The 780 students at Northwest Middle School face myriad challenges.
Ninety-two percent come from low-income homes and 87 percent are ethnic minorities. Nearly two-thirds don’t speak English at home.
Gains at Northwest Middle School
Math » Three years ago, only 37 percent of students were proficient on end-of-year tests. Last spring, 79 percent were proficient.
Science » Fewer than 4 in 10 (38 percent) of students were proficient on end-of-year tests in 2010; 58 percent were proficient last spring.
English/ language arts » Roughly 80 percent have been proficient on end-of-year tests for four years, but students were reading on average at a fourth-grade level in 2010. They now read at a seventh-grade level. Only 15 percent were considered proficient in writing four years ago; this year, 86 percent of eighth-graders were proficient.
Attendance » More than 90 percent of students have satisfactory attendance, and tardiness has been cut in half over three years.
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And yet, three years after receiving a $2.3 million multiyear school-improvement grant, the west-side Salt Lake City school has risen from the bottom to the top tier of Utah junior high and middle schools in student achievement.
The remarkable turnaround at Northwest is drawing national attention: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is touring the school on Thursday and engaging parents, students and educators in an hourlong discussion.
"In a short amount of time, not decades, you had radically, radically different results," he said at the school Thursday morning. "I want to hear that story, about how you guys have done this."
The school’s "phenomenal, phenomenal progress" has "national implications," he added, as turning around schools is some of the hardest, sometimes the most controversial, work educators face.
Northwest is the only school Duncan is visiting on his trip to the Beehive State.
The dramatic change began in 2010, when Northwest was awarded the $2.3 million grant by the Utah Office of Education. Most schools serving such students get several hundred thousand dollars in Title I federal money; this was an extra grant from Title I funds for concentrated improvement.
At the same time, Northwest got a $1 million technology grant from federal funds.
The money made a big difference, says Principal Brian Conley and Rachel Nance, a vice principal.
But mostly, it served as a jumping-off point, a door between the old way of doing business and the new.
"It’s way more than money," Nance says.
A new strategy » Conley came to the school in fall 2013 from the district office, where he had been overseeing 11 elementary schools.
He began by demanding teachers and staff foster a new culture that didn’t rely on tired stereotypes that set a low bar for low-income and minority students.
Seven of the school’s 40 teachers left right off the bat.
In fact, half the school’s teachers are new hires made in the past three years; some left on their own and some didn’t cut it, says Conley.
Generally, teachers who were too rigid to change the way they teach, or more passionate about their subjects than student learning, are gone, he says.
"If you’re going to teach here, you have to bring your A game every day," says Conley. "We have these students two years. We work like our hair is on fire."
Before, teachers worked as if they were on islands, he says.
Now, they are in teams that meet regularly to go over data that show which concepts students aren’t understanding, based on before-and-after testing on core curriculum. They drill down and target students for extra help, and they discuss whether methods work.Next Page >
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