WILLMAR -- Teams of elementary teachers have been meeting this month and will continue working through July to help develop improvement plans for Willmar's two elementary schools.
This isn't how they normally would spend their summers, a group of them admitted at a Thursday meeting, but they believe their work this summer will benefit students in the fall.
"There's not a doubt in my mind that these teachers are passionate about kids," said Cheryl Nash, the district's director of teaching and learning. "They are delivering top notch instruction to these kids." Nash spoke in an interview in her office this week.
The improvement plans are needed because a new state rating system has listed Roosevelt and Kennedy schools among state schools with some of the largest achievement gaps in the state.
When Minnesota received a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind education law this year, it promised a focus on achievement gaps, with a goal of cutting the gap in half over the next six years.
Under NCLB, schools were working to have all students testing at grade level by 2014. Willmar was making progress on that measure, with more subgroups of students making adequate yearly progress each year.
"Once the state got the waiver, all the rules changed," Nash said.
Kennedy is listed as a Priority School, part of the 5 percent of schools with persistent problems with achievement gaps and student growth. Roosevelt is listed as a Focus School, part of the 10 percent of schools contributing most to the statewide achievement gap. Both schools will have that designation for three years.
Children are getting a good education in Willmar, despite what the new ratings might imply, Nash said. The district has programs to address children at all levels of ability, from special needs children, to those who don't speak English, to gifted and talented students.
The district needs to find new strategies to help struggling students while continuing to offer a wide range of opportunities for all, she said.
Some efforts have started already, though the new plans won't officially be in place until fall.
School officials have begun regular meetings with Somali and Latino parents to discuss cultural issues. They also plan meetings to explain the school improvement process to the community at large, Nash said.
The plans will identify the needs in the elementary schools and provide detailed plans to address those needs and measure the effectiveness of the efforts.
More details will emerge as work on the plans continues. The teachers meeting Thursday discussed the reinstatement of newcomer programs. Budget cuts ended the programs several years ago, but they will be reinstated to help students who come to school speaking no English.
The foundation of the elementary plan will be an effort called Response to Intervention, which focuses on short-term, intense intervention for students who are struggling in class.
Nash said Willmar has a head start on some schools, because some of the data needed had already been collected for an improvement plan the schools had worked on since last fall.
The state's new plan has a different format, but some of the information needed is the same.
Linda Bahe, the dean of students at Kennedy, working with a group of teachers, said the new format is very detailed. "It's not a bad thing," she said, because it should make it easier for the working groups to present their results to the rest of the staff.