Otsego Elementary School’s bold moves show promise

by Jim Boyle
Editor
The verdict on Otsego Elementary School’s bold change to academies may not be in yet, but there are signs the new system is working despite some consternation on the part of the school’s staff.

Recently released test results show the school’s student population making monumental strides.

Success on NWEAs, a standards-based test by the Northwest Evaluation Association gives school and district officials reason to believe students will fare well on the ultra-important Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments that determine the fate of schools not making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

At the same time, school staff have suggested some significant tweaks to the system. They have called into question the handling of prep time to provide co-teaching.

Elk River Area School Board members expressed skepticism Monday night (Jan. 24) about doing too much to change something that appears to be working.

Otsego has been trying to dig out of AYP jail for several years now. Great strides were made last year, and the school decided to move ahead one year early with the drastic step of re-structuring the school to place the school on more of its own timetable rather than that of the state or federal government.

AYP is related to No Child Left Behind legislation. When schools do not make AYP, the state places demands on schools. Otsego was one year away from potentially being forced to make a bold changes.

The options before Otsego Elementary School this fall ranged from closing the school and hiring all new teachers to re-structuring. It voluntarily chose to re-structure a year early.

“We wanted to come into the next (school) year at full force,” said Principal Erin Talley.

It went with a system of academies that focuses more on ability level than on grade level. Teachers have had their day extended in order to have prep time before school, and co-teach math and reading to students during the hours they would typically have had their prep time.

The move to academies has been complicated by a number of other ongoing initiatives designed to improve the school’s performance and learning environment. The vast amount of change has left many teachers stressed, tired and wondering if it’s working, teachers said Monday.

A survey of school staff (mostly classroom teachers) presented at the Jan. 24 Elk River Area School Board meeting showed a mixed bag.

Only 26 percent of teachers said they liked the academy structure. About half of the teachers said they didn’t like it.

About 29 percent said they felt students were benefitting by all the changes at the school. Another 29 percent said they were not. And about 42 percent said they didn’t know or had no opinion.

The NWEA results provide a major clue, though.

There’s a strong correlation between NWEA tests and Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, so when it was shared this past week at a meeting of the Elk River Area School Board that third, fourth and fifth grades all had marked improvement on NWEA math and reading tests, eyebrows went up.

“These are huge gains,” Talley said. “Our teachers are giving their heart and soul, and it’s showing in the numbers.

“They might not like (all the changes), but they’re making a difference.”
The news left Elk River Area School Board members excited about the progress, but bewildered by the content of the school’s staff’s overall report.

Members of the school’s AYP data leadership team said they provided an “honest” account of the happenings at Otsego Elementary School.

This team monitors the AYP plan and makes suggestions for revisions to the plan which gets submitted to the state.

They are suggesting some changes are already needed.

“These are fantastic results,” said Superintendent Mark Bezek, who credited the increased face time and time on task with teachers.

The school chief said the changes at Otsego came with a financial cost, and said the district is getting the results it wants.

The school district is paying for the 45-minute extension to the school day to make it possible for teachers to give up their prep time during the day.

The AYP data team has suggested using this expenditure to hire part-time staff to perform the co-teaching functions.

Talley said the idea is part-time teachers would be fresher and it would remove the burden from teachers who are coming in earlier and finding themselves tied up during the day and at other times at additional meetings.

They also find it difficult to plan for all the changes being thrown at them, according to ELL teacher Harry Davis who reported on the survey results.

There’s frustration over the lack of curriculum for the co-teaching and a lack of material and guidance.

“Ideally, teachers would share lunch and prep together, and that’s not really happening,” Davis said. “People are feeling isolated from their (grade level) teams — they’re feeling like they’re out there on their own.”

Teachers clearly feel students are benefitting from co-teaching. About 72 percent said so. Only 14 percent said they did not think students were benefitting.

But only 40 percent like the team-teaching under its current model of delivery. About 51 percent said they do not like it.

They would prefer to work with their own grade level and have their prep time back, Davis said.

“Some teachers have not been thrilled with the change,” Davis said. “Some have thrived or are fine with it and feel it has been positive for the kids.”
NWEA test results seem to suggest as much.

Educators are scheduled to meet Feb. 7 to further assess how education is being delivered to students at Otsego Elementary School.

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