State honors seven high-achieving, low-income Janesville schools

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Friday, April 21, 2017

JANESVILLE—When it comes to inspiring students who live in poverty, Janesville teachers lead the state.

Last week, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released its list of Title I Schools of Recognition, and the Janesville School District had seven schools on the list.

That's more than any other school district except Milwaukee, which has 16 schools on the list.

Title I is federal aid given to schools with high percentages of poor students. Nearly 800 schools statewide meet the criteria for Title I aid.

Of those, 178 were recognized for their work.

“In our data-driven society, it's easy to dismiss a school by looking at its demographic makeup,” State Superintendent Tony Evers said in a statement.

Schools with significant numbers of low-income students are not expected to do as well in state testing and other measurable factors, such as attendance and graduation rates.

Schools of recognition fall into three categories:

-- High progress: These schools fall within the top 10 percent of schools on growth in reading and math scores.

-- High achieving: These schools have “achievement gaps” of less than 3 points between student groups. The state tracks student groups by gender, race and economic status.

-- Beating the odds: These schools are in the top 25 percent of high-poverty schools. They also have above-average student achievement in reading and math when compared to similarly sized districts, schools, grades and poverty levels.

In Janesville, Jefferson Elementary, which has 74 percent low-income students, was recognized for being a high-progress and a beating-the-odds school.

On the other side of the city, Jackson Elementary, where 84 percent of students are considered low income, was one of a handful of schools honored for “beating the odds” five years in a row.

Other Janesville elementary school recognized for beating the odds include Adams, 61 percent low income; Madison, 61 percent low income; and Wilson, 95 percent low income.

Two middle schools, Edison, 55 percent low income, and Franklin, 60 percent low income, were also recognized for beating the odds.

Elsewhere in southern Wisconsin:

-- Converse Elementary School and Fran Fruzen Intermediate School, both in Beloit, were recognized for beating the odds.

-- Sharon Elementary School, Sharon, was recognized for beating the odds.

-- Reek Elementary School, Lake Geneva, was honored for being a high-achieving school.

-- Barrie Elementary School, Fort Atkinson, was recognized as a high-progress and high-achieving school.

Why do Janesville schools do so well?

Superintendent Karen Schulte credits the teachers, who are “willing to do the heavy lifting”; the work of Director of Curriculum and Instruction Kim Ehrhardt and his team; building principals and, probably most important, a districtwide “vision.”

“We have a clear and focused vision of what we're doing, of student achievement,” Schulte said.

How is that different from other school districts?

“Every district does have those goals,” Schulte said. “But people get splintered; they start going all over the place.”

Without a coherent goal, it's difficult to succeed, she said.

Schulte credits consultant Quint Studer for giving the district the tactics and tools to make it more successful.

Studer's mantra is “what gets measured, gets done.”

Every year, the school board sets measurable goals for the superintendent, such as raising teacher and parent satisfaction rates, increasing open enrollment or being in the top three of the state's largest school districts on the state report cards.

Those goals are shared throughout the district.

Ehrhardt also credits the district's success to its shared vision and a set of principles it instills in staff, including “growth mindset” and a "culture of achievement” in which failure is not an option.

The district uses the ideas of Eric Jensen, a former teacher with a doctorate in human development, who wrote “Teaching with Poverty in Mind.”

Jensen's work shows how poverty affects brain function and emotional states, and it offers teachers practical ways to combat those effects.

Teachers also do “data-driven instruction” using a variety of assessment tools—not just state tests—to measure how their students are doing. The data help target kids who need additional instruction or create new teaching strategies, Ehrhardt said.

Other elements in the district's success, Ehrhardt said, include top-notch staff, after-school programs led by teachers who know the kids, summer school programming designed to combat summer slide, careful use of technology and strong English-language learner programs.

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