School board reviews plans to improve math instruction

WILLMAR -- Willmar Public Schools teachers and administrators hope that their efforts to find better ways of teaching math to certain groups of students will benefit all students.

WILLMAR -- Willmar Public Schools teachers and administrators hope that their efforts to find better ways of teaching math to certain groups of students will benefit all students.

The School Board approved two improvement plans Monday evening. Both outline the district's efforts to improve math instruction to groups of students that did not meet goals in state standardized tests taken last spring.

Because the district as a whole and Lincoln Elementary School had groups that did not meet goals in math, improvement plans must be submitted to the state.

The testing and the improvement plans are part of the federal No Child Left Behind education law, which seeks to have every student in the nation working at grade level by the 2013-2014 school year. State testing goals will increase each year until then.

The school district met state goals in 37 of 38 categories last spring, said Danith Clausen, director of curriculum and instruction.


However, students who have limited English proficiency did not meet goals in math. Many of the students not meeting goals were in the Junior High and Senior High. The district met standards in all other areas, including attendance, graduation rate, number of students taking the test, and scores in reading and math for other groups of students.

According to the state's 2007 school report card for Willmar, the district has about 501 students with limited English -- 12 percent of its 4,177 student body.

At Lincoln, two groups -- Hispanic students and low-income students -- did not meet state goals in math. On its state report card, the school is listed as having 326 students. Hispanic students make up 38 percent of the student body, about 124 students. More than half of the school's students, 56 percent or 183 students, come from families that qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

Committees of teachers, administrators and people from the community worked on the district and Lincoln plans.

"The things we discussed and the things we have in this plan are things we were planning on doing anyway," Clausen said.

The district's plan will focus on using test data to target students' needs, searching for the best ways to teach students with limited English and finding ways to involve their families and the community in students' education.

Lincoln's plan includes teacher workshops that focus on better ways to present the curriculum to students. Staff members are also reading and discussing books on math instruction and on understanding poverty, said Principal Beckie Simenson.

The plan includes some ideas for getting the community involved. A new activity to start next year will be Manic Monday Morning Math. As students come into the school on Monday mornings, "we will have parent volunteers there to teach them math games," she said.


Clausen and Simenson said they believe that the additional staff training and other efforts will benefit all students, not only those in the targeted groups.

The improvement plans come with a price tag to the district's Title I budget. Title I funding is used to help at-risk students with math and reading.

The district received about $780,000 for use in the district this year, Linda Nitchals, the Title I coordinator, said Monday evening. Title I funds have been reduced in each of the past few years.

The district must set aside 10 percent, about $78,000, to pay for its improvement plan. Lincoln must set aside $13,000, 10 percent of its allotment, to pay for its plan.

The loss of Title I funding means less "direct instruction" for struggling students. But Nitchals said she believes the reason for using Title I funding is to try to improve instruction for all students.

"They really are trying to use this money to help these students," she said.

Board members had a number of questions before they voted to approve the plans.

Board member Shawn Mueske wanted to know if the math tests had story problems. Yes, they do, Clausen said, and they require students to explain how they arrived at their answers.


"It's not just computation," she said. "We have lots of concern for vocabulary. We know that's a barrier for students; even if they can do the math, they have trouble working through the vocabulary."

Superintendent Kathy Leedom said the district is always searching for schools that have found effective ways of working with students with limited English proficiency. A nationally known consultant will be in Willmar today and Wednesday to work with secondary teachers.

Board member Brad Schmidt wanted to know if the work of developing the plans has been worthwhile.

Many educators have concerns about the federal law, Clausen said, but she likes the way it can highlight learning gaps.

"It shows where we're not being as successful as we want to be, but we already knew that," she said.

Several board members called the law's ultimate goal of proficiency by 2014 unrealistic.

"This doesn't sound like something we can succeed at," Unger said.

"But we can get better, and that is our goal," Clausen said. "The punitive part is the hard part to swallow."


If the improvement plans do not help the district reach goals in the coming years, the district might have to provide tutoring services, using more Title I funding.

Lincoln was required to offer the choice of transferring to another school to all the families with children in the school. Simenson said two families decided to transfer. She said her talks with those parents were "good conversations."

What To Read Next
Get Local