Whatever It Takes: School Turnaround Realities

When Principal Roy Sandoval of Arizona’s Alchesay High School says that he and his staff do “whatever it takes” to create a safe and orderly environment for students to learn, he is not kidding around.

“Safe and orderly is number one,” Sandoval recently told an audience at a U.S. Department of Education forum on School Improvement Grant (SIG) implementation. The goal of the Department’s SIG program is to support state and local efforts in turning around the lowest-performing five percent of the nation’s public schools. Arizona’s state education department put Alchesay on its list. That directed extra resources to the school on the Apache reservation in Whiteriver and lured Sandoval to the remote high school in 2010.

Principal Roy Sandoval of Arizona’s Alchesay High School speaks at the Department of Education. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

In the year before Sandoval’s arrival, the school had seen almost 300 drug and alcohol incidents. Students were walking out between periods to buy liquor from “bootleggers” who set up just off campus, then returning to class. Open defiance, open display of gang colors, and fights were commonplace—and the first hill that the new principal and his staff began to climb.

“If you don’t have a safe and orderly environment, if you’re not formidable enough to establish that, then forget it,” Sandoval told the April 26, 2012, gathering of education association representatives and Department of Education staff. “All the innovation you have in the world, all the technology—if you don’t have administrators that are going to shake that place up and make it safe, [real school reform is] not going to happen.”

Also highlighted at the Department’s forum were the school turnaround efforts of the St. Louis (Mo.) Public Schools, where at the district level, an Office of Innovation was created to guide the turnaround work in 11 SIG-supported schools. St. Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams credits his leader of that office, Assistant Superintendent Michael Haggen, for his constancy in tending to the needs of those schools, and in making key adjustments guided by data.

As St. Louis has moved forward, specialized professional development, human resources and accountability coordinators, staff mapping, and continuous review of student and teacher data are components that have been developed specifically to support school improvement. And as Adams and Haggen were quick to note, just improving these 11 schools, so that in a few years they trade places with the 11 schools directly above them in performance, won’t be good enough. St. Louis leadership is working to embed these principles and strategies district-wide.

Coupled with their no-nonsense attitude for improvement, what these two vastly different turnaround endeavors have in common is a genuine and apparent love for kids. For Principal Sandoval in Arizona, a “double-dose” of math and English language arts that he has incorporated has to be provided by instructors who care for their students, who talk with them and connect with them every day.

“You know in my school the job description is: You need to jump in and help on whatever is necessary,” Sandoval said. “Everybody knows that the terminal words for me are ‘it’s not in my job description.’ It’s not? Really? We do whatever it takes. That’s what it takes to turn a school around.”

For more information on the progress in St. Louis and at Alchesay High School, the forum transcript can be found here, and a video of the presentations here. Alchesay’s student media class also produced a short video in which students and teachers describe the transformation of their school.

Karen Stratman-Krusemark 

Karen is the Department’s K-12 Associations Liaison, and a former English teacher and coach.

Oklahoma City Turnaround School is Doing More Than Just OK

Crutcho Elementary School sits on a flood plain near Oklahoma City. One could say its location is a metaphor for the school’s challenges. Just as the school is at risk of flooding, its students are susceptible to the generational poverty that surrounds it.

PencilsThe Oklahoma Department of Education has identified Crutcho as a persistently underperforming school. But when one walks through Crutcho’s halls these days, the attitude is not resignation or complacency, but one of hope and renewal.

“Whatever it takes. No excuses. No exceptions.” These are the school staff’s mottos.

According to Principal Robert Killian and Superintendent Teresa McAfee, everyone understood the importance of receiving the U.S. Department of Education’s School Improvement Grant (SIG).

“The SIG grant gave us an opportunity to establish a relationship with the state that we never had before,” McAfee said.

Crutcho received $973,000 from ED in the 2010-2011 school year, under the SIG transformation model. Since that time, reading and math scores have reached the state median, a huge improvement over results in years past.

The SIG grant has allowed for longer school days, extending learning time to seven and a half hours a day, which in one school year is the equivalent of 206 days of learning compared to the typical 175. The summer school program was extended to five and a half hours a day for six weeks instead of four hours a day for four weeks. Additional reforms include a new schedule that provides more collaboration time for students in grades 3 through 8 who need additional help in certain subject areas.

The reforms also introduced advanced technology to the school. Students have laptops, and there are cameras in every classroom to create video archives of instruction for the teachers’ professional development. Smart boards were added to every classroom so teachers could access the Internet as well as promote interaction, and a data and technology integration coach was brought in to assist teachers in using technology as part of the curriculum.

The school’s change in morale is palpable.

“Kids are starting to believe in themselves,” said School Librarian Donna Rupert.

In addition to the grant, the school has partnered with the local community to help meet the students’ needs, as well as their families’. Wal-Mart helps provide school supplies for the classrooms and a local church gives birthday cakes to every child throughout the year, as well as holiday presents for more than a third of the students.

As a result of these major improvements, more people want their children to attend Crutcho, explained Principal Killian.

“We have seen tremendous growth,” he said.

Click here to read more about turnaround success.

Natalie Torentinos is a graduate student at The George Washington University and an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach.

A Preliminary Progress Report on Turning Around the Lowest-Performing Schools

As Secretary Duncan highlighted earlier this month at the Grad Nation Summit, we are now starting to get preliminary achievement data on the first year of state and local efforts to turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools. The results, while preliminary, are encouraging: A significant share of persistently low-performing schools are seeing substantial gains in student learning in just the first year of the “SIG” program, the shorthand label for the groundbreaking School Improvement Grants initiative.

SIG seeks to accelerate achievement in our nation’s lowest-performing schools through rigorous, comprehensive interventions. Each school gets a three-year grant of up to two million dollars per year. The grants support school leaders, teachers, parents, and community partners to undertake the difficult, demanding, and rewarding work of turning around a chronically low-performing school.

For the first time, the Administration has put serious resources into supporting state and local school turnaround efforts—more than four billion dollars to date. For the first time, federal grants require states and districts to undertake rigorous interventions in chronically low-performing schools. And for the first time, so-called high school “dropout factories”—high schools where graduation is not the norm—are a major target of school turnaround efforts.

Nationwide, about 830 schools were in the first SIG cohort, and roughly 45 percent were high schools. We now have preliminary achievement data from 43 states, covering about 700 of the 830 schools.

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The Hard Work of School Turnarounds—When a Struggling School Becomes a Place Where Students Want to Be

Hammond High School junior Katherine Lopez has seen a big change in teachers’ attitudes since her freshman year at the northwest Indiana school in 2009/10.

“Teachers seem much more involved with students and with what they’re teaching,” she said. “If they love what they’re doing, then we care too.”

When Lopez first arrived at Hammond High, she and other students felt that too many students and teachers were apathetic about education. That apathy contributed to chronically low student achievement and graduation rates at their school, located in the small “Rust Belt” city of Hammond, just east of Chicago.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Snyder joins a freshman English class to hear student presentations during his March 23 visit to Hammond High School in Hammond, Ind.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Snyder joins a freshman English class to hear student presentations during his March 23 visit to Hammond High School in Hammond, Ind.

Those indicators of poor performance are now beginning to reverse—thanks in part to a double dose of help from the U.S. Department of Education in the form of School Improvement Grant and Teacher Incentive Fund  grants, both awarded in 2010.  I had the opportunity to join Jason Snyder, deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education to learn firsthand about the school’s progress during a March 23 visit to the school. The day included chats with state and district administrators, Hammond High teachers and students, as well as classroom visits.

“Our goal here is to learn what’s working and to share those lessons across the country,” said Snyder. “Turnaround is really hard work–and it can’t be done alone.”

What’s changed at Hammond High? It has a dynamic new principal, Leslie Yanders, who was given autonomy to replace more than half of the teachers. The school has new social workers and family liaisons to help support both students and parents in their efforts to overcome social, emotional, and health barriers to academic success. More than 80 percent of students come from low-income families at Hammond High, and families frequently move in and out of the community, adding to the academic challenges of the classroom.

Hammond High instituted another pivotal change, extending the school day by a full hour, enabling students to accelerate learning and get additional instructional support. With the support of the SIG and TIF grants, and under the leadership of Principal Yanders and veteran teachers at the school, teachers now get additional time for collaboration and training, and they have new opportunities for professional growth and performance-based pay.

As part of the more than $70 million that the Indiana Department of Education received from ED in 2010 and 2011 for SIG, Hammond was awarded nearly $6 million with the agreement to make dramatic changes over the course of three years. The school chose to implement the turnaround model, one of four intervention models for SIG grantees. To date, ED has awarded more than $4 billion through the SIG program to help accelerate academic achievement in over 1,200 of the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

Hammond High is also one of 44 Indiana schools participating in the $47 million TIF grant awarded by ED to the state in 2010.  The Teacher Incentive Fund, a five-year federal grant program, supports the development and implementation of performance-based pay systems.

Even though the SIG and TIF grants require teachers to invest more time in their jobs, Hammond teachers see it as a worthwhile effort. “At first, we didn’t want to give up our Saturdays [for professional development], but we all went into it with a common goal of improving attendance and graduation rates,” said Conja Halliburton, chair of Hammond’s special education department.

The early results of that hard work are encouraging.   The school’s graduation rate—just 62.5 percent in 2010—climbed to 74 percent last year.   Attendance has grown to nearly 95 percent—a two percent increase from the previous year.   The percentage of students passing Indiana’s end-of-course assessments in English and Algebra has more than doubled in one year, to nearly 40 percent.  Discipline problems have been reduced by nearly a third.

Hammond administrators recognize that there is still much work to be done to ensure that the short-term improvement under the grants will be sustained for the long haul. Yanders and district administrators are already thinking about how to further propel the school’s progress after the SIG and TIF grants’ funding ends.

“In the end, our teachers will still know what effective instruction is all about,” said Jana Abshire, district turnaround officer.

Snyder agreed that the progress occurring at Hammond High and other SIG schools across the U.S. is not about funding alone. “It’s about transforming schools into places that students and teachers want to be,” he said. Changing school culture is hard work—but the principal, teachers, and students of Hammond High are showing it can be done, working together. Just ask Katherine Lopez.

Julie Ewart is the communications director in ED’s Chicago Regional Office

School Turnarounds Are Succeeding

Secretary Duncan at the Grad Nation Summit

Portland, Ore., Public Schools Superintendent, Carole Smith, DC Public School teacher Mrs. Rose Smith, and DC Public Schools student Daquan Burley join Arne for a panel at the Grad Nation Summit. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

America cannot keep the promise a quality education to every child without ending the cycle of failure in our chronically low-performing schools.

From the early days of the Obama Administration, the President and Secretary Duncan explained that the country could not continue the status quo, with the idea that some schools are merely destined to fail.

“We could not continue to tinker,” Duncan explained earlier today at the Building a Grad Nation Summit in Washington. “[The President] and I believe that dramatic change is needed in low-performing schools.”

The President and Duncan worked with Congress in 2009 to make an unprecedented investment in turning around low-performing schools.

Through ED’s School Improvement Grants (SIG), the Administration dedicated more than $4 billion dollars, that has reached over 1,200 schools. The goal of SIG is to accelerate achievement in our nation’s lowest-performing five percent of schools. The federal grants from ED are just one element in addressing a challenge that requires input and support from school leaders, teachers, unions, and local partners in the community.

Secretary Duncan announced this morning that the preliminary SIG data shows that the program is producing impressive gains in learning.

In year one under the new SIG:

    • Nearly one in four schools saw double digit increases in math proficiency.
    • Roughly one in five schools had double-digit increases in reading proficiency.
    • In nearly 60 percent of SIG schools, the percent of students who were proficient in math or reading went up in the first year.

Duncan noted that the positive results are from the first year of data, and that it will take several years of data to confirm that SIG is making a lasting improvement in academic achievement.

“At the heart of all these successes,” Duncan explained, “are teachers and school leaders who are excited about the prospect of change.” Before joining a panel at the Summit, Duncan closed by reminded those in attendance that, “Children only get one chance at an education,” and that there isn’t time to wait for reform to happen.

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Nevada District Finds Success in Turning Around

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of vising Dilworth STEM Academy for 7th and 8th graders in Sparks, Nevada to meet with Washoe County School District (WCSD) leadership and school staff. This district serves 63,000 and has had amazing success in turning around what just two years ago was an underperforming district. My congratulations go out to 2011 Nevada Superintendent of the Year, Dr. Heath Morrison; Deputy Superintendent Jane Woodburn; and President of the 2011 Nevada School Board of the Year, Ken Grein, and their dedicated partners and staffs. And a special thanks to Principal Tom Wortman of Smithridge Elementary School, Principal Wanda Shakeenab of Sparks High School, and Principal Laura Petersen of Dilworth Middle School who took the time to spend their morning with me.

In Nevada, where the dropout rate is 24 percent above the national average, WCSD’s high school graduation rates in 2009 were below the state average, and the district was in desperate need of help. Dr. Morrison put in place a strategic plan with the goal of getting every child to graduation, supported, in part, by a U.S. Department of Education School Improvement Grant (SIG) and a $9 million Teacher Incentive Fund grant. Despite cuts in funding from the state, Dr. Morrison and his committed team set ambitious goals and began instituting innovative solutions to drive dramatic change.

The district expanded early learning programs, focused on developing a workforce-ready curriculum, and stressed the importance of professional learning communities grounded in student learning data to inform and improve instruction. District leadership also enhanced its teacher evaluation system to better recognize key drivers of student learning.

Partnerships were formed with local colleges and universities to help inform curriculum development and ensure that students graduated ready for college without the need for remedial courses. With the estimated cost of remedial education being $5.6 billion nationwide, these are the kind of efforts we need to ensure that our students are fully prepared to not only get to college but to graduate from college.

Equally as impressive was the work that was done to educate and collaborate with the community. Working with business leaders, parents, and advocacy groups, the district created “Parent University,” with twenty-two organizations to offer over 200 classes to help families help their children succeed.

And the results are staggering. After four years of stagnating graduation rates, the graduation rate in WCSD has increased 14 percent to 70 percent in just two years! Every single school in the district has improved, and the district overall has seen the most growth in graduation rates among black and Hispanic students, as well and English learners.

While we sometimes hear that a focus on outcomes can limit innovative thinking and student engagement, WCSD students are more engaged than ever. The district’s High School Signature Academies serve as hubs for learning, and focus on areas such as health sciences, digital technologies, and sustainable resources. In Nevada, where the unemployment rate is 13 percent, the highest in the country, these academies are providing the skills necessary for the 21st Century workforce. Any 8th grade student can apply to attend these academies, providing students the choice and motivation to challenge themselves and actively engage in learning.

This work is not easy, but it is vital. The district made courageous decisions and formed crucial partnerships to ensure success and their work deserves to be commended. In a state where currently only 1 in 10 high school freshmen go on to graduate from college, WCSD has demonstrated that in the words of Superintendent Morrison, “demography need not be destiny” when it comes to providing a world-class education for all students.

Tony Miller is Deputy Secretary of Education

Springfield, Ohio: ‘We Don’t Let Barriers Get in the Way’

Lincoln Elementary kindergartners enjoy story time with teacher David Wells. Photo courtesy of Springfield City Schools

While Springfield, Ohio schools cope with a growing number of poor families, an achievement gap and a declining population — similar to many other districts nationwide — the community is tackling those challenges head-on.

“We don’t let barriers get in the way of progress,” said Springfield City Schools Superintendent David Estrop.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach Massie Ritsch and I visited Springfield several weeks ago to learn firsthand how Springfield City Schools are working in innovative ways with the community to meet its challenges and to see how federal funding is supporting its progress.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Massie Ritsch reads the promise board at Lincoln Elementary.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach Massie Ritsch reads 5th grade math students’ promises to strive towards high goals at Lincoln Elementary, following the school’s motto to “Be the Promise.” Photo courtesy of Springfield City Schools

Like many cities throughout the Midwest, Springfield has lost manufacturing jobs over the past few decades.  Although NCLB data show a significant achievement gap between Springfield’s children from low-income families—76 percent of its students—educators, parents, elected officials, and students, as well as members of the business and higher education communities, have devoted time and resources to identify problems and build solutions. It’s that arduous effort that seems to have generated real improvement in students’ year-to-year achievement growth, despite the district’s designation under NCLB as not meeting adequate yearly progress.

ED funding plays an important role in several ways:

Keifer Academy is an alternative school for K-12th– graders that was once among the lowest-achieving in the state. The school — which serves Springfield students who are not progressing in traditional environments — has undergone a transformation with help from a $1.65 million federal School Improvement Grant. The grant has enabled Keifer to bring in a new principal, add new staff for more customized support, develop new programs through community partnerships, and increase teacher training.  Early results are promising: the percentage of Keifer 10th graders who are proficient in reading jumped from 23 percent in 2010 to more than 41 percent in 2011.

Awarded a special $718,000 Innovation grant from Ohio’s Race to the Top (RTTT) grant, Springfield is developing a Family Academy that will provide learning opportunities for students and parents, as well as meals, childcare and transportation on weekday evenings. For children, activities will include enrichment projects, tutoring and college readiness courses. Adults will have learning options like GED programs and Clark State Community College classes, as well as social activities such as line-dancing.

Through the district-wide Race to the Top Transformation Team — funded with $160,000 of Springfield’s RTTT allocation from Ohio – a committee of district teachers and administrators work together to analyze student performance issues and make changes to improve.  We had the opportunity to join the team’s discussion of the best practices of the district’s most successful teachers.  Subcommittees reported on the schools they’d visited and identified common threads like “teacher collaboration” to develop improvement strategies throughout the district.

Even though the district applied for, but did not receive, a Promise Neighborhood grant from ED, the district has gone ahead on its own to develop the Lincoln Promise Neighborhood initiative. The effort aims to improve Lincoln Elementary, which serves the district’s poorest students and has posted low achievement scores, while simultaneously addressing the needs of its neighborhood. Through this endeavor — supported by private foundations and some RTTT funds — the school has established new mentoring and tutoring partnerships, after school programs and a summer camp.

Most striking, though, is the philosophy to “Be the Promise” that’s reflected in Lincoln’s staff and students.  Fifth-grade teacher Steven Holliday embodies this emerging culture.

Recently hired from a district where 98 percent of his students were proficient in math, Holliday tackled his new charges’ proficiency levels – just 22 percent last year – with determination.  He inspired his students to ask themselves: “Who are you? 22 percent or 90 percent?” The walls of his classroom are lined with student-written promises to achieve the higher goal, and “77 percent posted proficient scores on a recent assessment,” he told us.

Over the past two years, the seeds for many of the district’s innovative programs – such as the Family Academy – were planted through the collaborative community engagement initiative. The consensus-building process can be painstakingly slow, but Estrop believes community-developed plans will have more long-term value than any quick “magical solution.”

“It’s hard work,” he said, “but we’re building community through the investment in our kids.”

Julie Ewart, Office of Communications and Outreach, Great Lakes Region

Red Jackets On, City Year Supports At-Risk Students

Todd Marsh, center, and several dozen other City Year Cleveland corps members attended Wednesday's forum on community partnerships.

CLEVELAND-You know them immediately by their red coats. And their enthusiasm. They are City Year corps members-young Americans who serve for a year in urban communities throughout the country, including in Cleveland and its public schools.

On Wednesday afternoon, City Year corps members cheered for guests as they arrived at Cleveland’s East Technical High School for a forum featuring Secretary Duncan. On any normal school day, you would find them cheering for 9th graders in the city who are at risk of getting off track and dropping out of school.

City Year just began its second school year of involvement on some of Cleveland’s lowest-performing campuses-five schools this year, all of them undergoing a turnaround funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s School Improvement Grant program. Corps members serve as mentors and tutors to cadres of students whose grades have slipped and who show the indicators of becoming high school dropouts.

City Year focuses on the ABCs-Attendance, Behavior and Coursework. The day for corps members can start as early as 7 a.m., calling students’ homes to make sure their charges will show up for school.

“The first battle is getting kids into the schools,” said Phillip Robinson, executive director of City Year Cleveland and a native of the city. “Then we work on behavior…and coursework.” Last year, Robinson said, Cleveland students supported by City Year saw a 10-point increase in their attendance. Focusing on the non-academic factors that affect school performance “allows the principals and teachers to focus on teaching,” he said.

What City Year is doing in Cleveland is also happening in 20 other cities around the country, including other stops on Secretary Duncan’s “Education and the Economy” tour: Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago.

In exchange for their year of service, corps members receive a $5,550 education award to defray the costs of college or graduate school, plus a modest stipend for living expenses. Funding comes from public sources, including the Department’s School Improvement Grant program and the Corporation for National and Community Service’s AmeriCorps program, as well as contributions from corporations, foundations and individuals. City Year is also a partner in a five-year, $30 million grant from the Department’s Investing in Innovation (i3) program that is focusing on turning around “dropout factories” in 14 school districts. For every $1 in government funding, Robinson said, City Year tries to raise $2 from private sources.

“We’re a higher-yield, low-cost human growth strategy,” he said. Donors are “investing in the transformation” of Cleveland and the other communities where City Year is at work.

Todd Marsh, a 24-year-old Ohio State University graduate who was among the dozens of corps members filling several front rows at Wednesday’s forum, is staying on for a second year with City Year, as a team leader assigned to an academy set up just for 9th graders.

“As much as you’re giving back to a community,” Marsh said, “you’re also developing your own professional and leadership skills.” And developing similar skills-plus others-in those students whom City Year is helping to graduate.

Office of Communications and Outreach

ED and USDA Promote the Value in Rural Partnerships

Land-grant university Cooperative Extension Services can be valuable partners for rural schools, particularly in distant and remote areas where other partnerships are hard to come by.

During a recent webinar, School Improvement Grant (SIG) administrators in state education departments learned more about how the National 4-H and Cooperative Extension programs supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture can help with the national effort to turnaround low-performing schools and end the dropout crisis.

During the webinar, the passion and commitment of Extension directors was evident. North Carolina’s Marshall Smith described how he connects rural teachers and students with the latest research and resources at North Carolina State University. He and other Extension directors throughout the nation are excited by a new partnership that enables them to aggressively leverage the power of the knowledge being developed by their land-grant universities to have greater impact on rural schools.

At the National 4-H Conference in April, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced their shared commitment to support rural school turnarounds and provide solutions to keep students engaged in school.

The Obama Administration has provided unprecedented resources in the form of $4 billion in School Improvement Grants to help states turn around their lowest performing schools, but it recognizes that schools cannot accomplish this difficult work alone. The federal government is not only working with states, but is also engaging with nonprofit and community-based partners to help build school capacity and add programming where needed.

Understanding that nonprofit and community partnerships are limited or nonexistent in some distant and remote rural areas, the Education and Agriculture departments are working together to increase awareness among state education agencies and their SIG schools about resources available through the national 4-H and land-grant university Cooperative Extension programs.

The goal is to increase awareness of the ways 4-H and the Extensions can partner with distant and remote rural schools to create programs that are specific to each school community’s needs, including financial literacy, youth entrepreneurship, STEM and science literacy programs, community engagement, parenting, healthy living, food and nutrition, and other programs that bridge formal and nonformal learning experiences.

To learn more, connect to the ED-USDA webinar materials (.doc).

Talking Educación with Puerto Rican Teachers

Official Department of Education Photo by Leslie Williams

The challenges and opportunities in education were the topics of conversation last Friday, when teacher leaders and administrators from Puerto Rico visited ED to discuss the teaching profession and to meet with ED officials. The educators are in Washington as part of the Pilar Barbosa Education Internship, a month-long program that brings Puerto Rican teachers and administrators to Washington for professional development, workshops and lectures.

Official Department of Education Photo by Leslie Williams

Last week’s stop at ED provided the educators a unique opportunity to engage in a series of conversations with department staff, including José Rico, deputy director of the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for Hispanics and Eric Waldo, deputy chief of staff to Secretary Duncan.

The group went through several rounds of brainstorming sessions to explore and share concerns with Puerto Rico’s education system and to create efforts on what they can do back home with ED programs such as School Improvement Grants (SIG) – which help to turnaround low-performing schools and improve student outcomes. Puerto Rico is about to receive its first SIG funds.

Like many states, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico is faced with a number of economic challenges, which have had significant impacts on education funding. The teachers discussed budget shortfalls as well as the need to fix No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Several of the teachers expressed concern that under NCLB, too many Puerto Rico schools are being labeled failures because of the steep requirements to make adequate yearly progress (AYP). Juan Valentin, an English facilitator explained how being labeled as a failing school under AYP makes the students and staff feel “dumb and stupid, because we can’t pass these tests.”

The teachers also described to ED officials some of the great things about Puerto Rico’s education system, including their hope for the future of Puerto Rico schools and their enthusiasm to be a part of that future. “I am very proud of Puerto Rican teachers,” said one educator. “I think, many times, we are the Superman that we are waiting for.”

Read about the administration’s plan to improve Latino educational development, and learn more about ED’s plan to fix NCLB as well as the President’s task force on Puerto Rico.

Sam Barnett is an intern in the office of Communications and Outreach at the Department of Education

SIG Grant Invested in Teachers, Technology at Rural Turnaround High School

Teachers and administrators in the rural village of DePue, Ill—more than 100 miles southwest of Chicago—are connecting with their colleagues and students in new and exciting ways as they lead the difficult work of turning around academic achievement in their local high school.

Like many who traveled to the this month’s federal 2011 Midwest Regional School Improvement Grant Capacity-Building Conference in Chicago, the DePue School District team is investing heavily in teacher and administrator training to improve instruction. With help from the Department of Education’s School Improvement Grants, they are also deploying the latest technologies to provide students and adults with a new world of learning opportunities.

A teacher at DePue High School uses technology in the classroom

Robert Libka, who leads a transformation team of 10 educators at DePue High School, used Skype to connect with a teacher in Indonesia during a recent professional development workshop. “It was 1 a.m. her time and she was interested enough in our work to log-in,” said Libka, adding that he wants DePue teachers to know their work is important and can have global impact. Technologies such as Skype can improve collaboration for rural educators, and reduce their sense of isolation.

English teacher Mary Flor uses an interactive white board to guide her class of seniors to research on poetry classics. Her students use their laptops to dive deeper into the material than would be possible with only a text book. These new tools are being used to enrich classroom discussions through wireless Internet at school, which is the only online access available to some DePue students.

DePue is also using technology to give its students a head start for college. Many of them are the first in their families to attend college.  It offers college-level coursework to its students online through a partnership with nearby Illinois Valley Community College.

Teacher Tim Stevens uses computer software to help students prepare for the ACT college entrance exam, which is mandatory for all 11th graders in Illinois as a part of its state assessment.  The individually paced instruction has helped some students boost both their scores and their confidence in going on to college.

A transformation is underway at DePue High School – one that is designed to prepare every student for success in college and the career of their choice.

John White is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education

Supporting Rural Schools

Cross-posted from the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) Blog

As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, we in OESE are taking a new approach to working and helping districts build capacity, especially those who serve diverse groups of learners. So, one of our priorities is working specifically with rural schools and communities to ensure they have the appropriate resources and support to address the unique challenges they face.

Photo Credit: Reza Marvashti/The Freelance Star

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a rural school in Colonial Beach, Virginia – specifically, a rural SIG school.  Colonial Beach High School is one of two schools in the Colonial Beach district, and it serves a population of 3,000 citizens. The school received SIG funds last year and they’ve adopted the transformation model to turn around the school, with a lot of support from the district and its superintendent, Dr. Carol Power.

During my visit, I met teachers, saw some classrooms, and spoke with the dedicated School Board and the Lead Turnaround Partners team, which is made up of six educational experts that are working with Colonial Beach to implement the school turnaround process. The school has made some encouraging progress, but what was really interesting for me to see was how Colonial Beach was dealing with some of its challenges as a rural school. For example, the school has only one algebra teacher – that certainly makes it difficult to form a professional learning community at the school! The solution for Colonial Beach has been to use technology to connect teachers to colleagues in other areas.

The Department recognizes that many of our nation’s rural schools face particular challenges like this one, and we are working to provide technical assistance and other forms of support, including our upcoming SIG Conference focused on rural and Native American students, to be held on May 24-25 in Denver. We want to offer a forum for rural educators to build a professional network, to learn from one another, and to celebrate the unique strengths offered by rural communities. I’m interested in learning even more about strategies and successes in rural schools across the country, so I encourage you to share your experiences directly with me at AskDrT@ed.gov.

Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana is Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education for the U.S. Department of Education