Ari Kiener was MinnCAN’s public affairs manager from 2013-2016.

We’re always eager to talk with Minnesota educators and find out what’s working for them and their students. As such, we often visit high-performing public schools with two related goals: to unearth and share best practices, and to advocate for policy that would better support and replicate their efforts.

But last week, we made a trip to St. James, Minn., for an unusual site visit: instead of touring a top-performing school–via MMR data or our Top 10 Schools lists–we visited Northside Elementary School, which according to MMR, has been one of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

We were invited to Northside by the school’s continuous improvement specialist, Lee Carlson, who encouraged us—and rightly so—to take a closer look at teachers and administrators working diligently to turn a struggling school around. As a “priority” school (one in the lowest 5 percent of the state’s Title I schools, according to the Minnesota Department of Education), Northside must collaborate with the department and Regional Centers of Excellence to implement a turnaround plan that will increase student achievement—drastically and quickly.

Some schools might be discouraged by a priority designation, but that hasn’t been the case at Northside, where 63 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch, and 50 percent of students are Latino. Under the leadership of the dynamic Principal Karla Beck, teachers see their priority status—and the temporary but important funds and support that come with it—as an exciting opportunity to make changes they knew they had to make.

“The things we have to do as part of the School Improvement Grant have made our school better,” Karla explained. “All of the things we used to feel like we ‘have to do,’ now we feel like we ‘get to do.’”

Here are just some of the major changes Northside has made in the last few years:

  • Teacher evaluations: Ahead of the fall 2014 statewide rollout of teacher evaluations, Northside is already piloting its own evaluation model, which—focused on teacher growth—includes three annual observations and measures performance in four areas: 1) instruction, curriculum and delivery, 2) planning and preparation, 3) reflection and growth, and 4) collegiality and professionalism. Karla believes that teachers genuinely appreciate the many opportunities to receive feedback, and the school has applied for Q Comp funds to ensure that meaningful professional development for teachers can continue post-SIG funds.
  • Professional learning communities: Every Monday morning, for 90 minutes that are built into their contractual day, teachers meet in PLCs, during which they develop data-driven, comprehensive and individualized plans for student intervention and enrichment. Karla describes PLCs—which she candidly admits were previously quite weak—as a “war room” for teacher development and strategizing. These PLCs demonstrate the willingness of Karla and Northside teachers to recognize areas for growth and to continuously take steps to improve their practices. Furthermore, PLCs have spurred school-wide, teacher-driven reforms, such as the implementation of “Response to Intervention” plans and the alignment of curriculum. With consistent curriculum across the grades, Northside teachers now have shared language and materials, yet still have flexibility in how to design and execute their lessons.
  • Data and student self-reporting: Students—even those in kindergarten—now learn to track and understand their performance (on homework assignments, quizzes, standardized tests, etc.), and report it back to their families. Through student-led fall conferences and personal “data notebooks,” kids can articulate their academic and personal goals, understand their progress and identify areas for continued growth. This new system also makes it clear to parents how data from standardized tests is informing differentiated instruction, interventions and enrichment. Teachers, parents and—according to Lee—even kids all “see the value” of data as a tool for keeping students on track.
  • Family and community engagement: Northside has redoubled its efforts to better engage students’ families and the larger community. In addition to student-led conferences, which are well attended by parents, Karla now visits the local Armour-Eckrich plant—where many parents work—once a month to address questions and feedback. Karla also makes monthly presentations on the school’s progress at the St. James community center. Additionally, the school has standardized their report cards so that parents can more easily understand how their kids are performing in different grades, and regularly sends letters with “data updates” to parents so they know how their kids are tracking.
  • Collaboration: Across the board, the efforts to turn around Northside are overwhelmingly collaborative, healthy and productive. Not only is the school’s administration working closely with the local teachers’ union, but teachers within the school have ample opportunity to provide feedback to Karla and guide and tweak school reforms. “That’s my job,” said Karla. “I make sure that I’m listening to teachers.” Karla and the school are also listening to—and celebrating—the changing community of St. James: as the Latino population continues to rise, Northside is committed to hiring more Latino teachers and paraprofessionals, and to making sure that Latino students and non-Latino students alike are held to the same high standards.

Our visit to Northside demonstrated to us that perhaps we can learn as much from schools striving to turn themselves around as we can from top-performing schools.

At Northside, for example, we learned that with humility and candor, strong leadership and collaboration, and buy-in from teachers, students and parents, a school can make significant changes—quickly, yet responsibly. And although it will take some time to see how Northside’s reforms affect student achievement, it’s clear that the school has already changed for the better. Student attendance is up, parent participation at conferences has greatly increased and teachers are driving initiatives in ways they never have before.

With a shift in priorities, and a real commitment to doing better by its students, Northside teachers and administrators are proving that all Minnesota schools can change the odds. So let’s help them do that, by sharing their stories, celebrating their efforts and advocating for policies that will support their work.


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