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AZ: A no-excuses approach to school improvement


Teacher Steve Cooke meets with students in his reading group. At Greenway, children are assigned to reading groups based on readiness. Assigning appropriate level work gives students opportunities for success, which helps build self-confidence and continued growth.

Summary: Amazing things can happen when a school becomes a professional learning community. This district, with ninety percent of its students receiving free or reduced lunch, has made great strides in closing the achievement gap. The data bears this out with students scoring above state averages in reading and math on Arizona's standardized test. Although many educators have concerns about placing too much emphasis on standardized test results, this district uses them to make decisions about curriculum and instruction that is based on solid data and provides teachers with a basis for focused interventions.


It’s a distant memory now, but Steven Cooke recalls a time when he felt solely responsible for the children in his charge at Greenway Elementary School in Bisbee, Arizona. At the same time, the kindergarten and first grade teacher did not hold himself accountable for the learning that occurred in classrooms down the hall. “The teacher world can be isolated,” says Cooke.

That sense of detachment from his colleagues ended when the Bisbee School District embraced the practices of a professional learning community. The classroom doors at Greenway were flung open. All stakeholders would be responsible for student learning. And Cooke found himself working with other teachers to address learning issues. “We’ve knocked down some of those walls,” he states.

District Characteristics
Name: Greenway Elementary School
State: Arizona
Type: Small town
Grades: Pre-k–3
Enrollment: 240
Students per teacher: 15

Enrollment Characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 72%
English language learners: 16%
Students with disabilities: 18%
White: 42%
Black: n.a.
Hispanic: 54%
Asian/Pacific Islander: n.a.
American Indian/Alaska Native: n.a.
Other: n.a.
Source: NCES Common Core of Data

Students ultimately benefited from the new approach, and the data bears this out: In 2006, students who took Arizona’s standardized test scored above state averages in reading and math. The school has also made great strides in closing an achievement gap that existed between Hispanic and non-Hispanic students. Today, notes Cooke, Greenway’s Hispanic students “are scoring as high, and even higher, than our other populations.”

Educators have benefited, too. Expectations for collegiality and collaboration have encouraged teachers to become more reflective about their practice, with the goal of enhanced student achievement always at the fore.

No excuses

Maintaining high expectations for students is not always easy, of course. Greenway is located in a small, poor school district, and nearly ninety percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Then, there’s the language issue. “Being so close to the [Mexican] border, many children in our school are monolingual, especially in kindergarten,” Cooke states.

These issues could be daunting challenges for teachers and students alike, and not addressing them directly could result in lackluster student performance. At Greenway, however, accepting mediocrity is not an option. When it comes to student learning, “we have active control, six hours a day, five days a week, for 180 days a year,” says Principal John Taylor. “We can offer no excuses.”

What Taylor can offer is a school that bases decisions about curriculum and instruction on solid data, along with teachers who can collaborate to provide focused interventions.

Data-based decisions and focused interventions

Many educators have valid concerns about placing too much emphasis on standardized test results. Still, when used appropriately, test data can compel teachers to find innovative ways to help struggling students.

At Greenway, for example, teachers analyze data from the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) to gauge student understanding of a particular content area. “If we look and find that, ‘Wow, as a whole, students in third grade did poorly on their money skills,’ we will then go back and review the money unit,” Cooke explains. “We ask ourselves: What could I have done better? What was missing in this unit?”

Such analysis helps teachers develop “power standards” that target an area in need of improvement. “We then teach it, and teach it well,” says Cooke. When data showed that Hispanic boys’ lagged behind other boys at Greenway, for example, teachers zeroed in and provided tutoring and after-school study sessions. “Our focused interventions help us target those sub groups,” says Taylor.

Those interventions include skills workshops for small groups of students. “We developed a writing assessment and have fine-tuned it over the years,” Cooke states. Teachers use the tool to evaluate how well their students’ work meets state standards. The assessment also provides specific information: Teachers can determine which of their students need help in organizing their thoughts, for instance, and which may need to polish their punctuation skills. “So,” says Cooke, “instead of saying ‘I’m teaching writing’—which is vague—teachers will say, ‘I’m working on punctuation with this group.’”

Reading instruction is equally as focused. Greenway teachers use a variety of measures (see Lessons Learned) to identify students’ early literacy skills. Students are then grouped into three families based on their reading readiness. Two paraprofessionals, a special education teacher, and the classroom teacher meet with those students with the greatest need for improvement. In twenty-minute intervals, students rotate between the teacher and the paraprofessionals to work on specific intensive reading strategies. Students with average reading skills meet with one paraprofessional and the classroom teacher. They also rotate between the teacher and the paraprofessional, and must work on an independent reading activity. Students who read on an advanced level work on advanced reading activities, with guidance from the classroom teacher.

Greenway’s reading families “give kids a place to where they feel secure and confident,” Cooke explains. Grouping children together by their readiness and assigning them appropriate level work gives them “a full hour each day in which they are confident and successful” in reading.

Teamwork and continuous improvement

Teacher collaboration to improve student learning has become a way of life at Greenway. Teachers appreciate it—and so do parents. “Teachers feel responsible for what goes on in their classroom and in other classrooms,” observes Teri Olander, parent and member of the Bisbee PTA. “Everybody takes care of everybody else,” she says.

“We’ve worked really hard to establish a professional learning community,” Cooke states. Maintaining this effort requires continual professional development, which the district willingly provides: One day, every week, students are released early so teachers can meet to “bump heads with one another,” says Cooke. Each meeting is geared to hone teaching and learning. If the week’s focus is math, for example, teachers will convene to review a particular chapter and share ideas on how to help students better grasp the mathematical concepts. “We’re always analyzing and tweaking our strategies,” says Cooke.

“Like all schools, we’re on a constant process of evolution,” adds Taylor. “We’re always moving forward; we’re never satisfied with where we are.”

It’s a process that works. Greenway earned a Title I Distinguished Schools designation in 2006. Taylor admits that, as he wrote about the accomplishments of his students, he was filled with a sense of pride, as well as gratitude for his team of teachers. Any accolades the teachers receive is well deserved, Taylor states. “It’s nice to have someone notice the efforts that have gone into helping our children achieve.”

Benedictine Convent, and other community members, informing them about such things as how the elementary school basketball team is doing. Each student uses a handheld Palm for drafting thoughts during the week, and on Friday, they download for teacher review.

Throughout the year, teachers have developed a variety of language arts activities to hone students' skills. Sixth graders produce a quarterly newspaper, making up questions and conducting interviews about different classroom events. Three times a year on Write Night, pre-k, kindergarten, and first graders author their own books, such as the ever-popular "story of my life” (including scanned-in photos from home) or tales and drawings about favorite animals.

Lessons Learned
  • Use meeting time wisely. Greenway students are released early one day each week so teachers can meet to analyze student work and assessment results. They then share ideas for fine-tuning their instructional approaches. “We try not to discuss things like field trips,” or other ‘administrivia,’ says K-1 teacher Steven Cooke. Instead, the focus is on student learning and how to improve it.
  •   Get specific. Assessment should guide instruction, and the more information teachers can glean from the tests they administer, the better. At Greenway, for example, students take the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) test. Teachers use the results to pinpoint and address students’ specific learning needs. “A student might be decoding just fine, but be lacking in comprehension skills,” Cooke explains. With more specific data, teachers can respond with more focused instruction.
  • Bring in the paraprofessionals! Results from the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) reveal that students at Greenway Elementary School scored above the state averages for reading and math. According to Principal John Taylor, that success can be attributed, in large part, to the paraprofessionals who support classroom teachers. “Paraprofessionals many times are the unsung heroes of student achievement,” Taylor notes. At Greenway, these educators provide “specific, intensive remediation to the most needy student populations.”
  • Tap the talents of caregivers and community members. Schools are not islands unto themselves. Effective schools, like Greenway, learn to canvass the community to identify ways that parents and caregivers can share their expertise with students. “The teachers always make you feel welcome,” says Teri Olander, whose youngest child is in third grade at Greenway. Olander, for example, once helped students plant a garden at the school; members of the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs read to students on a regular basis; and a local dentist visits the school to give each child a dental exam. These activities, and other such collaborations, says Taylor, help students grow, both academically and socially.
  • Eliminate artificial barriers. Just as every effort is made to bring struggling students up to academic standards, it’s equally as important to ensure that gifted children are given appropriately challenging material. Differentiating instruction, therefore, becomes something every teacher needs to learn to do. Establishing reading families, as they did at Greenway, is one way to meet the varied needs of students (see main story). “We don’t want to lose kids, either to boredom or frustration,” says Cooke.
  • Fortunately, that willingness to meet students at their various points of readiness is shared by educators district-wide. When Olander’s daughter needed more challenging math, she was allowed to attend the high school algebra class; the district provided transportation to and from the junior high school. “The whole district is collaborative,” Olander says. “There’s no problem that isn’t figured out by somebody along the way. So my kids feel like they’ll be taken care of at every level.”
  • Pool Parental Support. Bisbee is a small district and parents can be stretched thin if they have children in more than one school, as Olander does. That’s the primary reason the district decided to affiliate with the national Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). “It’s a better way to work with schools,” says Olander. All four of Bisbee’s schools is under one PTA. Pulling resources together just made more sense, Olander states. “It’s much better than trying to stand on your own.”


John Taylor
(520) 432-4361

This story was written by Kathy Checkley, a freelance writer in Austin, Texas. Checkley has more than 12 years experience writing about education issues.

Posted: May 10, 2007

©2007 Center for Public Education

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