United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Utah’s Northwest Middle School last Thursday, where he held a school improvement grant roundtable discussion with administrators, teachers, parents and students with regards to a grant award from 2010 designed to improve the Title I school.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education awarded Northwest a $2.3 million grant aimed at improving school performance over the course of three years. More than 90 percent of the students at Northwest are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and 87 percent of them are minority students. In the three years of the grant, the school has seen math proficiency rise from 37 percent of students to 79 percent, and science proficiency grow from 38 percent to 58 percent. Tardiness has been cut in half, and nearly 80 percent of students’ families attended at least one parent-teacher conference.
The school, which sits in the northwest corner of the Rose Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City, has an enrollment of roughly 800 students. As part of the federal grant, the school was able to provide access to 600 wireless devices and install smart chalkboards in every classroom.
“We had islands of strong teaching, but it was almost like going to a swim meet and seeing a team perform poorly but [with a few strong swimmers,]” Brian Conley , principal of Northwest Middle School, “[We decided] that we’re going to win as a group or fail as a group and learn from it.”
One of the more controversial ideas Northwest implemented was performance-based pay for teachers. The program rewards teachers based on the subject they teach and how well their students perform. The Utah Education Association has no official stance of this pay practice, but “Advocate[s] for maintenance of the existing negotiated salary schedules tied to a valid and reliable evaluation system.” Rachael Nance, Assistant Principal at Northwest, said that at first the program wasn’t initially welcomed by the teachers. “The first two years of the bonus, after the paychecks went out, […] the next two weeks there was tension in the hallways ,” said Nance, “this year, when paychecks went out, you couldn’t feel it. It was normal.”
Maria Moreno, an employee of Northwest and parent of a Northwest student, highlighted the changes she felt were the most effective for students like rewarding student progress with longer lunch periods, prizes and requiring students with repeat truancy having to have their lunch in the administrative offices. Moreno also noted that the first noticeable changes came from the school’s new leadership. “[When I talked to] the community and parents, [they] would say ‘northwest is not a good school,’” said Moreno “I’d tell them ‘no, it’s a good school, we just don’t have the right [principal] right now.’”
In 2012, the Utah Legislature passed S.B. 64, establishing a rating system for educators that ties student performance to teachers’ salaries. The rating system is expected to come into effect in 2015.