Data-Driven Culture Brings Dramatic Gains in Achievement
By Amy Buffenbarger
The North High School Academic Decathlon Team from Des Moines, Iowa had its most successful year in a decade during the 2011-2012 school year. Competing against 12 schools in Central Iowa, the North team placed first in a regional competition.
The win at regionals led them to the state competition, where the team placed 5th and earned 15 medals. They earned a spot at the national online competition by achieving the highest score of medium-sized schools at the state level where they finished 7th nationally in their division with six individual medals.
The North High School Robotics team display the trophies they won at a FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competition.
The North Robotics team also competed at the national level this year after winning second place in the qualifying matches of the FIRST Tech Challenge Iowa Robotics Competition and winning the FIRST Tech Challenge Inspire Award – one that awards a team for their journey in building the robot, completing an engineering notebook, promoting robotics in the community and the performance of the robot.
Not to be outdone, the Science Bound program at North has been named the best high school program four years in a row. Science Bound is a partnership between the Des Moines Public Schools (and two other smaller Iowa school districts) and Iowa State University that encourages minority students to pursue careers in STEM fields.
With achievements like that, it might be surprising to learn that the school serves a diverse student population dealing with poverty and homelessness. Nearly 75 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch, there are 19 different languages spoken on campus and almost a quarter of the students are in the special education program.
North is also one of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign intensive support sites, where NEA, state and local associations are supporting replicable, member-led school reform in 39 of the nation’s most struggling schools. The strategies and innovations being implemented in these schools have the potential to create a ripple effect for change in education policy and practice nationwide.
The Gains and How They Got Them
North gained 19.3 points in reading and 19 points in science on Iowa’s state standardized tests, the Iowa Tests of Educational Development (ITED). They also gained 8.9 percentage points in math. The science and reading gains took them from last place in the district to second.
“We place a different focus on class time,” said North Principal Matt Smith. “Two years ago when you walked into North, you’d find students in the hallway or just milling around. Now I think you’ll find a more engaging classroom that brings the students in, they want to learn, they want to be a part of what’s taking place in the classroom. The result of that is you have higher test scores.”
Staff and administrators at North have created a school environment focused on data and professionalism. Teams meet for 80 minutes every other day. The four School Improvement Leaders spend 90 percent of their day in classrooms with the teachers, coaching, doing walkthroughs, providing feedback and mentoring students. Every Wednesday, school lets out an hour and a half early for teachers to participate in professional development. Most of the professional development is teacher led, growing leaders from their own ranks.
“One of the things I think is really important is teachers have discovered they never really want to teach alone ever again,” said Jessica Gogerty, a School Improvement Leader and former physics teacher at North. “It’s made all of us stronger.”