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State studies native pupils’ success in DL

Tom Mason, drum and dance coach, helped present an award to Native American students at the Detroit Lakes Middle School after they ranked number one in the state for student academic achievement scores. BRIAN BASHAM/DL NEWSPAPERS

Students and staff at the Detroit Lakes Middle School received honors Thursday for being among the top in the state in academics.

MinnCan is a non-profit education advocacy group that is touring what they have determined are some of the best schools in Minnesota.

Their goal, they say, is to essentially gather information on “what is right and working” in the best schools in the state in order to bring that back to legislators as they push for future educational policies.

Detroit Lakes stood out among the pack for a couple of reasons, with the number one eye-catcher being the district’s American Indian students.

“DL Middle School landed as the number one school of all middle schools in Minnesota as having the top Native American Achievement on the state assessments,” said MinnCAN’s Nicholas Banovetz, as he walked around the school.

“And what we want to find out is … what are some of the strategies and ideas that worked here to really strengthen student learning outcomes for, in particular, Native American students?”

What makes the distinction even more notable is the fact that only a few years ago, native students in Detroit Lakes were behind the curve.

“They were not making AYP (adequate yearly progress),” said Joe Carrier, who heads up the American Indian learning programs for the Detroit Lakes School District, “and so that caused us to say, hey, we need to look closer at this and we need to beef up some things.”

Those “things” included prioritizing the students at risk, putting more emphasis on math, as well as getting parents more involved in their children’s learning.

Today, Carrier says while there are still a couple of academic areas where native students in Detroit Lakes lag behind non-native students, it’s usually “pretty darn close,” he said, adding that the middle school students becoming No. 1 in state assessments is a big reason to celebrate.

“Just like football or other sports get a lot of attention, academically, this is like our state championship,” he said, smiling.

And while the native students’ scores are the crowning achievement of an over-all good showing for the school district, it is only one reason why MinnCAN is interested in studying the Detroit Lakes schools.

“Learning more about the professional learning communities here is of particular interest to us,” said Banovetz, “because while this is a common thing many schools have adopted, it varies so much from school to school. We want to know what’s working the best.”

Professional learning communities are essentially the collaborations between teachers who meet during the day to help each other figure out challenges or generate ideas that work.

The PLC’s seemed to be one of those ideas that worked, as Middle School Principal Mike Sukert says it helped pull them out of some struggling reports.

“Five or six years ago we got some data and saw many of our students were receiving failing marks either at progress report time or at grade reporting time, and it was at an alarming rate,” said Sukert, who says it was nearing 50 percent, “and then we just decided, we are not going to allow kids to fail anymore.”

Collaboration in the professional learning communities, he says, was one way they were able to pull that “failing” percent down to six percent.

MinnCan representatives were also interested in the district’s long-standing practice of teacher evaluations.

“Teacher and principal evaluations are not very common in Minnesota schools,” said Banovetz, who says one policy their group pushed for was to inject teacher evaluations throughout all Minnesota school districts, which he says will roll out soon.

MinnCAN officials also visited the Waubun school Thursday morning.  The school that was labeled as needing a “turn-around” a few years ago is now catching the attention of the state’s educational leaders like MinnCAN.

That’s because district leaders there have used school improvement grants to implement programs and change that has many believing that money was put to good use.

“In a matter of five years they’ve been able to shift their 11th and 12th grade math curriculum down to the ninth grade,” said Banovetz.