Two Garden City schools, Bernadine Sitts Intermediate Center and Gertrude Walker Elementary School, recently became two of the 78 Kansas schools to receive the 2017 Challenge Award, which honors both schools’ improved achievement despite ongoing challenges.
The awards are chosen and administered by the Confidence in Kansas Public Education Task Force, a nonprofit corporation devoted to promoting the positive elements of Kansas’ public schools. Bernadine Sitts received the award in closing the achievement gap in sixth grade reading, and Gertrude Walker received the award in closing the achievement gap in fourth grade reading.
The task force chooses which schools receive the awards based on a statistical model that studies test results, percentage of students on free and reduced lunches, percent of students that were members of an ethnic minority and, depending on the grade level, attendance or graduation rates. Bernadine Sitts Principal Deznee Soza and Gertrude Walker Principal Phil Keidel said the success at their schools came from in-place programs and teamwork among their respective staffs.
At Bernadine Sitts, Soza, who is new to the district this year, said the school analyzed students’ state test scores to pinpoint the areas in which they may be struggling.
“When we look at that, we can take that and aggregate the data and be able to see what it is that we're missing. Where are we missing the mark at? Where do we need to maybe amp up some support in those specific areas?” she said.
Like many schools in Garden City, Bernadine Sitts is made up of a diverse group of students that speak many languages. That language barrier can make it especially difficult to teach students the reading skills they need to excel across the board, Soza said. The school’s READ 180 and intervention programs and state’s multi-tier system of supports, or MTSS, help struggling students get the extra support they need, she said.
Soza attributes the students’ increased success to the professional learning communities, or PLCs, that give district teachers a chance to communicate, collaborate and align their curriculum to best fit their classrooms. She said Bernadine Sitts teachers used this time to meet with peers that taught the same subject, a system that helped them focus on particular teaching practices and necessities.
Many of the school’s English teachers from the 2016-17 academic year no longer work for the school, but Soza said the students’ success was a result of the entire staff focusing on reading skills in all subjects.
“All of my teachers played a huge part in attaining that award and ... they should all be very proud ... I think all of us are reading teachers. Every single one of us in this building is a reading teacher,” Soza said.
Keidel spoke of a similar collaborative mentality. He said the working environment at Gertrude Walker was communal, largely influenced by the school’s open concept structure where classes meet in offshoots and segments of one, large room. Teachers support each other, he said, and work as more of a unit, and he thinks it ultimately helps the students.
The award itself was quite an honor, Keidel said, and he attributed programs and processes the school aims at all its students.
Gertrude Walker is also a diverse school and no stranger to students new to English, he said. Keidel said the school closely monitors students’ progress, giving extra attention to those having trouble.
“If I had to pick one thing that I thought was extremely important that contributes to how well our students do, it would probably be that progress monitoring,” Keidel said. “It's like keeping your ... thumb on the pulse of what every kid is doing so you can make the adjustments, so you can make the changes, instead of waiting until 'Oh, it's grade card time.' ... If you wait that long, you're wasting your time. You're going to lose it.”
In the classroom, Keidel said, Gertrude Walker teachers follow through with their curriculum and frameworks, like MTSS, issued by the district and state. Paraprofessionals offer additional reading aid to small groups and individuals, and Kansas Reading Roadmap, an after-school and summer program, works to help students outside a normal classroom setting.
Gertrude Walker was awarded for its improvement in fourth grade reading achievement, but Keidel said it was only possible because of the work being done throughout the school.
“They didn't just start learning to read when they hit fourth grade. If kindergarten does not do their job of laying that good foundation, and then first grade, and then second and third, when they get to fourth, we're not closing that gap. That has probably helped more than anything…” Keidel said. “Everybody gets the glory and everybody gets the blame, whichever way we go.”
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