Natchez Elementary, where a turnaround is under way

By Joe McCarthy

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Dan Kirk is the principal of Natchez Elementary School. Every day he makes it a conspicuous priority during morning school-wide announcements to call specific students by name to his office to celebrate their accomplishments. These gestures create an everyday culture of success and well-earned reward throughout the school.

“The school is doing really good,” says Tasheena Mix, a parent of two students at Natchez.  “Things have really improved since Mr. Kirk has been here. I’ve noticed. There’s more positivity here. And his incentive program has been great. My kids will come home and tell us about the way Mr. Kirk dressed crazy today because it’s an incentive for the kids to choose that costume for him. They’ll talk about how he comes and has lunch with them. And he’ll be around and they just have a really good feeling with him.” 

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In the summer of 2018, when the opportunity came for Dan Kirk to become its principal, Natchez Elementary in Wadsworth on The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s Reservation needed a fully-fledged turnaround. Natchez was a Title 1 school where the vast majority of students were significantly behind grade level proficiency and the school ranked as one of Nevada’s lowest-performing schools.    

The student body of 110 at Natchez Elementary is more than 90 percent Native American. Last year, the school received a one-star rating on its student report card from the Nevada Department of Education.  This alarming grade was based on low scores on state standardized tests (Smarter Balanced Assessments) and chronic absenteeism of greater than 43 percent. 

“When I came to Natchez in 2018, we had a 12 point score, a one-star school,” says Mr. Kirk. “We still are a one-star school. There was much to overcome to get Natchez to where it needed to be. We are determined to get there.” 

Chronic absenteeism at Natchez has been a long-term and vexing problem. Those students who are absent more than 10 percent of the time will miss more than 20 days of instruction in a school year.  It is hard, possibly impossible, for those chronically absent young students to maintain grade-level proficiency in reading and math, much less build the social skills needed for proper maturation.

“When I first arrived, 43 percent of our students were chronically absent, which boils down to 81 kids absent more than 10% of the school year. That was our first big focus – change our culture because we wanted kids to want to come to school.

 “This year we’ve earned an additional six points in our overall star rating score, the first increase in many years. It’s been more than five years since Natchez students actually increased their performance. Reducing absenteeism has played a huge role in that growth for us. In the last year alone, we went from 43% chronically absent to 17% (statewide average is 19 percent and nationwide it’s 16 percent), which is a huge improvement relative especially to the number of students at Natchez.”

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Faced with the challenge of chronic absenteeism, Mr. Kirk says the secret sauce that entices kids who want to come to school is a collaboration between teachers, staff, parents, and students.   

“We have some amazing, exceptional teachers, support staff and parent volunteers here at Natchez, “ he says. “When I arrived, we had lots of turnover. In our first year, we really worked hard to support our teachers to instill collaboration efforts for the right reasons, for the kids. This year, moving into year two, I have an exceptional staff. A majority of it, I hired myself. We put into place an exceptional group of professionals, our teachers, teaching assistants, secretarial staff, the school counselor and many more, all of high caliber, high quality, for the right reasons, to help support kids.” 

Principal Kirk brings his first-hand experience to the task at hand. His degree is from UNR. He’s taught fourth and fifth grade for seven years in Humboldt County, garnering a rural perspective. At the WCSD, he’s been an instructional coach, an assistant principal, an interim principal and now the principal at Natchez.

“Last year, our focus was to create a positive climate and culture throughout our campus. We emphasized Social, Emotional Learning (SEL), working to have staff want to come to work and have our students feel that they want to come to school.” Instituting Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) has improved our self-awareness and our interpersonal and problem-solving skills and our students’ impulse control.” 

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To drive the turnaround successfully, Kirk knew that he needed a well-trained staff of teachers delivering high-quality instruction in a positive atmosphere. It was an excellent start to the turnaround by having his staff buy into his emphasis on collaboration and getting the students to attend school regularly. You can feel the energy walking around the classrooms, a sense of joy from the teachers at coming to work and the students’ genuine desire to attend class.  

Mr. Kirk and his team are now taking actions to enable the turnaround by delving into and monitoring the data, beefing up classroom instruction and outcomes, expanding positive community relationships and continuing to build a campus culture around social and emotional learning (SEL).  

“We really worked hard to improve the staff’s perspective, the adult climate, working collaboratively together. We’re a united group, working here for the right reasons, which is for kids, not for adults. Making sure we have a positive experience for all of our adults is trickling down to our kids.

“Teachers have class meetings every day, sharing information across grade levels to build strong and trusting relationships with each other and with their students.

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“Our ‘stop-doing’ list includes putting an end to the notion of not expecting kids to be able to do it. We have a positive belief that all kids can learn, all kids can meet our expectations, as long as we are providing them the essential support they need.”

You can read the school’s School Performance Plan, a state-mandated written action plan that spells out how to address its academic deficiencies. 

There is growing evidence that successful collaborative initiatives are driving student success, as reflected in WCSD recently received ranking as the third-highest scoring school district in the state from the data scientists at Niche. 

Future reporting on Natchez Elementary will touch on instructional strategies that are instrumental in Natchez’s turnaround and the difficulties that native students encounter in public schools.   

Joe McCarthy: I am NCN’s education reporter. I have an MS in curriculum development from SUNY Albany. In the 70s, I directed a community college-sponsored inner-city adult learning center in New York and in the 80s developed the first-offender education program for Northern Nevada Correctional Center. My oldest daughter is an instructional coach for the WCSD. She serves several schools in the district including Natchez ES.

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