development and scheduling for reading found its way into different core areas.
With students and staff motivated and excited about the changes at Mountain View, the next challenge was getting parent buy-in. LeBlanc acknowledges that was one of the hardest pieces, not only because of communication barriers but also because of low expectations. “Parents had sort of settled for what they were getting at the school,” says LeBlanc. “We had to recreate that sense of need and the fact that they, too, were valuable in what we were trying to do for their children.”
With 27 different languages represented at the school—and many parents who did not speak English—Mountain View relied heavily on translators at open houses and conferences. LeBlanc went door to door in the neighborhood—“pounding the pavement and being visible”—so parents had a face to attach to the school. And, he showed up at local community centers and churches.
A program called Second Cup of Coffee drew parents inside Mountain View. Every two weeks, the school offered coffee and a chance to drop in on the principal for an informal chat. A parent resource coordinator hosted videos on job training and interview skills, which morphed into a Parent University. With grant funds, LeBlanc paid classroom teachers to extend their lessons to students’ parents at night, offering instruction in reading and speaking English. Local businesses and organizations stepped up and provided courses in finance, earthquake safety, and first aid. “We hosted a lot of events—math nights, multicultural fairs, Saturday school—and built relationships that way,” says LeBlanc. “We were able to sell them on some of the things we were doing as a school.”
Another piece of the improvement picture—then and now—has been a robust 21st Century Community Learning Center, which is in its ninth year. Five days a week, the after-school program serves more than 100 students a day with two hours of homework help, academics, and enrichment. “Students are teacher-referred for academic, social, or behavioral needs,” explains Director Denielle Baldwin. Her staff of 13 includes a dozen of the school’s daytime personnel, including eight certificated teachers and two bilingual tutors.
In a fall 2008 survey, 98 percent of students reported that they were doing better in school since coming to the afterschool program. Both assessment scores and testimonials bear that out. A sixth-grade bilingual student comments, “My parents appreciate that I am learning better ways in math … and it’s not confusing to read.” Another child says, “My dad wants me to be better at math than he is. He did not get to finish school in his country and he really doesn’t know math a lot. He says this program will change my life for the better.”
A teacher credits the extra reinforcement in the after-school program with helping a monolingual kindergartner make substantial progress. She says, “He was very uncomfortable in the classroom setting because he spoke very little English and didn’t recognize any familiar faces. He was so determined to leave that he bolted out of the [class]room and into the street right in front of a passing car. It took three teachers to calm him down. Now, this student displays so much more confidence. He speaks English like you wouldn’t believe, follows directions, [and] tries really hard to be successful with his work.”
The mission of boosting student success that Roger LeBlanc tackled in 2001 now falls to Chris Woodward. He took over as Mountain View’s principal last year, after turning around two Yupik schools in the Alaska bush and guiding them to AYP. LeBlanc moved to Fairview Elementary, another troubled Title I school where he felt he could make a difference. Using the analogy of a relay race, LeBlanc says that after seven years he was ready to pass the baton. “I’m not the finisher of the race,” he reflects. “My job was to run some leg in between.”
Woodward faces perhaps a tougher challenge: building on progress rather than building from the ground up. “That’s a much easier task to take a school that’s very low performing and fix it, because pretty much anything you do is going to be a change for the positive,” he says. “Here, I’ve got to try to make changes that will keep us moving upward but also sustain the things that are in place. I’m looking to see where we can still make improvements because even if you’ve made AYP 100 years in a row, there’s still going to be room for improvement.”
While striving for improvements, Woodward faces a rapidly expanding population and growing numbers of ELL students. Mountain View’s enrollment shot up to 450 this year—an increase of 100 students—and the bilingual rate climbed to about 75 percent. Hmong families continue to pour into the neighborhood surrounding the school, some coming from Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand while others resettle from communities in California, Minnesota, Arkansas, and Wisconsin. Reading Mastery continues to serve these newly arrived students well, while the school is now using the district’s standard Houghton Mifflin curriculum for grades 4–6. Teacher collaboration, staff professional development, data-driven instruction, and parent involvement remain a key part of the school’s culture.
In the race toward student achievement, Mountain View has come a long way from its starting position in the back of the pack. Now it’s moved toward the middle, but there’s still plenty of hard work ahead to reach the top finishers.
For additional information, please contact:
Principal, Mountain View Elementary
Former Principal, Mountain View Elementary (Current Principal, Fairview Elementary)
Photos by David Predeger
Copyright © 2009, Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.
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