Walking into the echoey gymnasium at Bunker Hill Elementary School, a cluster of kindergarteners surrounded their physical education teacher, Kathy Staton.

Staton was explaining the day’s lesson and its end goal, which in Bunker Hill lingo is known as  a learning objective.

“Let’s read our first learning objective,” Staton said.

Her students answered her slowly, but enthusiastically: “I … can … leap!”

“What about the second?”

“I … can … dribble!”

The students then fanned out across the gym in four straight lines and moved on to calisthenics — putting their feet out in front of them to try to reach their toes and holding planks.

Even in gym class, said Principal Kent Pettet, students and teachers are focused from beginning to end on what skills they should be learning. It might seem simple, he said, but it’s at the center of how he and his staff are helping the already high-achieving Bunker Hill to do even better on the state’s ISTEP exam.

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

Chalkbeat is talking with principals across the city at schools that made some of the biggest ISTEP gains in 2017 to explore what was behind their school’s progress and the possible lessons for other schools.

Pettet, who has spent about two years at the Franklin Township school, had previously worked at a school in the Franklin Community school district — a city about 20 miles south of the southeastern Marion County Township. He helped his previous district improve from a D to an A.

Bunker Hill, which has about 600 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, has maintained the state’s highest rating of an A grade since such ratings began in 2009. This year, the school’s scores jumped 8.5 percentage points to 77.8 percent of students passing both English and math exams. Bunker Hill, unlike many schools in Marion County, has demographics that historically correlate to high test scores — few students living in poverty, a majority of white students and relatively small populations of English-learners and students with special needs.

But Pettet still says it’s his job to help kids do better, regardless of where they started from. Indeed, the school saw more kids improve in 2017 from 2016, as well as more students pass both state exams.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Pettet to talk about his school’s progress. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you had made this year?

You always look at the letter grades and you feel proud when you see that the school did well. We’ve been fortunate enough that we’ve been an A for a while, but something that you’re always looking for is to continue to improve, and that’s where the growth piece comes in. We really want to look and see, are we growing our kids? We continue that growth, so it was a nice confirmation of the things that we’ve been doing.

What do you think made the difference?

One of the things that I talk a lot about is you stay simple — you’re focused, you’re intentional and you repeat. Sometimes through the pressures of all the standards and all the test scores, we really push a lot into a lesson that might not need to be there.

What we do here is the teachers do a ‘learning objective’ that they create with the kids. Our goal is that any kid can tell you that. And the end is some kind of formative assessment — it’s as simple as an exit slip, one question. The exit piece should be the learning objective in question form.

Teachers look at those immediately and then there’s some kind of reteaching. We keep it small so we can track it. We’re very data-driven in in everything that we do.

It becomes safe and predictable, and we know from research that when kids feel safe and predictable, that’s where learning happens. When a student walks into a room they can take a risk because they know what’s expected of them. When the teacher says the learning objective, every student understands what that is, every student is able to see and evaluate whether or not they are there. The more students own their own learning, the higher the achievement is going to go.

What is your school community and culture like?

We are, I believe, just under 70 percent Caucasian. It falls under the umbrella “Asian,” that category has a few of your different ethnic groups that have continued to grow. Indian is the leading percent of that.

We are very blessed that in our community that parents very much value education. They show up for events, they call and email wanting to know how they can help their child. So that’s a huge blessing for us educators — we all know there is a correlation between that parent involvement and that student achievement.

What is your approach to leadership?

You have to have a very strong and clear instructional expectation, and I think that you really have to simplify education to, what is the purpose of that lesson and the skills of that standard? Where is that student at at all times, and how do we help that student get there? And you keep that simple, and you repeat the process.

I’ve always felt like curriculum will come and go. At the end of the day, those change. I’m not sure curriculum is where you are going to grow the student. I think it’s the systematic approach where student growth comes from.