The pre-writing process for Leah Bley’s 4th graders used to range from one extreme to the other. Students would either try to cram entire sentences into their text organizers or their notes would be so sparse that they were not very useful when students began work on their first drafts.

“Lesson after lesson, teachers were frustrated with why their students weren’t able to write more, expand upon their ideas, or follow the structure of the writing genre,” says Bley, who teaches at Fort Howard Elementary School in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Student writing was one of the factors contributing to gaps in academic performance between student groups at Fort Howard, and played a role in the school being given a “Fails to Meet Expectations” label in the state’s accountability system.

Looking for intensive support to help turn around the school’s struggling performance, Fort Howard began collaborating with WestEd in 2013 through a School Improvement Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Rooted in research-based practices, WestEd’s school improvement services emphasize tailored, context-based support. Accordingly, the collaboration began with WestEd staff conducting a needs assessment, examining Fort Howard’s data to identify areas for targeted improvement that would help the school better support its students, more than 90 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged and over 30 percent of whom are English learners.

Among the areas identified for improvement was student writing. WestEd staff worked closely with Fort Howard teachers to help them gain instructional strategies and practical tools for bolstering their students’ writing skills, including a practice in which students use file folders with notecard pockets to organize their ideas. The pockets include the elements of the genre in which students are writing and serve as quickly accessible reminders when students are structuring their stories and essays.

“It is amazing to see our students’ growth in writing,” says Bley. “From their stamina to their use of academic vocabulary and sentence structures. They’ve become so eager to share their writing and discuss their planning process.”

From the beginning of its turnaround work with WestEd, Fort Howard staff adopted a growth mindset — setting high expectations for both themselves and their students — and embraced the challenge of transforming a low-performing school.

“The approach was, ‘We’re going to show that we can do this,’” says Fort Howard Principal DeAnn Lehman.

The school’s efforts appear to be paying off. Over the course of its collaboration with WestEd, Fort Howard has moved from “Fails to Meet Expectations,” the lowest state accountability rating, to “Exceeds Expectations” — with a 24-point increase in the overall school score. In addition, the school recently earned a 95.8 out of 100 in the area of closing achievement gaps.

A multifaceted whole-child approach

The turnaround process at Fort Howard initially focused on improving school climate. “Our thought process was that we needed to do something different to shift the school culture in a positive direction,” Lehman says. And for a staff in which 85 percent of the members were new to the school, that wasn’t a bad place to start.

To form stronger partnerships with families, for instance, the school began using WestEd’s Academic Parent-Teacher Teams model, which helps parents better understand student data and develop strategies to support their children’s learning at home. Teachers also learned to focus on addressing signs of trauma in students and giving them “replacement behaviors” when necessary.

“It’s now about helping kids self-regulate, and it’s meeting what their needs are,” Lehman says. “Kids are feeling empowered and teachers are feeling empowered.”

Over time, the focus of the improvement efforts shifted to instructional practices, such as building students’ academic vocabulary and giving them opportunities to engage in conversation.

“We noticed that students were not doing most of the talking — the teachers were,” says Johnpaul Lapid, a senior research associate at WestEd who has spearheaded WestEd’s collaboration with Fort Howard. He discussed with the teachers how research supports the importance of developing oral language skills, especially for English learners. “Whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning.”

Teachers have since taken this knowledge to heart and seen the benefits of it in their practice.

Kids are feeling empowered and teachers are feeling empowered.

“I had to learn to let go of always having to be the person talking and allow my students to do the talking — but be there to guide and support them along the way,” says 1st grade teacher Lara Henke. She cites giving students sentence frames as a particularly helpful practice for those who may have a language barrier.

Academic conversation starters and norms are now an expectation in the classroom, Bley adds.

Collaborative, sustainable coaching

Lehman and her staff’s willingness to embrace the challenges of the turnaround process helped foster a productive partnership with WestEd, and also speaks to the importance of positive relationships between outside providers and the educators they are supporting.

Lapid and his colleagues brought a structure to the professional learning process that the school has now adopted as a way to continually improve its practice. The coaching cycle began with the teachers learning a strategy or approach to bring into the classroom. Lapid would demonstrate lessons for teachers, who would then come back together to debrief and ask questions about his teaching. Teachers had opportunities to practice the lessons and would share their experiences with others in their grade level as well as with special education teachers.

System-level support providers from the Green Bay Area Public School District — including English language development coordinators, instructional coaches, and administrators — also became involved and participated in professional learning sessions. During these sessions, and between WestEd visits, Lehman became an active participant in the learning process. “Having strong, hands-on leadership is very important to the success of the school improvement process,” says Lapid. “Principal Lehman’s enthusiasm and engagement have been infectious.” When Lapid visited the school, Lehman attended his sessions and modeled lessons for teachers in the classroom.

“I’m a totally different instructional leader than I was seven years ago,” Lehman says, adding that Lapid’s training and support provided teachers with a solid foundation and her role has been to help them “experience success and connect it to multiple areas of teaching and learning.”

“Data is just what we do”

Diving deep into genre types — giving students tools such as the file folders with notecard pockets — has been another focus for the staff. Bley says that Lapid has also supported teachers’ growth in learning how to augment the curriculum to meet students’ needs.

Henke admits she did not initially feel confident choosing other curricular materials when she thought her students were stuck. But because Lapid shared with teachers examples of how texts could be used to teach multiple standards, she has become more sure of herself in making those decisions.

For example, during one professional development session, Lapid introduced the teachers to I Need My Monster, an illustrated tale of a young boy who comes to rely on an under-the-bed creature. In Henke’s class, students use the text at the beginning of the year to practice completing an “OCR” chart, in which they identify the Orientation (the who, what, and where), Complication, and Resolution of the story as well as the specific language the author uses when writing a narrative. This method helps students meet the 1st grade standard of identifying main ideas and details in a narrative, while also deeply understanding the narrative genre so they are more successful reading other narratives and writing their own.

“When Johnpaul introduced the OCR process, it was mind blowing to me,” Henke says, adding that she can also use I Need My Monster to support students’ social–emotional skills by having them discuss the character’s feelings.

Now the OCR process is used as a way to collect formative data on students after mini-lessons, which has been a key priority for Lehman and her staff throughout their school improvement efforts. “Data is just what we do,” says Lehman. “We’ve focused on continually reflecting on the informal and ‘just-in-time’ data, which seems to really help staff to shift their instructional practices.”

As a group, the class completes a blank OCR chart for a mentor text (an example of good writing chosen by the teacher). Then, in groups, students use another familiar book to draw or write on an OCR chart. Eventually, they move from working on a known text to completing a chart for a book they choose on their own.

“This provides us with physical evidence of where the student is at with mastering that skill and if they are ready to take the next steps or if something needs to be adjusted to help them meet that skill,” Henke says. “As a grade-level team, we share student work samples and get feedback from each other as to where we want to go next.”

Moving forward

Lapid credits Fort Howard’s educators with dedicating themselves not just to exiting the school improvement phase, but to also continuing to grow through having honest conversations about adjustments that need to be made to best support the students.

“The program itself is not the silver bullet,” says Lapid. “In order for all this to work and for the dots to be connected, the principal, the staff, and the teachers play the integral role of refining and sustaining all of this great work.”