From Indiana Principals

A Perry Township principal led her school to its first A grade 40 years after being a student there

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Before she became principal, Whitney Wilkowski attended Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in the mid-1970s. Pictured here is her third-grade class portrait, which hangs in her office.

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 possible lessons for other schools. Find other Q&As here.

In 1975, Whitney Wilkowski was a third-grader at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Perry Township, and she adored her teacher.

“Miss Giltner,” Wilkowski said fondly, pointing at her class photo. “I loved her, and I just knew that I wanted to emulate her, so I wanted this job that she had.”

And she got it. More than 40 years later, Wilkowski is not only an educator, but she is in her 11th year as principal at Abraham Lincoln, her elementary school alma mater. Her third-grade class picture hangs on the wall of her office.

“It really was serendipity,” Wilkowski said. “There have been a lot of changes in the community since the time I was a student, but it is … just beyond my expectations to be here. My school, after all these years and all these changes, is an A school.”

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

Lincoln, which has more than 1,000 students in preschool through fifth grade, moved from a C grade from the state in 2016 to an A for the first time in 2017. The school’s scores jumped 11.8 percentage points to 51.1 percent of students passing both English and math exams, just about the state average. Both figures — passing rates and growth — factor into a school’s letter grade. Last year, Lincoln had especially high growth, which helped offset lower passing rates.

More than three-quarters of Lincoln students qualify for subsidized meals, and about one-quarter are learning English as a new language. Many of those English-learners are also refugees from Burma, a trend across the district.

Lincoln is also home to a special education program that serves students who live near Lincoln as well as those from across the west side of Perry who might need more support than their neighborhood school can provide.

Wilkowski said the district as a whole last year was focused on tracking student progress on English and math skills though a new system called Evaluate. Students and teachers both track results from tests together each month, using a stoplight model — red, yellow, green — to indicate in their records when a student has mastered, say, dividing fractions, and when they need more practice.

Of the Marion County township elementary schools with the highest ISTEP gains, four were from Perry Township. Every Perry principal who spoke to Chalkbeat this fall mentioned the new data tracking system.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Wilkowski to talk about her 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?

We were all elated. Those testing environments are unpredictable. They’ve been very unpredictable, and you know, I think my teachers were very confident going in. But even afterward, you still don’t know.

When a large percent of your population is learning English in the first place, and when there’s a lot going on in some homes … we don’t all start at the same starting point, so it meant a lot.

What do you think made the difference?

To be honest, for a long time an A has been our goal.

We have a school plan that we follow every year, and I’m a real data geek. I feel like the difference this year was we took all that information we had, and we made a real concerted effort as a team, all the way from the district to the students themselves, to figure out what it’s going to take to grow. This year we pulled together as a team, and we were very good at communicating all the way through those layers so that the students understood exactly what they needed to do.

And I had a hunch — we felt good.

When I say “we,” it’s not just staff. Parents know, and kids know, from month to month that what they need to do to improve. And really our focus was on improving 10 percent each month. What is it going to take?

It was a rare time when a child wouldn’t be able to answer that question: “What are you working on? What does that look like in the data? What are you doing to get there?”

Our students actually keep a data sheet. They can see in colors their progress from month to month. Red is “I don’t have it mastered yet.” Yellow is “I’m getting there,” and green is “I’ve got it.” That’s a very quick visual that communicates a lot.

Students know what the expectation is, and they are communicating with their classroom teacher to explain what is the missing piece there. It gives them a heightened sense of responsibility, but also awareness so they know where to focus.

What is your school community and culture like?

I have the west side of the district special needs students … that’s one piece of diversity. Another piece of diversity is just the number of students speaking other languages, which has really been expanding on the south side (of the city) in general. Lots of Chin dialects and families and students that are really getting their feet on the ground and getting settled.

They are very interested in being high-achievers and very excited about having the opportunity to go to school, and that’s just very exciting.

We also have over 30 percent student mobility. That’s another reason why that data piece, from year to year knowing what each individual student needs in a classroom, is so critical.

Teachers are very involved. We have churches that are very involved in school life. All these pieces that come together so you have better background together on each other is very big and has helped us be successful with our families.

What is your approach to leadership?

I feel like it’s very important to grow everyone. If everyone understands that there’s always something more to learn and some way to be better, then our kids understand that. Everyone has a goal, and just reaching your goal doesn’t mean that you’re done. So my vision is that everyone would continue to set those new goals, and that we would continue towards growth, and that everyone continues to not just feel successful, but be successful.

Q&A

This Franklin Township principal says simple, focused teaching is driving his school’s success on state exams

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Physical Education teacher Kathy Staton leads a class at Bunker Hill Elementary School in Franklin Township.

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.

Q&A

This township school had average scores, but a renewed focus on culture and collaborative teaching put it over the top

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Kindergartners walk down the hallway at South Creek Elementary School.

As Principal Toni Stevenson walked out of a kindergarten classroom at South Creek Elementary School, a student walked right up to her with a giant smile on her face.

The girl stopped and proudly held out a slip of paper, beaming.

“I was being quiet in the hall!” she told Stevenson.

“Lauren!” Stevenson said excitedly. “Good job!”

Lauren tucked the slip of paper into a little mailbox outside her classroom door and returned to her teacher.

The brief exchange showed what Stevenson believes is a central part of the culture at Franklin Township’s South Creek — a focus on positive character traits to build community and school spirit. When students are seen being respectful or exemplifying another positive trait, they get a ticket. The more their class collects, the better shot they have at small prizes and schoolwide recognition.

Stevenson, who has been at the school six years, said this work — as well as renewed teacher collaboration, digging into student data, and a reduction in population that allowed everyone some room to breathe — has contributed to her school’s recent gains on the state ISTEP exam.

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

This year, the school’s scores shot up 15 percentage points to 80.6 percent of students passing English and math. South Creek, unlike many schools in Indianapolis, 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 the school’s previous state grade, a C, showed that about one-quarter of kids weren’t passing state tests, and even more worrying to Stevenson, students’ test scores weren’t improving. This year, that changed — the school received an A grade from the state and students advanced considerably.

Chalkbeat sat down with Stevenson recently to talk about her school’s progress. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

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

I was ecstatic. People have different feelings about being recognized by grade, but I felt very happy.

What do you think made the difference?

The preceding year, 2015-16, we had always been an A school and we dropped to a C. When I had to tell our staff that we went from an A to a C, it was very emotional.

In (2015-16), we had 700 students in the building — we were just full. Everyone was just really exhausted. It felt like the teachers’ morale was going down. So last year, the district noticed how we need to re-balance. We lost about 10 teachers and 200 kids — it was bittersweet. After we lost those students and those teachers, we really focused on … How do we bring joy back into the classroom? No one is going to be happy if we’re not happy teaching.

We talked to all K-5 teachers. Just because you don’t have a test in the lower grades, it still contributes to what we do in the upper grades. Everyone talks about collaborating, but collaborating as a staff and as a grade level is not as easy as you read about.

Our teachers were always very good at what they did. I saw that when I did walk-throughs, but they were very timid in sharing what they did, even within grade levels. So our instructional coaches said, “I want to bring teachers in during prep and see what you are doing.” Nobody volunteered in the beginning.

Slowly, you saw that gradual change where the teachers were very proud opening up their classroom. You saw this ripple effect going through the school, and they opened up their classrooms, and they started sharing.

What is your school community and culture like?

We do not have a high (free and reduced-price lunch) population here. Do we have challenges? Of course we do. The parents’ expectations are so high here — it’s just really hard to explain if you aren’t working in that environment. If a child is not challenged or a child may be getting a B or the child may not have a good day — I mean, it’s a big deal. The expectations are really high and it’s been a little hard for some of our newer teachers. Parents aren’t hands-off here.

I attribute that (parental concern) to these intentional relationships that those teachers have with those parents. They know those families.

What is your approach to leadership?

I cannot do everything, and I’m not good at everything. So I really have to rely on the teachers and staff to contribute to what we want to do. This is your school, this is your work environment — everybody should want to be here and come work here.

(Teachers) need to be happy, just like the kids. I always tell them … I am not going into your classroom to catch you doing something wrong. I want to see all the great things you are doing.