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Lake School District
No one thing.
It’s often a phrase heard when talking about the difficulty of turning around a low-performing school district. There is not one thing, a single key ingredient or magical fix that can turn around a school. No one knows that better than officials in the Lake County School District, who have endeavored over the past six years to raise the academic performance of the district through extraordinary effort.
“If someone were to ask me how to do it, I would say to them, ‘Take risks. Maybe totally mess things up. Be open,’” said Lake County School District’s Superintendent Wendy Wyman,
Maybe, if there is one thing, it would be persistence.
The Lake turnaround has occurred because of a concentrated effort on many levels: collaborating with the community, working with partners, setting goals, putting out small fires, changing the curriculum, building a new school, revamping hiring practices, adding quality staff, diving into data and sending people to effective training.
Sitting at 10,152 feet, Lake County School District R-1 serves children in the historic mining town of Leadville – the highest incorporated city in the United States.
“Snow is part of life,” district officials tell prospective teachers. “We have nine months of snow. Or, as we like to say, ‘Three months of bad skiing.’”
Leadville is a bedroom community for workers in nearby ski resorts in Eagle and Summit counties. Approximately 70 percent of the town’s population is employed outside of the county and commute daily to work at nearby ski resorts. And about 70 percent of Lake School District’s students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, a poverty indicator. And 35 percent are English language learners.
In 2012, two of the district’s three schools were given “turnaround” designation under the state’s School Performance Framework, which measures academic performance. The district in 2012, 2013 and 2016 landed on the state’s Accountability Clock, a designation for districts not meeting state expectations in achievement, growth and postsecondary readiness.
Last year, however, Lake did something remarkable. Measurement indicators improved so much that the district came off the Accountability Clock, improving two categories from “Priority Improvement” to “Accredited.” Lake County Intermediate School and Lake County High School both received ratings of “performance,” which put them in the highest academic rating a school can receive in the state system.
“We have been working really, really hard. It’s amazing to get all of our schools in the green on the SPF,” said Kate Bartlett, the district’s chief financial officer. “We felt, like, ‘Wow. We are actually doing this in the moment.’ Then it was back to work.”
District growth measurements have been the show stopper. In 2017, the district’s median growth percentile in English language arts was 66.0 – a full 16 points above the state median of 50. Digging into the scores, eighth-graders had a growth rate in the 90th percentile in English language arts. Math was similarly good with the district’s growth percentile at 61, 11 points above the state median. Lake’s Hispanic students were at the 60th percentile, 14 points above the state, in math.
“We know we are not there yet,” Bartlett said. “Our growth has been amazing. But our proficiency (on state tests) is still pretty low. Our kids are growing more than a year’s time. But we want 80 percent of our kids to be proficient in CMAS, and we’re not there yet.”
Perhaps, the most important first step to the turnaround was hiring Wyman in 2012 as superintendent, Bartlett said. Wyman, a former elementary school principal from Jefferson County School District, began working with the school board and community organizations to develop a new vision for the district.
It was one based on improving student outcomes, to making sure every child gets a chance at success. Bartlett compares the district’s improvement efforts to following Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. First, take care of the physiological needs. Then address the needs for safety, love and esteem to finally get to self-actualization.
For Lake, the first step was to fix its crumbling infrastructure. The high school was falling apart. Copiers didn’t work. Emails wouldn’t go through. A big capital investment was needed in the district where the per capita income is only $26,694, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The district needed to pass a construction bond, and the community needed convincing. The county was notoriously resistant to passing mill levy overrides or school construction bonds. But Wyman sought to explain the problem and listen to the community. The board of education was on her side. Wyman had discussions with more than 25 organizations, parents, voters and community members.
“She had a vision of where she wanted to take the district,” Bartlett said about Wyman. “The thing about Wendy is she is this incredible combination of the warmest, kindest person with a steel-like skeleton. Underneath all of that is this driven, willing-to-make-the-hard decisions, tough person.”
“I would tell them the problems then I would ask, ‘what do you think?’” Wyman said. “And then we would just listen.”
Sixty-seven percent of the county’s voters approved the $11.4 million bond that was able to be used for matching money for a $15.1 million BEST grant from CDE to build a new high school. The bond money also enabled the district to apply for other BEST money to fix the middle school roof and add a new gymnasium floor.
School officials also focused on basic health needs of the students. It obtained a healthy schools grant, created a school-based health center, brought in dental and behavior health services. And in 2016, Lake County Intermediate School received governor’s platinum award for the state’s healthiest school.
Next step for the district’s path to success was to look for partnerships. Wyman met Mary Seawell, a former board chair of the Denver Board of Education who is now senior vice president for education at the Gates Family Foundation, a Denver-based philanthropic organization that makes statewide investments to improve the quality of life in Colorado.
Seawell, who had worked on Denver’s school issues, helped put Wyman in touch with organizations that could help Lake’s turnaround effort.
“When we started working with Lake County, we definitely thought there were some foundational elements that we felt would produce success,” Seawell said. “They are pretty simple. One was a board and a board chair who wanted to focus on outcomes. That is not common in rural districts. Then, the superintendent was great with teachers and also wanted to focus on outcomes.”
Typically, student-centered instructional models like Montessori, Core Knowledge and Expeditionary Learning are deployed in schools that serve wealthier students. Rural schools rarely have the funding or capacity to implement those types of programs. However, Leadville is in the middle of the Rocky Mountains and in the center of an actual outdoor playground.
Outward Bound, the leading provider of experiential and outdoor education programs, has an office in Leadville and also co-founded the Expeditionary Learning model.
Working with the Gates Family Foundation, the district and the school board chose to bring on Expeditionary Learning as its district-wide instructional model, which teaches students through “learning expeditions” rather than sitting in classrooms. The Expeditionary Learning curriculum is used in English language arts for kindergarten through eighth grade and aspects of the model are used in other areas across the district. For a community whose workers are employed at ski resorts, a tremendous disconnect is occurring, because most of the workers are in the service industry and not connected to the winter sports.
Wyman and others in district leadership wanted to help students experience the vibrant outdoor life around them.
“The curriculum really spoke to the dynamic approach to learning, of putting students at the center of their learning,” said Cheryl Talbot, the district’s math dean. “Students become more connected to their community, asking, ‘What can I learn from the standards and how can I link that to my community?’”
Every school day features a “crew meeting,” when students work with other students and a teacher to develop culture, work on character development or monitor academic progress. The idea is born out of the saying, “We are all crew. There are no passengers.”
“It’s a time of the day when you connect with other students and a teacher,” Wyman said. “You work with your crew to develop good habits. It can be a check-in about grades or an assignment. It’s a time when kids can work on their Individual Career and Academic Plans. School research says kids need to have a connection with a significant adult in school. The idea is the crew leader is that person.”
Staff members and even the school board follow the model, having regular meetings that start with a reading, discussion about what it means or activities called energizers or initiatives. These activities involve everyone in the room including the public and create a stronger bond among Board Members and with the community. In the schools, teachers work with principals and academic deans who give them constant feedback. And principals and academic deans are in the classroom regularly or are looking together with the teacher at student data.
“Years ago, you wouldn’t dare step into someone else’s classroom,” Talbot said. “Now, it’s acceptable. We have coaches who go in regularly, and provide constant feedback. It’s the philosophy that we’re all in this together.”
The district also focused on working to improve existing teachers and leaders and making sure the right new ones get hired. In 2013-14, 40 percent of the educators left. The district hired a consultant to help them figure out why people were leaving.
“We did a lot of listening and it wasn’t fun, but it helped us realize who was being successful in our system and how we could attract and support,” said Bartlett, the district’s CFO. Teachers said they wanted a “high-performing, supportive leader in the school.” And the hiring staff realized they needed new hires to understand the difficulties they could face if they came to work in Leadville.
“We had to have the ‘Leadville talk,’” Bartlett said. Leadville has no movie theater, no Target and no Starbucks. It is cold, high and the district is in a turnaround effort.
“Facing the brutal facts of our current reality was the first step in reshaping our human capital strategy,” Bartlett said in a PowerPoint discussion. “But the second was retaining faith that, no matter what challenges we faced, the work we were doing was the right work and that our district was a great place to work.”
“First thing is you form a vision about what your hopes are,” Wyman said. “Our vision was we wanted to have an engaging learning environment where kids are truly engaged and prepared for college or careers.”
Then you start finding organizations with programs that will help you achieve those goals, she said.
She also had a forward-thinking board that was aligned with her nearly every step of the way.
Expeditionary Learning has worked to help the district fine tune its curriculum. The Achievement Network has taught the district’s leaders and teachers how to effectively use real-time student data. CDE’s Turnaround Network continues to help the district implement changes, and the Relay Graduate School of Education in New York City has helped the district learn how to coach teachers and create a growth mindset.
“One thing we are hoping to be able to share with other districts is how to prioritize and thus accelerate the process,” Wyman said. “ If we had it to do over again, I think we could do it faster and we hope to share some lessons learned with other school districts. At the same time, we recognize we still have our work to do.
“It’s really been the Wendy revolution,” said Nicole Monet, CDE turnaround support manager. “She is very intentional in everything she does. It’s been Wendy supporting that fine balance between support and accountability.”
But Wyman is building a program that can function without her, even writing a playbook on how to get it done for when her contract ends.
“The parts you can replicate are the instructional expectations, the laser-like focus on standards and coaching,” Monet said. “Those are strategies others can do. They hold it tight. At the end of the day, it is a lot of work. But it’s having that commitment to continue even when it is hard.”