Changing Culture and Increased Focus on Math at Snowflake Unified Greatly Improved Student Achievement
Snowflake, AZ | Submitted by Hollis Merrell
We’ve all heard someone say it. Maybe we’ve even said it ourselves. “I’m just no good at math!” It’s an epidemic in this country, and it’s something that every educator is battling, as youth hear this sentiment from parents, coaches and other influencers.
Thankfully, some educators have found ways of inspiring students and building their arithmetic confidence. For close to a decade, math skills have been a primary focus for the Snowflake Unified School District, and they have seen great success as a result.
At a rural district with more than 2,600 students in the Snowflake and Taylor areas, where close to half of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, leadership knew they would need to create strong alignment between the teams at two K-3 schools, two 4-6 schools, the junior high and high schools. They understood that some teachers were highly effective, which created pockets of success, but that wasn’t enough. New teachers needed more guidance and teams would need to integrate between grade levels, allowing for smoother transitions for students.
The resulting professional learning communities (PLCs), has ushered in system-wide gains. Grade level teachers plan together, share best practices and trouble-shoot challenges in regular meetings. In one instance, a third grade teacher had such impressive results that she shared her methods with the district and many of her team members adopted similar tactics. The district sent teacher representatives to PLC training, who brought their learnings back to the schools to ensure that they’re all working from the same playbook. To help support teachers, the district undertook a refresh of their curriculum map, which has made a big difference in student achievement.
Beyond working within grade levels, the Snowflake team collaborates above and below their own grades. Having a firm understanding of where students are coming from, and where they need to go, ensures that everyone is on the same page. This is especially important in lower grades, where foundations are set. In later grades, sixth grade teachers help to identify those students who will be on-track to take Algebra 1 in eighth grade. Using classroom grades, district assessments, AzMERIT scores and teacher recommendations, they keep a close watch on these students to ensure that they don’t fall behind or become overwhelmed.
Once this cohort has reached eighth grade, leadership has created a variety of interventions to ensure their success. For those who seem to have trouble, re-teach opportunities are available. This daily class allows them multiple opportunities to master a concept, since not all students learn at the same pace. And for all students, a short, weekly quiz helps teachers understand who might need additional assistance. Every month, teachers meet to go over student data and ensure that students are on the right track.
But these opportunities aren’t limited to eighth graders. Re-teaching is available at all grade levels. All students even have a daily math skills class – a 15-minute refresher on basic computational skills.
As a result of their efforts, math skills have improved district-wide. Changes have been especially noticeable at the middle school level, where they have had a few years of 100 percent mastery in Algebra 1. Even those who take the course in high school maintain high performance levels. At the high school level, students have a four-day school week. But teachers are available on Fridays for those who need one-on-one help.
Before the changes, the district was home to two B and four C schools. They now boast three A schools, including Snowflake High School. They’re one of only 13 public schools to achieve that distinction. AzMERIT scores are well above state average, though the district still sees room for improvement. On the most recent test, more than half of Snowflake eighth graders were proficient or highly proficient, as compared to less than 30 percent statewide. That margin of difference was even greater for students taking the algebra 1 and geometry exams.
It’s the hard work, enthusiasm and skill of dedicated educators that has made their progress possible. Not to mention the benefits that stemmed from the support from the Snowflake Unified’s district leadership and board, which allowed time for PLCs, innovation in their planning and new access to data and analytical tools.
Years before the Arizona Education Progress Meter was launched, Snowflake Unified was already working toward the goal of improving math performance. Thanks to their efforts, and those of so many other schools in every corner of the state, the Progress Meter goal of having 69 percent of eighth graders proficient in math – a figure that currently stands at 36 percent statewide – is in sight.