‘Place-based’ Work is Transforming Rural Kentucky So Students Don’t Have to Leave to Succeed

Cross-posted from Community of Practice.

While Sherry Scott was growing up in rural eastern Kentucky, she didn’t know a single person who went to college, and thought she had zero chances of ever doing so herself. When she was 13 years-old, Scott’s family left the impoverished area for better opportunities.

Community Solutions Pic

Megan Ward of Berea College’s Partners for Education staff helps a child use art to learn good tooth-brushing techniques, part of a collaborative effort between of the Jackson County Community Early Childhood Council and Berea College Promise Neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Beth Dotson Brown, Partners for Education at Berea College.

She went on to earn a master’s degree and now has a role in wide-spread efforts to transform the Appalachian region into one that holds promise for its families. Scott heads the Partners for Education team at Berea College, the lead applicant and now the lead agency for local efforts under several federal “place-based” programs, including Promise Neighborhoods, Performance Partnership Pilots and Full Service Community Schools. Through place-based programs, ED and federal partners work hand-in-hand with contacts in distressed communities throughout the U.S. to help them progress in education, as well as health, employment, safety and other interwoven factors that impact quality of life.

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Michigan Districts Team Up to Keep Kids from Falling Through Cracks

Mason Public Schools teacher provides math instruction. (Photo courtesy of Ingham Intermediate School District)

Mason Public Schools teacher provides math instruction. (Photo courtesy of Ingham Intermediate School District)

Educator Narda Murphy has taught an array of students over 30-plus years, from preschoolers to youth who were incarcerated.

Some of the latter “were very bright individuals who just learned differently,” said Murphy, superintendent and curriculum director of Williamston Community Schools in central Michigan. “There hadn’t been meaningful processes in place to reach these students, so they became disconnected. They became ‘throw-aways’ of the traditional school system. It made me want to go back to K-12 to find better ways to reach non-traditional learners as early as possible.”

On a Saturday six years ago, Murphy joined fellow superintendents from twelve districts throughout the Ingham Intermediate School District service area to make a crucial decision for all students:   They agreed to pool $11.7 million of federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to build a system that would help teachers meet students’ individual needs. With an initial goal of addressing barriers to early literacy, Ingham’s Multi-Tiered System of Supports, is based on statewide systems in Massachusetts and Florida.

“Each district could have gotten its share of the funding to use for its own purposes, but we instead saw this as an opportunity to all move forward together. We took the approach that we’re all accountable for all students’ success,” said former Ingham ISD Superintendent Stan Kogut, who recently retired after ten years. Ingham ISD’s new superintendent, Scott Koenigsknecht supports MTSS and continues to work with local districts on its implementation.

Serving a diverse student population in urban, suburban and rural settings – some affluent and some poor – the system has shown across-the-board progress. Since establishing MTSS, the participating districts’ overall percentage of 3rd graders proficient in reading has increased 10 percent, and low-income, minority and special education students have all shown significant gains. Students’ early boosts have continued as they’ve progressed toward middle school: The percentages of 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders proficient in reading all posted increases from 2009-2013, ranging from three to 15 percent.

“If students are not performing at grade level or if they’re slipping behind, this system lets us see specifically what they need to improve,” said Murphy. Through collaborative training opportunities, educators serving 44,000 students throughout the twelve districts are now “speaking the same language.”

“Just think of the power of all of those educators, working together, helping each other and building on the same structure from year to year,” she said.

Kogut agreed that building consensus and infrastructures, and implementing aligned training throughout the county’s districts have been key to the system’s success. Previously, professional development had often been akin to a “flavor of the month,” with narrow focuses that only helped small groups of educators in single districts for a time before dying out, he said.

Today, “teachers can walk into other teachers’ classrooms throughout our service area and see them doing some of the same practices,” and work together to “build everyone’s capacity for using different ways to teach,” said Kogut. “This is a long-term journey. When a student doesn’t succeed, we can’t just toss up our hands and say that it’s a teacher’s fault or a principal’s fault. Everyone is responsible.”

Students’ individual needs met early

Melissa Usiak saw a need for a system like MTSS when she was first hired by Holt Public Schools seven years ago. She’s currently the principal at Holt’s Sycamore Elementary, where about 60 percent of the school’s students are eligible for free or reduced rate lunches.

“We were desperate for a more effective core literacy curriculum as well as systems to collect data and intervene early. More and more of our students were coming from impoverished homes. Some children were entering kindergarten already a year or two behind classmates.” said Usiak, citing research that connects common by-products of poverty like poor nutrition and decreased exposures to text and vocabulary to low brain development.

A 13-year educator at Sycamore, Kathleen Kish provides extra academic support in reading and math to struggling Sycamore students as an academic interventionist, a position created through as part of the MTSS. Kish has seen striking changes since 2009.

“We were teaching everything in isolation, before. The big thing that happened with MTSS is that we started to look at how we teach. We looked at the data, started to use it to guide instruction, and we found that kids were way more capable than we thought,” said Kish.

“For example, I’m helping a student with a cognitive impairment this year. His IQ suggests that he shouldn’t be reading at high levels, but he’s on par with his age group. He’s getting a full hour of extra instruction, four days a week and that’s making the difference,” she said.

Waverly Public Schools teacher provided one-on-one literacy support. (Photo courtesy of Ingham Intermediate School District.)

Waverly Public Schools teacher provided one-on-one literacy support. (Photo courtesy of Ingham Intermediate School District)

Federal investment ‘kick-started’ the system

As early as 2007, leaders of school districts throughout Ingham County had agreed that a tiered system of support was needed to provide differentiated learning for students at all levels, but the federal ARRA investment really “kick started” the county-wide system in 2009, said Kogut. This investment allowed local districts to hire coaches and implement a “train the trainer” model to get all teachers on board without interrupting student learning.

Signed into law by President Obama in February that year, ARRA included a one-time investment of nearly $100 billion to save education jobs, support states and school districts, and advance reforms and improvements aimed at long-lasting progress for students. While states and school districts were required to advance the ARRA’s short-term economic goals by investing quickly, they also needed to support the law’s long-term goals by investing wisely in foundational activities and resources aimed at strengthening education.

“We would not be where we are today without the ARRA funding. The additional boost in funding and our previous work building partnerships with local districts helped us achieve significant results,” said Kogut.

At the same time, the ARRA investment in MTSS has given naysayers in other parts of the state a reason to discount Ingham’s enviable success as being “all about the money,” said Kimberly St. Martin, assistant director of programming for Michigan’s Integrated Behavior Learning Support Initiative, which is partially funded by a federal State Personnel Development Grant.

“What they may not understand is that those (ARRA) funds have been gone for a couple of years, but the system it helped create continues to support teachers to do what they’re doing and maintain momentum across the county,” she said.

Smart financial planning key to county-wide success

“Knowing that ARRA funds were going away, Ingham’s finance director, Helen McNamara, used data to create an individualized portfolio for each district that illustrated the money recouped through the federal investment. This helped to convince school districts that MTSS needed to be sustained, and to invest local funding as needed,” said St. Martin.

That wasn’t too difficult a sell for the Williamston School Board, according to 13-year board member Marci Scott. Williamston allocated existing dollars to redefine roles and fit the MTSS framework. They used consolidated grant and categorical funding totaling approximately $320,000, and general fund dollars of around $90,000 to train middle and high school MTSS coaches.

“Funding is always a challenge, but this one (investment) will stick, I think, because it’s clear that the return on investment is huge,” she said, pointing to decreased discipline issues as an early outcome of the system. “Every parent hopes his or her child will be treated as an individual. MTSS allows educators to meet children where they are.”

While it’s too early to gage the long-term impact this approach will have on students, Williamston superintendent Narda Murphy is hopeful that MTSS is helping at-risk students and non-traditional learners who used to routinely “fall through the cracks” stay engaged in school.

“Some kids need a little help and some kids need a lot. MTSS gives us opportunity to work within a framework to provide all students what they need. It allows us to be very tight on our focus, but loose in how it gets done,” she said.

Julie Ewart handles communications and outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office.

Learning from Teachers Across the Country During Teacher Appreciation Week

One-hundred percent of Middle College High School’s graduating class is college-bound – and that’s no small feat, considering that a significant number of the students at the San Pablo, Calif., school are the first in their families to pursue higher education. Students there told our own Tayyaba Shafique that they credit this achievement to MCHS educators like social studies teacher Stephen Hoffman for building a family-like culture and providing one-on-one nurturing.


Students of pre-kindergarten teacher Anthony Bennett learn Spanish at the Elaine P. Drager Model Teaching Center in Atlanta, Ga. during a visit from ED’s Jonava Johnson. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Shafique, who works at our San Francisco office, was among nearly 70 Department of Education communicators from nine regional offices across the U.S. and Washington, D.C., to “shadow” educators in celebration of Teacher Appreciation Week May 5 – 9.   While regional team members routinely visit schools, this was a unique annual opportunity to see firsthand how some teachers are facing day-to-day challenges within their classrooms, which ranged from preschool to college in urban, rural, and suburban settings.

Martin Richburg, who works out of our Atlanta office, knows that gaining consensus among 4th grade boys is no easy task; however, he learned that math teacher Sharif Muhammad’s students consider him “their second father,” when he visited Hickory Flatt Charter Elementary School in McDonough, Ga. last week. Muhammad’s class is among the highest-achieving in the state, which Richburg credits to the teacher’s “no excuses” style.

With middle school achievement considered a vital link to adult success, several of our staffers observed innovative ways that teachers across the country are engaging pre-teens in learning:

  • Patrick Kerr, who works in our Kansas City office, went to Summit Lakes Middle School in Lees Summit, Mo., and observed science teacher Jenna Nelson’s class. Kerr watched the students describe weather phenomena while dancing to music, which is one of the many fun and interactive approaches Nelson uses to encourage her students to consider STEM careers.
  • A portrait of an ideal spouse was among many poignant stories presented by 7th graders in Rachel Rydzewski’s English class at Waunakee Middle School in Waunakee, Wis. Their performances showed Julie Ewart, who works in our Chicago office, how Rydzewski — 2010 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year — helps students understand why their stories matter and how they can become more confident writers.
  • Small teams of sixth-graders in award-winning math teacher Tangelia King’s class created models while learning to add and subtract integers in teams and impressed ED’s Malissa Coleman of Atlanta with their concentration at Carrie D. Kendrick Middle School in Riverdale, Ga.

While teachers’ ability to inspire students is key, Department of Education regional staffers also heard how educators are renewed by pupils’ energy and growth:

  • Jamison Chandler, director of jazz studies at KIPP AMP Middle School in Brooklyn, N.Y., told our own Jacquelyn Pitta that, “watching students grow from their first time picking-up instruments  to developing the competencies to perform gigs as artisans drives me to be the best educator I can be each and every day.”
  • Elaine Venard, an employee at our Kansas City office , observed New Mark Middle School teacher Jeremy Schneider talking to 8th grade choir students. During the visit, Schneider told the students that their singing put, “goose bumps on top of goose bumps”.
  • As she approaches the end of her teaching career, 7th grade math teacher Ellen Eckman of E.T. Richardson Middle School in Springfield, Pa. told Department of Education employee Elizabeth Williamson of Philadelphia that the most rewarding thing for her is seeing her students, “mature and achieve.”

Teachers are also finding fulfillment from school models that enable them to be leaders while they continue to teach.


Teacher Joan Maurer explains an exercise to a student in her 8th-grade English class at Roots International Academy, in Oakland, Calif., during a visit from ED’s Joe Barison. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Helen Littlejohn of our Denver office learned first-hand about the inspiring impact that the teacher-led structure at the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy has had on bilingual kindergarten teacher Kim Ursetta. Ursetta participated in a roundtable discussion with Secretary Duncan and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock regarding the Teach to Lead initiative.

“We hold each other accountable for what we do every day,” Ursetta told the leaders and her colleagues during the discussion.

Julie Ewart is the director of communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education’s Chicago Regional Office.

Staff from the Office of Innovation and Improvement also shadowed teachers in the D.C. area for ED Goes Back to School. Learn more about their experiences.