A new school year has begun and with it are new faces, new challenges, and new possibilities. Before you take that leap into the new year, take a moment to celebrate how far you’ve come.
Your district has things to celebrate! Maybe your graduation rates are looking solid, and the class of 2023 might have excelled in academics, bringing in an impressive number of scholarships and funding for post-secondary education.
Take time to reflect on what’s great about your district. Knowing what you’ve achieved can be a guiding light as you embark on the next chapter of the life of your district.
The importance of the bigger picture
Now it’s time to focus on what lies ahead. You have your academic achievement information that can affirm the steps you’ve taken to adapt to the challenges of the past few years. And, while some districts may not see the figures where they’d like them to be, possibly yours included, there are other ways you can measure growth and achievement within your district.
Here are some ideas to discuss with your leadership team:
Senior Excellence - As mentioned above, one measure of your district’s success might be to measure your graduation rate or dollars of scholarship funding brought in per student.
Student Literacy - Maybe you’ve made strides in enhancing your student literacy initiatives in your schools. The importance of foundational reading and vocabulary in the early years for lifelong success cannot be overstated. Supporting robust literacy is like a snowball that grows over time. Strengthening the building blocks for literacy in your PreK and Kindergarten classrooms will help young learners transition from “learning to read to reading to learn.” Take time at the beginning of the year to encourage and support your teachers and staff who make it happen. Keep reading to see how one Minnesota school district has made a district-wide effort to enhance its literacy program.
Focusing on Student Voices - Your staff members may have a good idea of what’s on the minds of the student body, but they might also be surprised. Being open to hearing the voices of some of your most important assets - your students - is vital to making a cultural shift for the positive. “When a school’s culture improves, it raises the tide for all students and the community as a whole,” notes Jake Sturgis, founder of Minnesota based company Captivate Media & Consulting which produces videos that give voice to students. “Hearing the real stories and real experiences from those who feel marginalized drives powerfully constructive conversations, ongoing behavior change and improvement in student data.”
Student Agency - Empowering students to become learners helps them not just succeed in classrooms but is a lifelong skill that employers are seeking and will help students in all aspects of their lives. Ron Wilke, former superintendent and DehlerPR consultant agrees that hearing from student voices is key to encouraging student growth and autonomy. “Even kindergartners can provide information and suggestions on how to improve their learning if you ask the right questions,” Wilke says.
The importance of resilience
A focus on resilience is arguably one of the greatest things you can do to prepare your staff and students for the coming year. If mental health is suffering, so is your students’ ability to learn.
More than ever, we are all asked to bounce back from societal challenges. A focus on staff resilience is a good first step in enhancing learning.
Megan Perry, Regional Licensed Social Worker with Resource Training & Solutions, an education service cooperative in Minnesota, agrees. “The past few years have been stressful, even traumatic for our youth and our educators,” Perry notes. “Mental wellness is critical to long-term outcomes for adults which leads to long-term outcomes for our students. Learning and implementing new strategies in the areas of mental health, trauma, and resilience supports overall well-being.” What steps have your school taken to prepare for the coming year?
The importance of communication
Communicating the importance of achievements beyond test scores is essential because it’s important for your community to understand that test scores are not the only measure of success. Educate your audiences on how you are preparing students to excel in and out of the classroom.
DehlerPR president, Jeff Dehler, shares insights. “It’s about trust. The community is more likely to trust schools when they have a clear understanding of the full scope of student learning. Community members will be more supportive of the school district if they see the benefits schools provide students and the broader community, whether they have kids in school or not.” Dehler recommends the first step in strategic communications is a solid communications plan, based on an audit of the communications resources available to the schools the district serves. “If you don’t know if you are reaching your audiences or if they are understanding your messages, it’s almost impossible to improve communications and improve your school district reputation.”
Big Lake's Story Beyond the Numbers: Early Success with Structured Literacy
For an example of a school district with an excellent communications plan to inform the community of educational programming that demonstrates student learning beyond test scores, look no further than Big Lake, Minnesota. With the passing this spring of Minnesota’s READ Act, many districts are retooling in anticipation of the Act’s 2025 deadline for evidence-based literacy programming. Big Lake Public Schools has been a forerunner in implementing a structured literacy (SL) program, intended to support its students’ reading and comprehension to help them become lifelong learners.
SL approaches “emphasize highly explicit and systematic teaching of all important components of literacy [that] include both foundational skills (e.g., decoding, spelling) and higher-level literacy skills (e.g., reading comprehension, written expression).”1 The approach also places an emphasis on oral language abilities, such as “phonemic awareness, sensitivity to speech sounds in oral language, and the ability to manipulate those sounds.” 2
The district began three years ago by rolling out its SL program district-wide with a focus on early literacy in grades K-2. This has had promising results, creating a cohort of new readers who are better positioned to excel as they move through the school system and beyond. The implementation has also invigorated teachers to do even more for their students. “We started with K-2 and grounded ourselves in that,” explained Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, Minda Anderson. “Then we began deep training to learn more and be more grounded in the system. As knowledge grew, excitement grew.” Anderson notes, adopting SL in Big Lake has precipitated a shift from what the district had traditionally employed in the past. “It wasn’t about just learning a new way,” reflected Anderson. “It also meant our teachers needed to unlearn things they may have been doing for decades.”
Peer Coach Sara Edgar, who is housed in Liberty Elementary, the district’s K-2 school, spoke of her own discomfort at the onset about changing how she viewed teaching literacy. Her own experiences have given her empathy for what her colleagues are going through. “It’s tricky when working with staff who have been working in one way for many years. It’s difficult to get your master’s in teaching one method and then learning there’s a different way of doing things.”
Having worked with teachers and students as they learned new ways of approaching literacy, Edgar is now convinced the evidence-based approach is the best way to move forward. "If I can change my view, other teachers can be vulnerable about coming to terms about not doing in the past what they could have with students.” Edgar applauds the efforts of her colleagues, even as they take on new approaches. “We all did the best we could and the best for our kids. Now it’s time to shift and do better. We’re all in this together and can do hard things. We want to do it right.”
The results of this paradigm shift in teaching and learning have become apparent in both tangible testing measurements and anecdotally. “What’s been most gratifying is hearing about the conversations and questions from kids, like ‘Why does bus have one S, while mess doesn't?’ We weren’t having conversations like this before” Edgar stated. “We’ve had a lot of ‘Aha moments’ with our kids. Kids who were unsure in their fundamentals at the beginning of the year are now able to pick up a text and read it. Our teachers are excited to do this. That’s a measure of success that can’t be quantified in a traditional testing situation.”
Anderson encourages districts that may be looking to change their ways this year, precipitated by the recently passed READ Act to look to outside resources for help. “Lean into your networks. Resource Training and Solutions has resources, and there are other resources. Admitting there’s more to learn and we’re all in this together brought focus to our efforts. We are invigorated to do good work. I’ve never been prouder of a team than I am right now of this team and what they’re doing. It’s making a difference for our kids.”