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State review: Kennedy Elementary faces challenges, receives praise

WILLMAR — Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar still faces many challenges, but a recent state review also includes a list of the school’s strengths.

Director of Teaching and Learning Cheryl Nash spoke to the Willmar School Board about the review at its Monday meeting.

The state review is the result of Kennedy’s eligibility for a federal School Improvement Grant. The school is midway through its second year-long School Improvement Grant.

The school qualified for the grants based on its low achievement and large achievement gap in test scores a year and a half ago.

The challenges include developing a formal mentoring program for the teaching staff, encouraging a “positive school culture,” and addressing problems with tardiness.

Nash said the same types of issues would apply to Roosevelt Elementary, the district’s other K-5 elementary school.

In its first year of the School Improvement Grant, Kennedy increased its score on state measurements from 9.39 percent to 50.62 percent. The efforts this year are aimed at maintaining the improved scores and building on that success.

Roosevelt had an achievement gap that was among the largest in the state. However, its state score was not as low as Kennedy’s, and the school didn’t qualify for the federal grant. As much as possible, the district has been implementing the same programs and intervention efforts at both schools.

Reviewer Tom Gray from the Minnesota Department of Education visited Kennedy and went through the entire building, Nash said. He spoke with staff members, students and parents.

Gray made several recommendations that will require a written response from the school district, Nash said.

One of the frustrations of the report is that she and other staff members have to postpone other things they are working on to write action plans for the state.

One recommendation was to find ways to ensure consistency in implementing new strategies in classrooms.

It’s important to know that things are being done the same way in each classroom, Nash said. The state wants the district to develop a way of collecting data to ensure consistency in how instruction is delivered.

Another assignment for the school is to get the entire staff involved in building a culture of “improvement and collegial support.”

Nash said the district had already started working with a set of guidelines from the state for improving school culture.

“Communication is a big issue,” she said.

Board member Linda Mathiasen said she thought it was important to have communication go two ways, from administration to staff and from staff to administration.

Gray expressed concern in his review that Kennedy has a new dean of students and a new assistant principal this year, as well as 25 new teachers, while the school needs consistency.

It’s important for a school implementing so many improvement strategies to have a stable staff as much as possible, Nash said.

Gray suggested a formal mentoring program could help support and retain new staff members. Nash also endorsed the idea of a mentoring program.

Other areas of concern include making improvements in the teacher evaluation process, addressing tardiness and working to improve the crowded lunch time schedule.

“Attendance is not a big issue, but tardiness is,” Nash said. Children who are often late to school can fall behind, she added.

Nash, who used to work as a consultant for the state, said she has not often seen a School Improvement Grant review that includes commendations for a school.

So, for Kennedy to receive a list of them was good news for the school. The list included the large increase in scores and the hiring of Somali and Latino liaisons who help the school communicate with minority parents.

“It attests to the dedication of the staff we have in this district; they’ve worked really hard,” she said.

Representatives from Kennedy have been asked to present their story at a conference this spring, to talk about how the school improved its achievement and closed its achievement gap so dramatically last year.

Nash told the board members that she appreciated their commitment to the school turnaround efforts, including sitting in meetings that can last hours.

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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