Award-winning schools show what’s needed to help students from low-income families

Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan

What does it take to help students from low-income families succeed? One hundred thirty-one Minnesota district and charter public schools have just earned an important state award because they have answers. They have earned the Minnesota Department of Education designation of “reward schools.”

Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota commissioner of education, released information this week showing that Cambridge Intermediate in the Cambridge-Isanti district, Sunrise Elementary in the North Branch district, Lily Lake Elementary in the Stillwater district and St. Croix Prep charter in Stillwater are among the state’s top 15 percent of the 853 Minnesota public schools receiving federal funds to help students from low-income families. These awards were part of a Minnesota Department of Education announcement showing that many of Minnesota’s schools are making progress on statewide tests.

What I heard over and over in talking by phone or email with more than 25 district and charter leaders around the state were:

–Everyone in the school believing that they can make a big difference is vital.

–Success comes in part from regular measurement to see which students are gaining the expected skills and knowledge.

–After assessing students, it’s important to give some students additional assistance. Young people learn at different rates.

–There’s no single best curriculum.

–Many of the most effective schools have found ways to work closely with families.

–It is not necessary to “teach to the test.” A rich, engaging curriculum, plus other strategies mentioned above, helps young people make progress.

A list of all Minnesota schools receiving these federal funds, and their MDE designation, is available here:

Here is some of what I heard from leaders at some of the schools that the Minnesota Department of Education is honoring.

Scott Peterson, principal at Cambridge Intermediate School, explained in a telephone interview that about 40 percent of the school’s students are from low-income families. He thinks the school’s success comes from several things.

“We believe a school can make a big difference. We have academic coaches helping teachers. Student assistance teams meet at least twice a month. Those teams look at data. We focus on specific interventions that are needed to help student needs,” Peterson said. “It’s a second helping of assistance for those who need it.”

Asked if the school is “teaching to the test,” Peterson said: “No. We teach to state standards. If we do that, the students will do well.”

Lori Zimmerman, Sunrise Elementary principal, in an email, listed several factors that she thinks help produce student success:

“Strong partnerships with our Early Childhood Program, that serves 50 percent of the students that enter kindergarten the following year (based on ‘12-‘13 data). Our early childhood teachers and staff have created a program that includes benchmarking of all students three times each year and provides consistent, research-based interventions as a result of the data collected. Our EC teachers fill every moment of the day with developmentally appropriate, rich and rigorous learning. The addition of free, all-day, every-day kindergarten as an option for all students during the ‘13-‘14 school year will allow us to expand this growth in early literacy/numeracy, given previous evidence of greater achievement gains for students in our previous fee-based program.

“Work of Professional Learning Communities focused on data, grade level standards, instructional pacing and best practice techniques, as recommended by instructional coaches, tech integrationists, data coach and additional internal and external supports. Teachers do a lot of working and talking together about students, achievement and expectations. Alignment of curriculum, professional development and QComp goals have helped focus and prioritize this work.

“Increased use of formative assessments, learning targets and rubrics. These strategies are specific and intentional and really provide additional support and direction for students who struggle to understand teacher expectations. As teachers become more clear about the specific learning targets, students better understand exactly what they are supposed to do. As teachers become more specific about the criteria that determine excellence, on track or needs improvement, students can begin to identify where their work falls on the rubric and what they could do to make it better.

“WIN (What I Need) time that is embedded into the day. This method of ‘responding’ to specific data with ‘intervention’ allows more students to receive intensive support when they need it and monitor following the intervention. For the most part, students receiving Title services do so in addition to the grade-level core instruction. This allows our students a ‘second dose’ of instruction during a non-core time to extend and deepen their experience and time on task, as opposed to replacing instruction. Both core instruction and WIN time allow for flexible student grouping based upon the data, so we are working to provide what students need, when they need it, consistently and in addition core.

“A myriad of other programs to support/enrich the elementary experience, including an array of specialist offerings – art, music, phy ed and Spanish in all grades, all coordinated and reported under a rich strategic plan with high accountability for all staff with regard to its implementation,” Zimmerman wrote.

Mark Drommerhausen, principal at Lily Lake Elementary, responded via email: “It is a great honor to have Lily Lake recognized as a Reward School. The entire Lily Lake community should take ownership for this award. Our staff has worked extremely hard to differentiate their instruction so each child can reach their highest learning potential.”

St. Croix Prep in Stillwater received “reward school” status for the third time. The school administration did not respond to a request for comments.

These are among the 131 schools statewide that were given the “reward school” designation. The commissioner also praised 27 schools whose scores previously landed them at the bottom but have now made enough progress to have their low-performing designation removed.

Cassellius told me in a phone call that she hopes to make much more use of the state’s most effective district and charter public schools. This might be, for example, via summer workshops with other schools. That’s a very good idea.

Progress is possible. These schools are helping show how it can be done.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected] 


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