Natchez Elementary Turnaround Part 2, Overcoming Odds and Expectations

By Joe McCarthy

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Is an educational turnaround at Natchez Elementary just a pipe dream? The Natchez staff, volunteers, parents, and the community don’t believe so. Instead, they are making sure it becomes a reality.

Successful school turnarounds in low-income communities face a gauntlet of ostensible obstacles. The conventional thinking in public education holds that schools in poor neighborhoods do poorly for very specific reasons. This thinking is driven by predictive statistical modeling that ties lower academic achievement directly to poverty.

The Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) measurement is one such indicator. Natchez Elementary, with its Title 1 status, scores a 100 percent FRL. Natchez’s students come from the economically disadvantaged community on the Pyramid Lake Reservation.

Natchez has actively built a coalition of community and parental help that places emphasis on respect, character, accountability, commitment, self-mastery and academic improvement.  This is Natchez’s recipe for breaking the link between poverty and low academic achievement by emphasizing successful social, emotional and academic strategies.

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Liz Chapin has been teaching at Natchez for ten years. “It’s home to me. We needed a change. Our families knew we needed to change.  Our teachers, all of our staff knew we needed to change. We’re getting to the point where we have everybody on board willing to make that change so that we can grow our students to become successful both in the classroom and in life.”  

Chapin started as a classroom teacher. She is now the school’s data coach and instructional specialist. Like every staff member at Natchez, she wears many hats. 

“I actually get to do our bus duty every morning, which is a duty we just started the last couple of years ago. It is by far the best thing I get to do. Every morning I meet the school busses. Most of our kids are bus riders. I stand out there and say ‘Good Morning’ to every single child that comes off the bus, greet each one by name, their first name. In the beginning, the kids didn’t really acknowledge me so much. Now, every kid says ‘Good Morning’ back to me and gives me a hug or high five or just a smile. I say, ‘Thank you. so much.’ I greet everyone, first thing in the morning, pre-k kids to fifth grade, all of whom are on the bus.”

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Mark Mix is a parent with two children attending Natchez. He and his wife Tasheena are actively engaged in the Paiute Tribe community. “I think we have a good education program here, definitely getting some improvements done. It’s growing, the population on the Reservation is growing. Eventually, we’re going to need to expand the building to fit the growing demand. The academics are also improving, along with community participation. That’s one of the most important things to do: get our scores up, get us even with the whole state, across the nation.” 

Mix goes on to emphasize, “Attendance is one of the big things, we need to get the community fully involved to help get our students to school every school day. This is an Indian Reservation. We have challenges in the home. Once we get everyone’s home safe and the parents involved, academics are definitely going to be coming up a lot more.”

Shay Satmary is a third-grade teacher in her second year teaching at Natchez. She taught second-grade last year. Reno born, raised and educated, Satmary believes “building relationships with the students was the biggest challenge at first, getting to know the students and having them trust me, know my expectations and not only academic expectations, but behaviourally. That was the most immediate challenge I faced.”

To see what actually goes on in the classroom is to believe in Satmary’s optimism. She makes an emphatic point, “To set expectations and build a sense of pride, to persevere through difficult tasks and buildup their perseverance, we call it a ‘Growth Mindset.’ 

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“Having students believe ‘even though I can’t do this difficult task now, it’s just that I don’t have the skills yet.’ We teach them that it takes time to master a task or a skill, teaching them not to give up on something that is challenging.”

Student academic progress is a serious business to Satmary. She wants to hear from all of her students, “I can do this, I will get this. If I work hard and try my best, I will succeed.” She regularly reminds her students, “Even as adults, we have to keep trying.”

Satmary offered a transformational example from her work. “I have one student who definitely stands out. Last year he was honestly one of my toughest students, both academically and socially, low self-esteem, no self-worth, acting out whenever given a task by being violent or angry out loud. This year has been a huge shift. He has one of the best attitudes every day coming to school ready to try his best. He now gets some of the highest scores. I can honestly attribute it all to his growth mindset. He finally believes in himself enough that if he tries hard and does his best knowing he can achieve his high expectations. He’s one of the biggest role models in my class for the rest of the students.”

“I have a structured behavior system,” Satmary says. “I impress on all my students that just like adults, we earn money and paychecks when we go to work. And we get feedback from our evaluators and our supervisors when we are given tasks to do. 

“I lay out my behavior. My expectations for my students are simple. There are four things they need to do each day. They will earn points by doing these four things. When they reach a certain number of points, they access rewards on Friday. In the last 20 minutes of class, we have fun activities based on how many points each student earned. 

“We keep track of our scores, all the students know their scores and where they need to go. We have achievable goals in mind. It is my experience, often students don’t know how they’re doing or where they should be.

“The four things they must do every day, which goes along with our school’s expectations: (1) be safe, responsible and respectful; (2) raise your hand to speak and no shouting out; (3) follow directions the first time by completing the work and participating, and, (4) always be kind and show polite manners and actions. 

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

This is the second report in a series covering Natchez Elementary School’s turnaround. Upcoming reporting will touch on the complexities of educating the whole child, the instructional strategies instrumental in the 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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