Naytahwaush Charter School celebrates academic jump
In a small, off-the-beaten path White Earth Reservation school, soft echoes of Ojibwe can be heard floating through the hallways, mixing with the muffled teachings of math and children reading.
Although rich in Native American culture, the K-6 Naytahwaush Community Charter School hasn't exactly been known for its academic excellence. In fact, it's historically sat towards the very bottom of the list for that sort of thing — second to the last among the long list of Minnesota schools.
The student makeup is 100 percent Native American, with nearly all of them qualifying for free and reduced lunches, meaning poverty is a way of life there.
A year and a half ago, the state of Minnesota deemed Naytahwaush a "priority school," or a school in serious need of improvement.
It isn't exactly a designation desired by a community, but for Naytahwaush, it marked a new beginning.
That's because sometime between then and now the little charter school of only 120 students has gone from its usual place at the bottom of academic performance to a place of celebration.
A Celebration School
Right before holiday break, school officials at the Naytahwaush Community Charter School got the news they had been waiting for — the Minnesota Department of Education had named them a "Celebration School." It was the only school on the White Earth Indian Reservation to receive that designation, which puts them in the top half of Title 1 schools in Minnesota.
And what's so remarkable about this is they achieved it in only one school year.
"Our MMR (Multiple Measurements Rating) went from 4 percent to 56 percent," said Terri Anderson, director of the school.
Anderson says that rating is based on the Minnesota assessments that all students in the state take in the core subjects like math, reading and science.
Less than a quarter of the young Native American students at Naytahwaush were considered proficient before the "turnaround." Now, that's up by around 15 percent in only one year. There's still an obvious need for continued improvement, but the momentum at Naytahwaush seems to be palpable.
When Naytahwaush received its "turnaround" designation, it applied for and received a School Improvement Grant of $325,000.
School administrators quickly put that to use.
They hired a full-time continuous improvement specialist who also dubs as a teaching coach, as well as adding an assessment coordinator and a student support position to help with behavioral issues.
Over the past year, research-based assessments have been the name of the game every single day — not just for students, but teachers.
"The number one factor in whether a student does well academically is the teacher in the classroom," said Anderson, who says teachers at Naytahwaush were well-intentioned and dedicated, but missing the mark.
The start of the turnaround would begin with teachers receiving an incredible amount of training from professionals who continue to come in and assess them on a weekly basis as they try out their new curriculum and techniques.
"They are also spending an hour and a half every week after school in their professional learning community where they get together, assess the performance of the students who need intervention, and then figure out ways to improve it," said Anderson, who says now when students there start to slip behind a little bit, there is an instant intervention where they receive additional, individual support.
Fifth grader Kaleb Neadeau says last year he had a tough time with reading.
"I didn't really understand what I was reading — I always had to read things more than once," he said. But with his teacher implementing a new literacy program with a proven track record and some instructional intervention, Kaleb says he now loves to read.
"I liked it before, but it was hard," he said. "Now, I read all the time - at home, too," he said, excited to talk about the plot of the latest book he's read.
Kaleb's excitement isn't unique at Naytahwaush these days. Anderson says the fast and incredible results from some much-needed changes has staff, students and the entire community excited.
She says school staff is now, more than ever, building a relationship with parents in the community with home visits and new ways for parents to get involved in the schools and their children's budding education.
"It's made everybody feel really good that the students are really getting prepared for their future," said Anderson, who says there is a lot more talk among students of down-the-road goals like college and good jobs.
Now with posters, banners and T-shirts around the school that read "Celebration School", educators and students there seem to have gotten the biggest lesson in overcoming adversity. What was once a failing school now feels more like a little, hidden jewel of opportunity on the White Earth Reservation.
"Hope is a great word, and what has happened here has given people lots of hope," said Anderson. "And it's not just hope, it is results. It can be done."
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