Each year, after Laramie students take the WY-Topp — the state standardized tests — the Wyoming Department of Education evaluates the scores and the school itself is graded.
That grade takes into account the schools’ average scores on the WY-Topp test, how inequitable the scores are in the school and how much students’ scores are improving year to year.
Ultimately, a school receives one of four grades: “exceeding expectations,” “meeting expectations,” “partially meeting expectations” or “not meeting expectations.” All schools who are not at least meeting expectations are required to submit a “school improvement plan” to the state.
It’s common that a school might move up or down on that grade scale year-to-year, though some schools remain constant. For example, Beitel Elementary has been rated at “meeting expectations” for the last four years.
But what happened this year with Linford Elementary is very unusual.
The grade school in West Laramie has historically been an underachieving school, at least by the standard set by other Albany County School District No. 1 schools.
In recent years, most grade schools in Laramie have been at least “meeting expectations.”
But not Linford.
For the 2014-2015 school year, Linford was “not meeting expectations.”
Between 2015 and 2018, the school was only “partially meeting expectations.” In those years, WDE liked the growth Linford was seeing in individual students’ test scores, but there was still substantial inequity among the school’s students and test scores overall were still dwindling.
Coming into the 2018-2019 school year, the school’s leadership team had a goal: Break the streak and get to “meeting.”
Then, this summer, the report card from the WDE came back.
Linford, again, still wasn’t “meeting expectations.”
Instead, the school was among the 14% of schools statewide who are now “exceeding expectations,” and few schools made the kind of one-year improvement in their test scores that Linford did.
At last, it seemed like the scores were “catching up to what we were doing,” said fifth-grade teacher Amanda Lopez.
“We've seen some big growth with our kids. The year before, we'd seen things in the classroom and we didn't necessarily see those on the assessment,” Lopez said. “They're showing what what we know they can do.”
The improvement wasn’t the result of one year of work.
Instead, it began in 2013, when David Hardesty first became Linford’s principal.
That year, a group of Linford employees went to a conference in Salt Lake City about “professional learning communities,” a system of collaboration among teachers that has now become ubiquitous across the U.S.
The Linford staff that attended that conference came back excited about a number of ideas they heard.
Mark Williams, a Linford fifth grader teacher who was on that 2013 trip, said those ideas might the returning staff had to ask their peers to make some sacrifices.
Under some schedule changes, all teachers of the same grade would have their normal planning hour at the same time of the school day. But instead of continuing to use all five planning periods each week to work in isolation on lesson planning or other work in their classrooms, the teachers would spend two of their weeks’ planning times meeting in groups with each other, instructional facilitators, special educators and Title I interventionists.
“When we came back (from SLC), we were excited to share it and we got a lot of resistance,” Williams said. “I would have been one of those resisters. I get it. I’ve been a teacher for 20 years.”
But teachers did agree to meet, and during that common planning time, they started working together to analyze data they collected on their students’ performance.
If a student or group of students in a class began to fall behind — or make unusual strides — on a particular piece of their curriculum, teachers would discuss how those students were being taught those subjects.
A teacher who might have tapped into an effective technique now shares that idea with her peers during this planning periods.
“It also allows us to be very focused on the instruction that is going to take place, the skills that the students need to be able to perform to be proficient on those standards and how we can track that data in a very systematic manner and then provide intervention for anybody who isn't proficient on that data and then provide enrichment,” Hardesty said.
The humility this kind of collaboration requires of a teacher can be “nerve wracking,” but Lopez said that “as a whole it’s really good because it it does force us to be able to be honest and upfront about what we are doing in our classrooms.”
After those meetings, teachers now go back to their classrooms with a game plan, collecting more data regularly that allows them to evaluate, in real time, how students are responded to their instruction.
“I think to be effective, we have to keep bouncing ideas off of one another, and we’ve brought down amount of time we have to spend on these things because we’ve gotten better at it,” Williams said.
Compared to five years ago, the education a Linford child is receiving is more methodical, Hardesty said.
“We have a much more focused approach to the content and the material that students are expected to learn in a much more systematic manner, which just means that we know what kindergartners need to have in order to be ready for first grade,” Hardesty said. “We know what first-graders need for second grade and so on through our grade levels. That's much more clear than it used to be. We have some common materials that we use across grade levels.”
The numbers-crunching of those planning sessions has also been coupled another initiative at Linford that focuses more on developing pro-social behaviors.
To foster positive behavior at the school, Hardesty said the leadership team has created a “culture of celebration.”
“We want the students and the staff to know that when they do something really great, it’s recognized,” he said.
Each quarter, the school now hosts these school-wide “celebrations” where the work of individual students, and even entire classes, are acknowledged.
The school also formed a PBIS team — it stands for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports — that now sets weekly goals for specific behavioral issues.
Then teachers have morning meetings with their students to talk about how the class will work to meet those goals.
“It could something like hallway expectations or playground expectations, but then it’s the first thing we talk about every day that week,” fourth-grade teacher Sarah Anderson said. “No matter where students go in the building, they know exactly what is expected of them, so that consistence really cuts down on behavioral problems. Students don’t expect (behavioral issues) and then they get rewarded for following those expectations."
It’s easier to get buy-in from the students, too, when students are actually a part of the PBIS team.
The third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classes each have a liaison to the PBIS team, and those students propose behavioral issues that need to be addressed.
“They’ll brainstorm things that are going on on the playground or in the lunchroom,” said Lopez, who co-chairs the PBIS team.
Students have helped craft Linford’s protocols for 4 Square, playground activities, and cleaning up lunch tables.
Those student liaisons even have given slideshow presentations about behavior issues, like graffiti in the bathrooms.
“Then they’re out there looking for that positive behavior and then they’ll report back to us how they think it’s going,” Lopez said.
The school has also established a WATCH D.O.G.S. program. Being part of that national program has led Linford to bring students’ fathers and other “positive male role models” to come in to volunteer occasionally at the school.
In 2018-2019, Lopez said Linford had 31 male volunteers work at the school, helping with things like playground monitoring.
And the new work has become a major point of pride for the school’s staff and other district officials.
“I just feel very blessed to be here,” said instructional facilitator Kay Mobley. “There is a reputation (about Linford) in the community … but to show the amazing work that people are doing every day, that’s why I get up and do my job every day.”
Hardesty said the school won’t rest on its laurels. There are still improvements that can be made to the common planning process and behavioral programs.
“One of the things we feel strongly about is that we don’t sit idle,” Hardesty said.