Local schools receive important state award

by Joe Nathan
Sun Thisweek
Dakota County Tribune

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.”

This includes district and charter schools in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Farmington, and Lakeville.

Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota commissioner of education, released a list this week of 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 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.

Area schools, listed by area, receiving the honor included:

• Burnsville-Eagan-Savage: Edward Neill Elementary and (for the third time) Gideon Pond Elementary.

• Farmington: Farmington Elementary (recognized for the third time).

• Lakeville: Lake Marion Elementary (recognized for the third time).

• Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan: Deerwood and Greenleaf elementary schools.

A list of all Minnesota schools receiving these federal funds, and their MDE designation, is available here: http://bit.ly/1g1Pd0g.

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

Ben Januschka, principal of Farmington Elementary, told me in a phone interview: “We’re proud of our test scores. We have a ‘State of the School’ discussion at the beginning and end of the year. We firmly believe that the test scores are a byproduct of other things we do. It boils down to the relationships. We work hard to help the child be successful. We try to connect and work closely with parents. A few years ago we developed a diversity committee – again, it’s about developing relationships. Youngsters need at least three significant adult relationships.”

Januschka praised the “very experienced staff that has been very open; teachers constantly are talking with and listening to youngsters.”

John Braun, principal at Lakeville’s Lake Marion Elementary School, which MDE has recognized three times, wrote via email: “I am honored and humbled that our school has been recognized as a Reward School by the Minnesota Department of Education for the third year in a row. This honor is a testament to the hard work of all our students and staff and the tremendous support we receive from our parent community. Our systematic K-5 approach to literacy and math instruction, along with the deep commitment of all our staff to help our students grow academically and socially, has enabled our students to flourish.”

These two 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]. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.