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It’s a day of celebration at Kennedy Elementary

Dave Rudie, right, who has taught third-grade for 24 years, said he had no idea about the A Day Made Better award until he heard his name chanted in the hallway. Students flock around him Tuesday as he’s honored. Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf

WILLMAR — It was a day of celebration Tuesday at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar.

At an early morning staff meeting, Principal Todd Goggleye told the staff that the school had made remarkable progress in its annual state rankings. Kennedy had an increase of more than 40 percentage points for a building that was among the lowest-ranked schools in the state a year ago.

Later in the morning, the school’s third-graders lined a second-floor hallway to let teacher Dave Rudie know that something big was about to happen. The students chanted, “Rudie! Rudie!” as his wife Carla came down the hall with a group of school officials and Office Max representatives bearing gifts of appreciation from the company.

The day started with an emergency staff meeting called by Goggleye. State test results were released Tuesday morning.

“I need to let you guys know how proud I am of you,” he said in a voice thick with emotion.

Kennedy’s scores rose more than 40 percentage points in the past year, from 9.39 percent to 50.62 percent.

On the 75-point scale for student achievement, student growth and achievement gap reduction, the school’s score increased from 7 points to 38 points.

The school staff implemented broad changes in how they approached teaching in the past year.

Teachers participated in Professional Learning Communities to study data and to discuss teaching practices. Interventionists were hired to help provide small group instruction for students. Last year, interventionists worked on reading. This year, a second group has been hired to work on math.

After last year’s scores, Kennedy was classified a Priority School, among the 5 percent lowest-performing in the state. The school received a federal School Improvement Grant, which helped pay for instructional coaches and administrators to implement a turnaround plan.

“I’m extremely proud of what you guys have done,” Goggleye said. “Change isn’t easy; you have bought in to what I asked you to do.”

Goggleye said the school reduced its achievement gap, a primary goal statewide.

“We’re going to celebrate all week,” he said. “It’s homecoming.”

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard attended the staff meeting, along with Willmar School Board members and other administrators.

“It says a lot about your commitment and Todd’s commitment that we’re here today,” Kjergaard said. “You’re making a difference. Thank you.”

The teachers gathered in the cafeteria for cake and to talk about their accomplishments. The rise in scores was a pleasant surprise for teachers.

“We worked so hard last year,” said Ellie Brunner, a fifth-grade teacher. “We were hoping for these results.”

So what made the difference? The teachers had some ideas.

“I think we probably studied data a lot more, and we had time to work as a team,” said Courtney Lee, another fifth-grade teacher. “We pushed all the kids,” she added.

“Another positive was there was a real sense of everybody being in it together,” said Angie Michelson, a fifth-grade teacher.

The staff was open to trying new things, too, said Kari Eckhoff, another fifth-grade teacher.

The teachers said they knew the announcement Tuesday morning would be important, because a Professional Learning Communities meeting was cancelled for it. The teachers agreed that the meetings had made a big difference in their work.

Cathy Horning, who teaches music, said she thought interventionists had contributed to the change, because of the difference made “when you have more people helping.”

After the celebration, Kennedy staff and students settled into their day. The third-graders weren’t done with the excitement yet.

Rudie, who has taught third-grade for 24 years, said he had no idea about the A Day Made Better award until he heard his name chanted in the hallway.

Office Max surprised teachers across the country at the same time on Tuesday. The award includes a new office chair and a large box filled with more than $1,000 worth of office and classroom supplies, including a new camera and a Kindle Fire.

The award is a way for the company to show its appreciation for teachers, said store manager Jason Darger.

Each store gives an award to a teacher in the area it serves, said Sandy Wersal, a supervisor in the Willmar store.

Rudie accepted congratulations fairly quickly. “We gotta get back to math,” he said, as he sent his students back to their seats. “I know you’re real excited; I was excited too, but we’ve got to work on this.”

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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