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School Accountability: One District's Path To Progress

Wyoming Department of Education

Earlier this month, the Wyoming Department of Education (WDE) released its most recent set of school performance reports. Just over half of Wyoming's schools are meeting and exceeding expectations. But close to a quarter are only partially meeting expectations and the other quarter are not at all. The WDE says determining who's on target and who's behind is a tool to help schools.

To get a better sense of how state accountability helps schools, I paid the administrative offices for Albany County School District #1 (ACSD#1) a visit.

I'm not picking on ACSD#1 for any particular reason other than the fact that their offices are just a short bike ride away from Wyoming Public Radio's studio in Laramie. And they're also a good example of how, within one district, school performance can vary.

Debbie Fisher, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, told me, that "each school has its own unique situation."

She said when considering why one school might be doing better than another there are a lot of variables at play.

"There are different dynamics. Those are different kids. Those are different backgrounds," said Fisher. "You just have to do the best that you can do and hope that you're meeting those needs."

The bulk of schools in Albany County are meeting expectations and two are even exceeding expectations. But there are three schools partially meeting and two not meeting expectations at all.

When that news rolls in, Fisher is like the lead detective on the case. She works alongside teachers and principals to figure why students struggled.

"We're all in there trying to figure out: How did we miss this? What was going on?"

The Wyoming Department of Education rates schools in three main areas. First is achievement. How did students score on the statewide assessment: WY-TOPP? Second is growth. Are students making improvements? Third, and lastly is equity. Fisher said that's the measure that tripped up Albany County the most.

"You have to almost look at every student," said Fisher. "What does this kid need? What does this kid need? What does this kid need? And then figure out how we can plan our day [and] our groups of kids so that we are meeting those needs, and making sure that all kids have equal access to the curriculum."

Fisher said Velma Linford Elementary was one school not meeting the state's equity target.

"When you get that, it is heartbreaking because we're in this for kids. So you don't want anyone to fall through the cracks."

She discovered what's happening at Linford is more of a resource issue rather than a knowledge issue. This was the first time the statewide assessment was administered online. Fisher said the school has a high number of low-income students, who don't have the same access to computers at home as their higher income peers. So the district needed to address that gap.

"What we did is, we spent a lot of curriculum money this year and now all elementary schools now have Chromebooks," explained Fisher. "So all the instruction is being done on Chromebooks so the kids can get very familiar with using the technology."

Fisher said students should be better prepared to use the online calculator and the highlighter function when analyzing a reading passage for this year's WY-TOPP test. But the big picture impact of state accountability in this instance is that kids, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds, now have more equitable access to technology. That's a skill that will also benefit them as adults in a tech-driven economy.

Even though the accountability system yields solutions in the classroom, Albany County Superintendent Jubal Yennie said the public can be quick to scrutinize without having the full story.

"What happens when that hits the paper? What happens when that hits the radio?" Yennie questioned. "Our principals get very, very sensitive to that."

To help facilitate a more constructive conversation the federal government is now requiring schools to provide the public with more information. Once a year school districts must release a report card that includes data on a variety of issues that impact how kids learn. For example, relaying teacher turnover rates in schools. If it's clear that quality teachers aren't sticking around then communities, and school boards, in particular, will be more likely to take action.

"I think we all know at the heart of school improvement there has to be a heavy tie between the community and their school," said Kari Eakins, the WDE communications director.

Eakins said the schools that are doing the best are the ones with strong community involvement.

"Above everything else, we hope this information can help schools and communities have the conversations they need to improve schools," said Eakins. "Because schools don't improve without the help of their community. They just don't."

Eakins said those more detailed school district report cards will be out at the end of December.

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