Salk Elementary: Blue Ribbon Superstar Amidst Dramatic Change

While ED’s National Blue Ribbon Schools (NBRS) are all national stars of educational excellence, the challenges faced in their respective communities are not equal. High student achievement earned Merrillville, Indiana’s Salk Elementary School its official status as a 2013 NBRS. However, those accomplishments came about amidst striking demographic changes, making Salk a superstar, in my book.


A Salk first grader explains how he solved his math problem.

Since 2005, Salk’s low-income student population has nearly doubled, to 61 percent. The percentage of minority students – both black and Hispanic – also spiked more than 20 percent over the past 8 years in the Merrillville community, 40 minutes southeast of Chicago. The sheer number of students at Salk swelled from 479 to 674 in the same timeframe. And yet, more than 92 percent of all Salk students met or exceeded reading and math standards in 2012, including subgroups of black and Hispanic children, and students eligible for free or reduced priced meals.

Salk’s principal for seven years, Kara Bonin, said the key ingredient for the school’s success amidst dramatic change in Merrillville was a “no excuses attitude” among all staff, from educators to the clerical staff.

“We make the most of every minute that our students spend at Salk,” said Bonin, who recently became the Merrillville School Corporation’s Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction. “Teachers take extra time from their days to research new strategies to help specific students. Secretaries take time from their days to read to kids. Whether our students need remediation, enrichment, or something else – there’s always someone there to help,”

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National Partnership Boosts Students Towards Healthy Futures

Pulaski School

Entering a packed auditorium at Chicago’s Pulaski Elementary School in early December, students were understandably excited to see NFL football stars and other VIPs on-hand to announce a renewed national commitment to help kids develop strong fitness and nutrition habits for life through the GENYOUth Foundation’s Fuel-Up to Play 60 program. The students left the room feeling pumped after getting fit with healthy activities, eating healthy snacks, and receiving a dose of inspiration from their special guests and representatives from the program’s key partners, including the National Dairy Council, ED, USDA and HHS.

Research shows that healthy students are better students,” said Alexis Glick, CEO of the GENYOUth Foundation, which developed FUTP60 five years ago. The program is now in place at more than 73,000 schools nationwide – including Pulaski – where it provides funding and other support to increase access to healthy foods and incorporate fitness activities, and is aligned with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity.

On hand at Pulaski to express his organization’s continued pride in the FTUP60 program, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urged students to recognize the vital efforts that helped propel former Chicago Bears stars Otis Wilson, Anthony Morgan and Hunter Hillenmeyer – all in attendance – towards success.

“These guys didn’t get where they are by not working hard. They didn’t get where they are by not taking care of themselves,” he said. “We don’t want any of you to miss opportunities in life by not developing good habits now.”

Former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher added a dose of urgency to the fun event, noting that the first major research alerting the nation to the growing childhood obesity problem was released under his watch, in 2001. He compared it to the release of the first major study showing the harmful impact of cigarette smoke in 1964, when more than 50 percent of American’s were smokers: While tobacco smoking remains the leading cause of preventable and premature death in the U.S., its use has been cut in half, since then.

“I hope it won’t take 50 years for us to start making a real difference with childhood obesity,” he said. 

The U.S. Department of Education is committed to supporting healthy and active students through Let’s Move, Let’s Read activities, Carol M. White Physical Education Program grants and the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School and District Sustainability Awards.

Julie Ewart is the director of communications and outreach for the Great Lakes Region of the U.S. Department of Education

Surgeon General Tastes Healthy Schools’ Recipe in Chicago

student chefs with Surgeon General

Greene 5th grade chefs Daisy Salgado (left) and Gilberto Castaneda share healthy cooking tips with the Surgeon General and Mildred Hunter of the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services – Region V. Photo courtesy of the Healthy Schools Campaign

Everyone wants healthy school environments, but limited funding, space and time can challenge robust plans. The Healthy Schools Campaign has helped some Chicago schools build innovative partnerships and strong parental support to work around those issues, and U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, MD, got a taste of the results during a recent visit to Chicago’s Nathanael Greene Elementary School.

During her visit, the Surgeon General chopped fresh salad greens with Greene 5th graders and volunteers, dug-in with 2nd graders planting some of those same vegetables, and teamed-up with students jump-roping and other rainy-day recess activities in the school’s limited indoor space.

“As America’s doctor, I can tell you that what you’re doing here is special,” said Dr. Benjamin to parents representing Greene and other Chicago schools of Parents United for Healthy Schools/Padres Unidos para Escuelas Saludables  — formed by HSC in 2006 to combat growing health disparities in Chicago.

Parents told the Surgeon General about after school classes like Zumba and healthy cooking they’ve helped implement in their schools. Many also helped their schools begin to serve nutritious breakfasts – now a standard throughout Chicago Public Schools.

“These activities make a difference for kids. We helped to make them happen,” said parent Jose Hernandez of Calmeca Academy Elementary School.

Local community and government leaders joined Benjamin for a lunch made of locally grown and sustainable items. The meal was developed and cooked by CPS high school chefs as part of a recent Cooking up Change competition.

“Three years ago, we began working with the district to challenge schools across the city to make changes to nutrition education, physical activity and other areas to meet the high standards of the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge,” said Rochelle Davis, founder and executive director of HSC, which recently exceeded its initial goal of helping more than 100 Chicago schools to receive HUSSC certification. HUSSC is promoted through First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign against childhood obesity.

Healthy schools are a cornerstone of the National Prevention Strategy (NPS) to improve Americans’ health and quality of life.  Benjamin leads the NPS charge that incorporates the work of 17 federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education, which last week announced the 2013 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools and District Sustainability Awardees that are helping to create healthy and sustainable learning environments.

Julie Ewart is the Director of Communications and Outreach for the Great Lakes Region of the U.S. Department of Education

Collaboration and Hope Curb Violence in Aurora, Illinois

Sixth Graders

Inspired by a presentation they heard from Aurora-based Cabot Microelectronics, a “Pathways to Prosperity” partner, a group of sixth-graders designed the “Best Illinois Middle School App” in the Verizon Innovative App Challenge. Photo courtesy of West Aurora School District 129.

As we strive nationally to make communities safer, Aurora, Ill. has made some headway, and education is a key component. Over the past decade, the population of the nearly-200,000-strong city surged almost 40 percent while its violent crime rate significantly fell, with no murders in 2012. Mayor Tom Weisner credited his city’s safety progress to strong collaboration among law enforcement agencies, education, public works, and other public and private entities at the recent launch of Aurora’s Pathways to Prosperity initiative.

“We’ve been implementing, enhancing and growing programs that give our young people productive alternatives to gang activity,” said Weisner, who noted that Aurora’s anti-violence efforts were sparked by a brutal trend that reached its height in 2002, with 26 primarily gang-related murders in the city.

The mayor said it’s crucial for “kids to be able to see themselves as being successful” to give them hope. Recognizing that “the goal of getting a 4-year degree isn’t for everyone,” Aurora participates in Harvard University’s “Pathways to Prosperity” initiative, which develops career pathways for students to jobs in high-growth fields through collaborations between businesses and education. Pathways to Prosperity’s Illinois initiative will utilize resources of Illinois Pathways, a closely-aligned program that received ED Race to the Top funding awarded to the state in December 2011.

Columbia College Student Alex Perez

Columbia College student Alex Perez teaches elementary students how to tie neckties during a monthly Boys II Men “Juniorversity” session. Photo courtesy of Boys II Men.

Pathways to Prosperity aims to increase and enhance programs like Aurora West High School’s Health Sciences Career Academy, created 15 years ago to prepare students for careers in the high-growth healthcare industry. Aurora health occupations teacher April Sonnefeldt said the program has helped prepare many students to get certification for jobs like entry-level nursing positions, and has given “others the confidence to go all the way through med school.”

The mayor also praised non-profit Boys II Men for “teaching young men to respect themselves.”  Inspired by grief and frustration from the 2002 murders, the Aurora-based mentoring organization has been replicated internationally. While Jared Marchiando — a founding Boys II Men member and its first president — is now a college graduate working in finance, he’d previously been “going down that road towards gangs.”

“I needed positive male role models, and some discipline, and I got that through Boys II Men,” said Marchiando, who remains actively involved with the organization. He encourages students and parents to celebrate positive academic outcomes, like “most improved student” as much as sports achievements. He also emphasizes the importance of reaching out to students before their teens, noting that, “if you don’t reach kids by 3rd or 4th grade, it’s often too late.”

An early learning initiative, SPARK (Strong, Prepared And Ready for Kindergarten), was launched in 2012 and aims to build positive education environments for Aurora’s youngest children in both structured settings and in homes. Supported by four school districts, Fox Valley United Way, the city of Aurora and the Dunham Fund, SPARK also will benefit from Illinois’ Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant received in December.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, and we need to remain vigilant,” said Weisner, sadly noting that a 14-month period of no murders in Aurora ended with the recent killing of a teen. “Most kids turn to crime and to gangs when they don’t have hope.”

–Julie Ewart is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office.

Early Math Teachers Celebrate ‘Critical Thinking, Not Correct Answers’

With math literacy a must for most jobs in our knowledge economy, Secretary Duncan has called math teachers “our nation-builders of the future.” Yet, just 40 percent of 4th-graders and 35 percent of 8th-graders are proficient in math, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Playing Games at Diego School

Student Richard Mitchell III and his dad, Richard Mitchell Jr. enjoy a math game that uses the Candy Land board game with kindergarten teacher Heather Gustafson during a Family Game Evening at Jose de Diego Community Academy.

Aimed at increasing young students’ proficiency in math, Chicago’s Erikson Institute is transforming how teachers in pre-K through 3rd grade approach mathematics lessons through a research-based training funded by a five-year, $5 million Investing in Innovation (i3) Development grant awarded by ED in 2010.  i3 “Development” grants support new and high-potential practices to improve student learning, and pairs that support with funding to evaluate the impact of the practices.

Through Erikson’s Early Mathematics Education Project, teachers are trained to lead “classrooms that celebrate critical thinking, not correct answers,” according to Erikson Senior Instructor Rebeca Itzkowich. For this i3 grant, teachers at eight public elementary schools in Chicago are participating in the professional development, which will ultimately support more than 4,500 students each year.

The project’s professional development includes learning labs, individualized coaching, school-based learning groups, and classroom implementation. Erikson’s professional development model produced almost three additional months of mathematics learning during a school year, in comparison to a matched contrast group, and helped teachers narrow the math achievement gap before children entered elementary school.

These new strategies fueled a new energy around math lessons for teacher Michelle Quinton and her 2nd graders at Federico Garcia Lorca Elementary School in Chicago.

“Students’ attitudes have been extremely different. They are excited. They are verbal.  They are expressing themselves in new ways.  They now feel success where they hadn’t before,” said Quinton, who participated in Erikson training throughout the 2011-2012 school year.

Some of Quinton’s new practices have more to do with what she doesn’t do, than what she does. For example, when pupils struggle with problems, she often steps aside to let them work out solutions with their classmates rather giving them quick answers.

“Kids hearing it from me doesn’t always work. Kids hearing it from other kids has been a huge success,” she said.

Recognizing that kids learn differently and don’t respond equally well to common math processes, Erikson’s training also filled teachers’ “toolboxes” with multiple calculation methods for math operations.

“For different kids, certain algorithms make more sense and are more comfortable; it’s like different shoes for different people,” said Itzkowich. “We all have different shortcuts to get to the same place.”

While teacher training to improve instruction is the heart of the project, family help outside of school is vital. To ensure that math reinforcement was successful, Erikson took into account the realities of modern family life, said Itzkowich.

“We had to find ways that parents felt successful supporting their kids’ mathematics learning that are pleasurable and can be incorporated into their home life,” she said, noting that after long days at work, “parents often have a hard enough time just making dinner, getting their kids to eat and brush their teeth.”

Using items that many families already had in their homes — like beans, dice and board games such as Candy Land — Erikson faculty members provide teachers with simple games that engage young students in mathematical learning and understanding in a fun way.  Teachers, in turn, shared these activities with their students and parents at “Family Game Evenings” during the school year.

“Parents left the classrooms feeling like ‘I never thought this had so much mathematical  possibilities, this is fun and I can definitely  do this,’” said Itzkowich.

Erikson Institute is one of 72 organizations awarded funding by ED in the first two years of the i3 program, which supports the development and scaling of ambitious, effective practices that improve student achievement. The program encourages school districts, nonprofit organizations and local partners with a record of achievement to work together on innovative efforts. Applicants must have a history of closing achievement gaps, improving student achievement, increasing high school graduation rates, and/or increasing college enrollment and completion rates. Awards for 2012 will be announced later this year.

Julie Ewart is the director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office

From Farming to the Forefront of Education: A College President’s Story

Rend Lake College President Holds a Tree

Rend Lake College President Terry Wilkerson demonstrates a process to agriculture students in a photo from his teaching days. Photos courtesy of Rend Lake College

As a teen growing up on his family’s 1,000-acre farm in southeastern Illinois, Terry Wilkerson had no plans to go college.

“At that point in my life, I didn’t see the value of an education.  I just needed to get to farming and to making a living,” said Wilkerson, recently named the president of Rend Lake College in Ina, Illinois, site of Special Assistant for Community College Sue Liu’s Sept. 19 visit during the Department’s back-to-school bus tour.

However, he never completely closed his mind to the possibilities of higher education. After much hounding by friends and family, Wilkerson registered for some classes at RLC.

“I got curious to see what it would do for me,” he explained. “The college was close to home and the class times were flexible. I could still farm.”

Wilkerson meets with others

Wilkerson, right, speaks with Special Assistant for Community Colleges Sue Liu and RLC Applied Science and Advanced Technology Division Chair Chris Nielsen during a Sept. 19 visit to Rend Lake College as part of the Back-to-School Bus Tour. Photo courtesy of Rend Lake College

For the first time, Wilkerson found himself in a room full of people who were really interested in developing a deeper understanding of agriculture, and he realized that he wanted that too. It was a good fit:  he went on to earn an associates degree in applied science at RLC; followed by a bachelor’s degree in plant and soil science and a master’s degree in agronomy, both from nearby Southern Illinois University.

He continued to farm as he pursued his college education, and successfully used knowledge he gained in school to improve his farming practices. Wilkerson soon realized that he wanted to help other farmers and future farmers to also thrive in the changing agricultural industry. He’d stayed in contact with RLC staff members, and soon landed a faculty position in the agriculture program.

“Teaching is a lot like farming. Every year there’s a new crop, and you help it grow,” said Wilkerson. “I enjoyed bringing practical lessons I learned on the farm to the classroom.”

After teaching for 11 years and then serving 4 years as RLC’s chair of the Applied Science and Technology Division, Wilkerson was selected by the college’s board to serve as its president, beginning this past July. While he’d never dreamed of achieving his current position as a teen, he’s found that the same fundamental lessons learned from a lifetime of farming help him in his role as the top executive of Rend Lake College.

“If it’s time to plant corn, it’s time to plant corn. You can’t be stagnant and do nothing,” said Wilkerson, who still farms. “Education is like that. If you stand still, you fall behind.

Julie Ewart is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office. 

Leaders and Teachers ‘Go the Extra Mile’ to Transform Milwaukee’s Hamilton High

“Turning around schools is one of the toughest, and important, challenges we face in education,” said Jason Snyder, a deputy assistant secretary from ED, as he toured Milwaukee Public Schools’ Alexander Hamilton High School in May.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Snyder discusses the transformation of Milwaukee Public Schools' Alexander Hamilton High School.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Snyder discusses the transformation of Milwaukee Public Schools’ Alexander Hamilton High School with some of its students.

The school is in the midst of a transformation supported by a $750,000 federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) that began at the beginning of the school year.  The SIG has funded multiple programs to improve academic outcomes for Hamilton’s diverse, 2,000-plus student population. The projects have included an extended school day learning opportunities, professional development for educators, literacy coaching for teachers, and teachers who specialize in assisting students who are struggling with reading and math.

Hamilton also has a new leader. Principal Rosana Mateo has focused her firstyear focus on building stronger relationships with students, staff, parents and community organizations.

“Leadership is about relationships. If you don’t have strong relationships, you don’t have anything,” she said.

The early results are promising. Over the past year, proficiency for Hamilton’s 10th graders increased by nearly 16 percentage points in reading and 9 percentage points in math. Student attendance has increased, and suspensions have decreased. While Snyder agreed with Mateo’s assessment of the turnaround effort as a “work in progress,” he noted that “this is never easy work – especially in large, comprehensive high schools like Hamilton.”

“With courageous leadership and strong collaboration among staff, Hamilton is making a real difference in the lives of its students,” Snyder said. “What I heard from students is that they are more engaged and are being given an opportunity to succeed.”

For example, one of the benefits of Hamilton’s large size has long been its substantial Advanced Placement offerings, which enable high school students to learn college-level material and possibly earn college credits. Among Milwaukee schools, Hamilton has the 2nd highest number of students taking AP classes. Through SIG funding, AP students now have the opportunity to get extra support at school to succeed in those rigorous classes.

Violeta Curiel, a Hamilton senior, credited teachers for helping to inspire student growth over the past year. “They go the extra mile. They’re here on Saturdays, mornings and after school when we need extra help. They care about us, and it makes us really care about school.”

Visit Milwaukee Public Schools’ website for more information and to see more photos.

–Julie Ewart is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office. 

Secretary’s Mom Inspires National Service at Chicago Conference

Secretary Duncan discusses his hero -- his mom -- with CNN's Soledad O'Brien (left) and Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service at the National Conference of Volunteering and Service in Chicago on June 19.

Secretary Duncan discusses his hero -- his mom -- with CNN's Soledad O'Brien (left) and Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service at the National Conference of Volunteering and Service in Chicago on June 19.

Who inspires you?

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s hero is his mother, Sue Duncan, who founded a tutoring center in one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods 51 years ago, and continues to lead it today.

The Secretary used his mom’s story to stir an audience of more than 3,000 members of volunteer organizations from throughout the U.S., as she listened from the front row at the plenary session on “Celebrating the Power of Service in Education” for the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in their hometown Chicago on June 19.  Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and CNN’s Soledad O’Brien joined Secretary Duncan for the session.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” said Duncan of his mom’s work, which began not far from the conference’s site with “just 9 girls in the downstairs of a church” and has grown to help thousands.

“You had kids — who started off very low, academically — start to do extraordinarily well,” he said. “There were no excuses. If kids weren’t fed, she’d feed them. If kids didn’t have clean clothes, we’d take their clothes home to wash them and bring them back the next day. Whatever it took to help kids fulfill their potential, that’s what her focus was.”

Sue Duncan also demonstrated courage, said her son.

“The church (where the tutoring center was located) was fire bombed,” he explained. “One of my earliest memories is of carrying boxes of books to a new church, to start over again.  We went from this situation with lots of potential violence early on to the community really embracing, supporting and actually protecting us.”

Community support is the vital ingredient of the Together for Tomorrow (TFT) initiative kicked-off earlier this year by ED, CNCS and the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at a town hall meeting in Iowa.  This has been followed-up with additional forums throughout the nation. With about 25% of young Americans dropping-out of high school each year with no good job opportunities awaiting them, TFT “rallies entire communities to bring together resources in a very targeted and strategic way, to change children’s lives,” said Duncan.

“We need to wrap our hands our arms, our love around these children and support teachers, faculty members, administrators in any way we can. We can do this with service,” Spencer said.

Spencer said that she and Secretary Duncan will soon be announcing the first one-hundred communities across America that will participate in the TFT School Improvement Challenge for the 2012-2013 school year. The Challenge is an opportunity for schools and districts, institutions of higher education, and nonprofit organizations to join with other partners to improve their neediest schools by raising key measurable student outcomes. It is not a new grant program, but rather an approach to better coordinate resources and efforts. Applicants have until June 29, 2012, to submit their plans. More details about the Challenge are at

While funding is a consistent issue in education, Duncan has learned through his own experiences – beginning with his mother’s efforts — that money is not the ultimate solution.

“Some people think that the only way to fix education is to fix poverty first,” he said. “I think the only way to fix poverty is to fix education.”

Watch a video of the session.

–Julie Ewart is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office.

Education + Industry + Race to the Top = Pathways to Good Jobs in Illinois

Just a few years ago, Alegandro Barrera thought he’d continue working at a local grocery store after graduating from high school in Wheeling, Ill.  It wasn’t a bad option, but he felt like he had no other choices.  But then, Wheeling High School’s advanced manufacturing program showed him that he “could do more and be more,” through its innovative partnership with local industries and career certification opportunities. Now Barerra says he has a great-paying full-time job as a machinist, studies computer science part-time at Harper College, and feels in control over his future.

“It’s good to be me,” Barrera exclaimed to more than 300 business, government and education leaders and Gov. Pat Quinn at the launch of lllinois Pathways earlier this year in Bloomington, Ill.  Illinois Pathways is a Race to the Top (RTTT)-funded initiative that pulls together the state’s public K-12 schools and colleges with businesses, to develop career paths in the Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.

Similar partnerships through Illinois Pathways will partner K-12 schools, businesses and higher education to provide students with hands-on training and early college opportunities for nine STEM career clusters.  Funded with $3.2 million of the $42.8 million RTTT funding awarded to Illinois, the initiative works to boost enrollment in STEM programs through public-private statewide networks called Learning Exchanges in each career cluster.

Wheeling High School junior Aline Bardak discusses how her school’s Career Pathways program enabled her to become a certified nursing assistant.

With Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn looking on, Wheeling High School junior Aline Bardak discusses how her school’s Career Pathways program enabled her to become a certified nursing assistant.

The idea was hatched in 2009 when Illinois applied for the first round of the RTTT competition. While Illinois was not awarded funding in the first two phases of RTTT, the state’s high performance earned it a share of the $200 million granted in the program’s 3rd phase, along with six other states.

“We were actually done a favor, not having won in the first two rounds of RTTT,” said Rick Stephens, a senior vice president for Chicago-based Boeing Co. and chairman of the Illinois Business Roundtable, which helped to develop the initiative. “It allowed all the constituents of the state to come together in a proposal that truly made sense.”

Other Pathways partners include the Governor’s P-20 Council and Advance Illinois, an education advocacy organization.  Six state agencies were also vital to establishing the initiative and make up its Interagency Committee:  Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Illinois State Board of Education, Illinois Community College Board, Illinois Board of Higher Education, Illinois Student Assistance Commission, and the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

Stephens says that employers have a lot to gain from RTTT-funded initiatives that aim to better prepare students to succeed in college and careers.  He notes that “we don’t have a labor shortage, but we do have a skills shortage” with about 125,000 jobs that today are going unanswered in Illinois. He adds that the Pathways effort is important to industry to ensure that new employees “not only have tech knowledge but soft-skills knowledge,” like relating to others in the workplace and critical thinking. “This is what happens when you have real, hands-on training: When you graduate from school you can go get a job, or go on to college.”

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have received RTTT grants.  Initially developed with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds in 2009 to implement transformational reforms and provide examples for States and local school districts throughout the country, Congress has approved RTTT funds each successive year. On May 22, ED announced a new Race to the Top District competition that is aimed squarely at the classroom level with a focus on the relationship between teachers and students.

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

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 , 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

i3 Grant Puts “I” in Team

As a 9th grade counselor at St. Louis Park Senior High School in suburban Minneapolis, Angie Jerabek was jarred by the 45 percent failure rate posted by the school’s freshmen in 1998.  She responded to the challenge by developing a structured, tag-team approach called Building Assets Reducing Risks (BARR) that cut her school’s 9th grade failure rates in half. It also more than doubled the number of students choosing to take rigorous Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes over the past 14 years.  St. Louis Park—a diverse school of about 1,300 students with about one-third of them low income—additionally credits significant decreases in truancy and discipline problems to BARR.

St. Louis Park Students

St. Louis Park students get extra math help at a learning lab implemented this year as part of the Search Institute’s i3 grant. From left to right are 12th grader Sam Lieberthal, Math Resource Teacher Will Tanberg, 12th Grader Shukri Ali, 10th grader Avril Bowling, and 9th grader Eric Ndon. Photo courtesy of St. Louis Park Senior High School.

In 2010, ED awarded a $5 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant to fund BARR’s expansion to 10th-12th grades at St. Louis Park, and to 9th grades at three high schools in Maine and California. The grantee is the Search Institute, the long-time training and technical assistance collaborator with BARR. Another partner is College Possible, a nonprofit that employs AmeriCorps members to help low-income students get into college and succeed there through intensive coaching. 

I visited St. Louis Park earlier this month to learn firsthand about this innovative program and had the opportunity to talk with Jerabek and others. The premise is simple. Currently, teams of 9th-grade teachers, counselors, social workers and others are assigned “blocks” of freshmen. They regularly collaborate to discuss individual students’ progress, identify challenges and prescribe interventions as needed. All team members are responsible for the overall progress of all students in their blocks.

“High school teachers tend to work in silos,” said Jerabek, now the i3 BARR Innovation Project Director for the Search Institute.

“We have a different mindset here.  We’re teaching people, not math,” said St. Louis Park Principal Robert Metz, a former elementary school principal. He sees correlations between the strong teacher-student relationships typically developed in primary grades and the connections that BARR builds in high schools.

The team concept itself isn’t new to all high school teachers, and “some arrive at St. Louis Park jaded by other districts’ efforts,” said Justin Barbeau, a veteran teacher who is now St. Louis Park Public Schools’ i3 coordinator.

“The difference here is the structure,” said Barbeau.  “Not all teachers are good at making or leveraging relationships.  BARR provides training and clear steps that make this work.”  The i3 funding expands that training to St. Louis Park’s teachers who work with 10th – through 12th-grade students. It also includes scaling up the program for 9th grade teachers and students in Bucksport and Sanford, Maine and Hemet, Calif. schools.  Ten new positions have been created at St. Louis Park as a result of i3 funding, and it’s supporting four new jobs at the Maine and California schools.

The individualized attention afforded students through the BARR approach also makes strong impressions on parents—critical partners in the program’s success. “A mom—new to St. Louis Park – raved about a call she’d gotten from a teacher,” said Brad Brubaker, a teacher helping to lead the 10th grade transition. “The teacher just wanted the mom to know that her daughter was doing really well in all of her classes. This mother had never gotten a call like that from a teacher before.”

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

North Minneapolis Promise Neighborhood Comes Together to Boost Education Opportunity

Promise Neighborhoods Announcement

Assistant Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton goes fishing with pre-kindergartners at Elizabeth Hall International Elementary School, a partner for the Promise Neighborhoods grant awarded to the Northside Achievement Zone at the school, earlier the same day. Photo by Bre McGee.

Tornado devastation, rampant foreclosures, tragic street violence and initial disappointment at not earning a Promise Neighborhoods planning grant in 2010 did not deter the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) from moving ahead with plans to build a culture of achievement in North Minneapolis.

The setbacks also didn’t stop NAZ from applying for, and ultimately securing a $28 million Promise Neighborhood implementation grant. Making them one of just 20 organizations — from more than 200 applicants nationwide — to win a 2011 Promise Neighborhoods award.

Assistant Deputy Education Secretary Jim Shelton announced the award Monday at Elizabeth Hall International Elementary School, a NAZ partner school in North Minneapolis. Federal, state, and local leaders joined Shelton for the announcement, including Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.

“We felt like we were too far downstream to even know how to swim upstream,” said NAZ CEO Sondra Samuels of her community’s challenges and low morale a few years ago. Yet, with only 23 percent of North Minneapolis children ready to start kindergarten and just over half of North High School’s students graduating in four years, Samuels and other local leaders knew something had to be done.

After successfully securing private donations from individuals, local foundations and corporations, NAZ began partnering with schools and other organizations to create “a culture of achievement with the singular goal of having all our children graduate from high school ready for college and careers.”

NAZ’s efforts focus on engaging parents through “connectors” — trained neighborhood leaders who work one-on-one with families and connect them with resources, such as the Family Academy to provide early learning programs and support from experts.  The organization also works with principals in traditional public, public charter, and parochial schools in the neighborhood to improve teaching and learning strategies.

Al Franken

U.S. Sen. Al Franken shares some playtime with pre-kindergartners at Elizabeth Hall International Elementary School, a partner for the Promise Neighborhoods grant awarded to the Northside Achievement Zone at the school, earlier the same day. Photo by Bre McGee.

The Promise Neighborhoods announcement followed news last week that Minnesota is one of nine states to receive a Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge Fund grant to develop new approaches to raising the bar across early learning centers and to close the school readiness gap. Today, the Department also notified the University of Minnesota that it would receive a $15 million grant as part of this year’s Investing in Innovation (i3) program for its Child-Parent Education Center program, which like NAZ partners with families, schools and community-based organizations in the early years to improve skills in language arts and math, and enhance family involvement in education.

Combined with these additional resources, NAZ expects Promise Neighborhoods funding to expand the organization’s current reach — from 150 North Minneapolis families to 1,200 families — over the next four years.

“This is an enormous boost for north Minneapolis,” said Mayor R.T. Rybak. “But it is also a call to action to attack the root causes that give Minneapolis one of the largest achievement gaps in the country. We are going to keep fighting, and now with tremendous tools, until every child in every part of the city succeeds.”

During the Promise Neighborhoods announcement, Shelton reflected on the importance of the Northside community coming together to dramatically improve outcomes for its students. “There’s an old African proverb that says, ‘if you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ This community will go far together and children’s lives will be changed because of the actions that you take.”

Related Post: Promise Neighborhoods Grantees Emphasize Early Learning as Key to Success