Natchez Elementary School turnaround – teachers collaborating, a key to academic successes

By Joe McCarthy

Leah Henry is Tessa’s mom. Tessa is a third-grader at Natchez Elementary School. “She began as a pre-k student here, because I was concerned about her education. I saw a little bit of stuff before that I didn’t like. I wanted her to get more help. Now she does,” said Henry. 

Natchez Elementary recently received a one-star rating from the Nevada Department of Education. This low rating has been the impetus for Natchez’s all-hands-on-deck push for a robust educational turnaround.

Central to Natchez’s educational turnaround is its insistence on high-quality teaching at every grade level in every subject area, reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies. The RAND Corporation’s recent research clearly shows that classroom teachers are the most influential factor in student learning. Leah Henry said teachers have made a big difference.

“She has really good teachers. Her last teacher in second grade really improved her reading skills. That’s what I was concerned about. Now she’s doing excellent in math too. I believe that the after-school program they have here has helped as well. I think that really helps her to get her reading done. I work at night. I sleep during the day when she’s at school. That really helps as she has come a long way.”     

Teaching at grade level aligned with state standards is referred to as Tier 1 instruction. Three instructional tiers are a set of expectations and instructional procedures to meet individual student needs. Tier 2 targets “slight’ deficiencies requiring instructional intervention. Tier 3 indicates a “significant” need to be addressed by intensive instructional intervention.

Principal Kick says it clearly, “We teach at Tier 1, pushing students to a high level of rigor, even if they may at the time perform below grade level. We provide a vigorous boost to their education all the time.

“This year, Tier 1 is our biggest focus. It was a slow process last year while we continued to emphasize the aspects of social and emotional learning (SEL) and building a positive climate and culture for our students and adults. The instructional focus a year ago was to take things slowly, really fix SEL and work on improving that climate in culture, so that we could get to the instruction improvements with the right culture already in place.” 

Kirk emphasizes that the school spent a full year developing strong social and emotional connections between students and teachers and now it was time to target instructional outcomes.

“Now we get to thoroughly focus on that Tier 1 instruction. At times when students are behind grade level, we naturally try to meet them where they’re at academically. But that doesn’t provide them the high-quality Tier 1 instruction that they need. We’re really pushing our teachers and our students to meet the demands of Tier 1. That’s what we’re expecting each school day, all day long, every day of the year.”

image – Nevada Capital News – Joe McCarthy

Mark Mix, a Paiute tribal member, has two children in school at Natchez, second grade and kindergarten. ”They both have been here since pre-k days. I’ve noticed improvements in their academics, being able to read well.”

To begin the turnaround, Principal Kirk emphasized two other essential initiatives: (1) implementing Washoe County’s School District’s (WCSD) social and emotional learning (SEL) standards and, (2) embedding in the school’s culture the principles of collaboration using the professional learning communities (PLCs) model. 

Social and emotional learning (SEL) strategies include student, parent and guardian engagement working with staff to encourage healthy interactions between students and adults. The Washoe County School District launched its SEL standards in 2012 and has been expanding the initiative, school-by-school ever since. The tenets of SEL underscore the importance of helping students gain social and civic skills that will translate into academic success. Evidence shows that educating the “whole child” using social and emotional skill-building exercises produce both positive behaviors and academic competencies.     

Professional Learning Communities are weekly sessions where teachers share knowledge and build a collaborative, cooperative instructional environment focused on the success of each student. A PLC session highlights the importance of how interdependence and teamwork help teachers discover (1) what each student needs to learn, (2) how to know when each student has learned it and, (3) how to respond to those students who are having difficulties learning.     

Liz Chapin, the school’s data coach and instructional specialist explains what these initiatives mean at Natchez. “One of the key factors in getting to the families and to the kids is to provide great teaching and building relationships with parents and guardians. We have a team of teachers and staff members really invested in making an impact on students’ lives. You’re seeing that in the classroom. That’s a huge reason why our attendance is so much better. The kids want to be at school because they know that people here care about them.

“This is a huge step for us. Because we now depend on our PLCs, we’ve had so much growth in a short period of time. I get to go to these PLCs sessions on a weekly basis, sit with teachers, look at student data and figure out a plan with each teacher on what do we want our students to learn? We ask ourselves how are we going to know if they are grasping the material? If they’ve learned it? What are we going to do if they don’t learn it? And what are we going to do for kids that already know this material? We really dig deep into the data to meet the kids where they’re at.

“All of our classrooms have morning meetings with their students where social-emotional learning goes on. The teachers and teaching assistants talk about things that are personal to the students, their lives, things that are important to them. Every teacher makes a point of personally greet the students when they come into the classroom every morning and say ‘see you tomorrow’ when students leave school as well.”

Shay Satmary is a third-grade teacher at Natchez. Satmary has seen significant improvement in the overall school culture over the last two years. “I would say a total 180 turn in the right direction. At first, like all new things, there was some resistance to new ideas and expectations. But now it is all about collaboration. In the beginning, I dreaded staff meetings because they got so contentious. But over time, we are now a close-knit community of educators.

“Mr. Kirk our principal, comes in a few times a week, sits and talks with the kids, checks in with them. I also talked to him regularly.  His line of communication is open; we can always reach out to him with any concerns. 

“We also have our instructional coach helping to shape our work and attending our meetings. She’s always sending out resources and helps us out with logistics and paperwork.”

Satmary is a strong believer in the power of PLCs. “Our PLC meetings are going really well. Every week, we meet as a group including Mr. Kirk and our data coach. At these meetings, we go over data. The collaborative nature of the meetings helps our grade level teams design our on-going academic assessments. The starting point is the use of the assessment materials the school district provides us. 

“We analyze each assessment tool and the data to make sure that our students are hitting our standards. After I have given my students an assessment, we all look at the scores to see what the data shows us. For example, if most of my students miss a certain question, we evaluate why they missed it and what we can do to improve our instruction so the students will better understand the lesson, get proficient in that skill next time. This year our PLC is going great.”

Satmary gave a snapshot of a recent PLC that rocked.

“This year the district implemented a new English language arts (ELA) program for my grade level. We have been using the quizzes and assessments as part of that program. At our most recent PLC, we had to analyze not only the questions but also the answers that the curriculum provides  We understood that our students may not have the background knowledge to answer some of the program’s questions. Sometimes tests and quizzes have a tendency to be biassed towards certain cultures or certain backgrounds. Our last PLC was truly helpful. We were able to analyze and think critically not only about the impact of these questions we were asking the kids but also how to enrich their background knowledge in order to succeed.”

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For Satmary weekly PLCs made a difference in her instructional strategies.

“It’s helpful to have the support and collaboration especially because more minds are filling the bucket. We worked together to learn the ins and outs of the new ELA curriculum. For me, in my first year teaching third grade having the PLC structure provides the extra support I needed in order to not feel like I was drowning.”

The work between teachers and support staff has now become evident to parents.

Tasheena Mix, a parent of two Natchez students describes a unique quality at Natchez, “I’d like to mention that the school is culturally sensitive. They definitely don’t ever say anything that offends anybody. They try everything to help the students become more aware of who they are, and that it’s okay to be their race. Or how we talk to other races. It’s really wonderful. It’s nice and refreshing for our sons and the other community members to see that. From what we’ve seen, the school has been really great about exercising our culture, cultural preferences here at the school.”

Leah Henry, Tessa’s mom, has noted the change too. She says, “Everyone is so active with all the kids. It just makes you feel like family. I really like it here.”

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 final report in a three-part series covering Natchez Elementary School’s turnaround. 

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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