GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - Clifton fourth grade teacher Amanda Miller said she is teaching in a fish bowl - and that's OK with her.
Colorado Department of Education officials, school principals, and teacher coaches drop in on Clifton Elementary classes regularly to observe, and in some cases give feedback or demonstrate proven teaching techniques.
Two years ago, Clifton Elementary was one of Colorado's 27 worst-performing schools. That distinction made the school eligible for a School Improvement Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, a component of the American Recovery Act that allocated $5 billion for turnaround efforts at the nation's 5,000 worse schools.
Officials analyzed three years of data on student proficiency and growth to determine which schools needed to improve.
While other Colorado turnaround schools have yet to see much improvement after the first year-and-a-half of the three-year grant program, Clifton Elementary has made significant progress - both in Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) results and in student academic growth, executive director of elementary schools for District 51 Andy Laase said.
"I'm tickled to death with what I see teachers doing here," Laase said. "The things we learned here at Clifton we're trying to apply to all of our schools. We think it can make a difference everywhere."
Eighty-two percent of Clifton students live in poverty.
"One of the biggest predictors of academic success is social-economic factors of a family," Laase said. "Our job is to make that not true."
Many Clifton students do not have a wide range of life experiences to hook learning onto, he said.
"We have kids in the valley who have never been to the monument; never been on the Mesa; have never gone to the Math and Science Center; been to a zoo or traveled out of town," principal Michelle Mansheim said.
MASTERING THE CRAFT OF TEACHING
As part of the Student Improvement Grant program, state education departments held consultant fairs so turnaround schools could locate education consultants to help them improve their performance.
Clifton Elementary hired Arizona-based Evans Newton Inc., who has worked with hundreds of low-performing schools since 1973.
Of the $2.4 million in federal grant money that Clifton will receive over the three-year period, 77 percent of it will go to Evans Newton Inc., who not only made suggestions but is physically helping Clifton staff accomplish them.
Evans Newton's recommendations were "nothing we didn't already know but there are so many pieces that go into school reform," Laase said. "Evans Newton has put together the puzzle many times before. They provided the manpower."
Over the summer, Evans Newton staff analyzed textbooks and other teaching materials - developed in Texas, Florida or California with their state populations in mind - and showed Clifton teachers how to align them with Colorado Academic Standards. Each state determines its own education standards; and materials created in other states do not necessarily cover everything students are tested for in Colorado, Laase said.
Clifton teachers sought or created additional resources to supplement its McGraw-Hill reading series to ensure students learn Colorado standards. District 51 is already analyzing teaching materials, but with the additional staff provided by Evans Newton, the process was accelerated for Clifton Elementary, Mansheim said.
The most significant change for Clifton has been the coaching teachers are getting from education professionals hired by Evans Newton, Mansheim said. Coaches spend 64 days each year in the classroom with teachers.
Fourth grade teacher Miller, 32, has found the mentoring beneficial.
"The coaching is a huge part of the growth here," Miller said. "The coaching has been fabulous. It helped me develop into a much better teacher.
"We are doing things different than has ever been done in this district. I graduated from Fruita Monument. I was born and raised here. I know how it was in the old days."
A portion of the federal grant also paid for Clifton teachers to start the school year five days earlier, and end two days later than other School District 51 teachers. The time is spent for professional learning.
"Helping teachers master their craft is so important," Laase said.
Grant money also went toward teacher salaries for summer school; payment of substitute teachers so that regular instructors can take time off for professional learning; parent engagement nights were also added - where parents come to the school for dinner and learn ways to help their children academically.
Before starting the three-year program when teachers were told they'd be under stricter scrutiny, five teachers chose to leave the school. Since the program was initiated, no other teachers have left.
"Change is difficult" for some teachers, Mansheim said. "The level of accountability of teachers here is higher than anywhere."
'MATH IS EASY'
There are four ratings of school performance: Being named a turnaround school; priority improvement; improvement; and performance.
Clifton went from being a turnaround school to performance in one year.
"Clifton Elementary has really embraced the idea that they needed to improve, and early results show they are making progress with student achievement," Colorado Department of Education spokesperson Janelle Asmus wrote in an e-mail to the Free Press. "Associate Education Commissioner Keith Owen recently visited the school and was able to see firsthand the dedication of the principal, teachers and district to improve. When looking at the progress Clifton is making under the school improvement grant, it is clear that they are really focusing and aligning their systems (curriculum, support, interventions) to maximize student success."
When the consultants leave at the end of next year, principal Mansheim said she has a plan in place to sustain the school's academic improvement.
"Next year, all teachers will be trained in cognitive coaching; they will teach each other," Mansheim said.
Miller said Clifton students see themselves as learners.
One little girl told her at the beginning of the year that she couldn't do math.
"She came up to me recently and said 'math is easy - I don't know what I was talking about,'" Miller said. "We are no longer a failing school."