Churchill, Cloquet schools lauded for Native American student achievementAccording to Nicholas Banovetz, deputy director of MinnCAN, Churchill rates second of the state’s top 10 elementary schools in Native American student performance. In addition, Washington Elementary rated sixth, the Cloquet Middle School rated fifth among the state’s middle schools and Cloquet High School ranked sixth among high schools.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Of Churchill Elementary’s 530 students, some 20 percent are Native American and almost half of the overall student population is living in poverty. Those could be some pretty challenging statistics when it comes to student achievement, but the school has found a way to help overcome those challenges.
And according to a state education group, it’s working.
Representatives of MinnCAN, a non-profit organization that works toward both educational advocacy and policy change, visited Churchill on Tuesday to acknowledge the school’s successes. According to Nicholas Banovetz, deputy director of MinnCAN, Churchill rates second of the state’s top 10 elementary schools in Native American student performance. In addition, Washington Elementary rated sixth, the Cloquet Middle School rated fifth among the state’s middle schools and Cloquet High School ranked sixth among high schools.
The MinnCAN group’s visit was part of a 10-day swing through the state to visit 11 communities and the 16 top performing schools in various cluster areas with an eye toward finding out what’s working — and what’s not — in improving student achievement.
“We are looking at some of the stories that don’t get told often enough about the traditionally underserved students,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCAN. “We are excited to be able to bring back what we learn and share a part of those stories with the rest of the state. The story of Native American student achievement starts grim and is sometimes difficult to swallow. We want to learn more about ways to improve it, and we plan to report what we learn later this year.”
Sellers went on to say that Jacqueline White has been contracted by MinnCAN to do a report on the state’s Native American achievement in its schools with an eye toward finding out what works in the state’s more successful programs.
The group spent an hour and a half at Churchill, learning about the background of the school’s recent academic intervention program — particularly as it applies to Native American students — and touring the school.
By way of background, Churchill Title One teacher Michelle Brenner explained that in 2005-06, the school was asked by a nine-district special education cooperative to do a pilot study on RTI (Response to Intervention), a method of academic intervention to provide early, systematic assistance to children who are having difficulty learning.
Brenner said the school “took it on full force” and formed a committee with representation from teachers at all grade levels. Out of that effort evolved a program of intervention block scheduling wherein anyone in the school who is capable of providing intervention support to meet the needs of students who are falling behind is called upon to participate.
“Everyone in the building bought into it,” said Brenner. “By now, we do it pretty well.”
It took the school two to three years to develop the idea, but what came of it was the concept that students who need extra support in math and/or reading go to get the help they require at the same times during the school day. Previously, students in Title One and other support programs were called out of class at random intervals throughout the day, which not only required teachers to pause their lesson plans but also created a stigma for those who were leaving the classroom.
According to Churchill’s Indian Education Coordinator Phil Beadle, the way the program works is that an extensive assessment of students is done during the first few weeks of school, using various procedures to identify those in need of intervention in the areas of math and reading. Classroom teachers then meet for a “data retreat,” virtually going through each of the identified students one by one to form a plan of action.
“We want to put in a lot of time up front to assure that teachers understand the philosophy of the program and its fidelity with their own curriculum,” said Principal David Wangen. “We also want to make certain staff is trained in the assessments. Student achievement is number one and it follows that if everyone trusts one another, that job will be done and kids will get where they need to be. All students can learn, no matter what might have happened at home the night before, but it’s going to take the entire building to pull it off.”
The assessment and data retreat process is ongoing throughout the school year, and students cycle in and out of the intervention program as needed. Along the way, the Title One teachers participate in team parent-teacher conferences with parents to share the students’ progress.
“Parents are pretty much on board with the idea of all of the kids leaving at the same time for the intervention work,” said Title One teacher Jane Acheson. “Sometimes half the class clears out at one time.”
“At those times,” added Brenner, “the rest of the class doesn’t get put on hold, and teachers often look at it as a time for enrichment projects.”
Beadle said the four staff members in Churchill’s Indian Education Program feel the intervention block scheduling has had a particularly significant affect on the Native American students, both those who get extra help and those who remain in the classroom.
“In addition to our work with students who need extra support,” said Beadle,” we are also able to offer enrichment programming for our higher achieving Indian students.”
Native American students who receive help through the intervention program are grouped with non-Native students, a plan that Beadle said benefits both.
“We approach it through an academic lens and weave culture into what we do,” said Beadle. He went on to say that he tries to promote the basic “grandfather teachings” of the Native American culture, including such basic things as respect, wisdom, trust and love, and foster those tenants in the classroom. “We have students who have a lot of environmental factors to deal with at home, and we try to show them how to separate that from what’s going on in the classroom in order to learn to live their lives in a good and positive way.”
Along the way, Beadle and his co-workers provide advocacy for Native American students, making home and playground connections with them. Over his five years at Churchill, he has established relationships with students in all five grades and gotten to know both the kids and their families. He communicates on a daily basis with their classroom teachers, determines individual student’s needs and provides individualized support if needed.
“Relationship building is huge,” Beadle said. “Otherwise, it could become a deep rabbit hole if the generational attitudes toward school get passed down to the students. Consistent support and relationships helps alleviate parents’ fear of education, much of what is based on such things as negative experiences with boarding schools.”
To that end, Beadle eats in the cafeteria with students and interacts with them outside class in order to keep those relationships strong and help the students feel good about coming to school.
“Many parents never really see the nuts and bolts of what I do,” said Beadle, “but so much comes down to high fives in the hallways.”
There is also a home/school liaison who helps provide open lines of communication between the students' home and the school, checking in regularly with families of those who are absent or excused from school.
Beadle keeps in touch with Native American students even after they move on to middle and high school, sometimes having lunch with them to reconnect and attending sporting events in which they participate.
Over time, through both the intervention program and the other efforts specific to the Native American students, Churchill has begun to experience slow but gradual growth in student achievement.
“There’s no magic trick,” Wangen told the MinnCAN representatives. “It comes down to teamwork and hard work. It’s no longer just RTI — it’s what we do.”
From the perspective of Native American student achievement, Beadle heartily agreed.
“Our Indian Education program started out as homework support for Native American students with no real curriculum attached,” he said, “It has evolved into a curriculum that is research-based, though not Native American-specific. Culture is a tricky thing that kids need to learn from their parents and elders. Our role as educators is simply to spark that interest.”
Sellers and Banovetz admitted they were duly impressed by what Churchill and the other Cloquet schools have accomplished.
“Minnesota needs to inject more of the excellence of its high performing schools into the statewide conversation,” he commented.
Following MinnCAN’s visit to Churchill, its representatives met with a group of local business, civic and education leaders to discuss ideas on how to improve education in Minnesota.