By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

McMinnville shows off model schools

Starla Pointer / News-Register
Sue Olsen, a reading specialist at Memorial Elementary, center left, talks about McMinnville programs with visitors from Gaston, Eugene and Reynolds school districts.
Starla Pointer / News-Register
Sue Olsen, a reading specialist at Memorial Elementary, center left, talks about McMinnville programs with visitors from Gaston, Eugene and Reynolds school districts.

In addition to listening to speakers describe various aspects of McMinnville’s instructional program, they visited classrooms at Grandhaven, Memorial and Sue Buel schools. The three were named “model schools” last year, when the state unveiled a new ranking system.

The rankings apply only to high-poverty schools, which are those receiving Title I funding because at least 50 percent of their students qualify for the federal Free & Reduced Lunch program. All six McMinnville elementary schools fall under Title I, and the other three came close to meeting the model school cutoff as well.

Some of the educators who attended McMinnville’s conference Wednesday came from districts targeted for assistance under the new state rankings.

During a visit to the model schools, the visitors watched a variety of math and language arts lessons in different grade levels.

In one room at Memorial Elementary, Sandra Mix’s third-graders demonstrated “Flyswatter Math,” a game the teacher said could be used with any subject. She asked questions and students competed to be the first to swat the correct answers.

“Ten times what equals 50?” Mix asked.

Slap! Slap! the flyswatters went as two students hit the number five, written on a white board.

“Forty divided by eight equals what?” the teacher continued.

Two students approached the white board, flyswatters aloft, but they hesitated too long. “OK, everybody say it,” Mix said, and she was joined by the whole class in repeating, “forty divided by eight equals five.”

In another room, visitors watched a teacher and several teaching assistants work with small groups of first-graders.

Title I Reading Intervention Specialist Sue Olsen explained that it was in addition to the hour of reading first- and second-graders get every day. The hour includes 20 minutes each of phonics, reading instruction and independent literacy.

The daily small-group lessons are made possible by all the teachers at a grade level as well as teaching assistants working together.

“You have to have buy-in on that,” said Olsen, who also has taught first-grade and kindergarten. “You have to have trust to send your kids to other teachers.”

Visitors had questions about the books and curriculum used at Memorial and other McMinnville schools. Olsen, and later other local staff members, said the district’s success is due less to the materials that are available and more to the way the materials are used.

Districtwide, she and others said, teachers collaborate, plan and assess together, and work with each other to keep learning and improving.

Memorial Principal Deborah Weiner said visitors got to see “how we’re really focused on the state standards, how we really take them apart, figure out what kids need and come up with ways to deliver that.”

They also saw how McMinnville teachers keep track of students’ progress and identify those who need help or extra challenges, Weiner said. If a student is not working at grade level in any subject area, teachers not only work with him or her, but also share the information with parents and teacher teams that can provide more focuses help.

“We try to stay really focused on kids, instructing them and engaging them,” she said. “It’s a sustained effort by the whole staff. We depend on each other just like we want the kids to do.”

During lunch and a program at the Evergreen Space Museum, McMinnville administrators talked about three core practices in the district: using common formative assessments, assembling data teams and relying on power strategies for effective teaching.

Common formative assessments give teachers a way to talk about how students are doing. Every teacher is using the same language and same standards, said Kyra Donovan, director of elementary programs.

Data teams are used throughout the district, as well. Grade level teams — all the fifth-grade teachers in a building, for instance — get together weekly with data they’ve collected on students and look at what’s working and what could be done better.

It gives them a chance to think about new strategies and how to use them for improvement, said Pattie Waltz, director of personnel. And it’s helped ensure that all teachers know the standards to which they are teaching and the results they should be looking for, said Amy Fast, one of the district’s instructional coaches.

In addition, Donovan said, “We hold each other accountable, hold on to each other to move forward and not slide backward to the way we’ve always done things.”

The power strategies are researched-based methods for improving instruction. Eighteen administrators and teachers have been trained to train other teachers. Teachers practice the strategies at weekly staff meetings, and peers model them for each other.

“Of all the things we do, strong instruction has the most impact on kids,” said Cathy Carnahan, principal of Duniway Middle School.

Together, Superintendent Maryalice Russell said, the power strategies, data teams and common formative assessments make sure educators are delivering effective instruction and are held accountable for it working. And that leads to success, she said.

“It’s not the curriculum we use,” she said. “It’s the practices.”

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