In our popular culture, we root for underdogs. We cheered when Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson, when Villanova shocked the world against Georgetown. If experience has taught us anything, it’s that anyone dedicated to their craft, and focused on growth, can beat the odds.
At our core, we believe that effort inevitably leads to excellence; but, what does it mean to “beat the odds” in education?
Ask any teacher at Schickler Elementary in Lapeer.
Last month, Schickler was honored by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) as a Reward School for doing just that. Schickler, along with Murphy Elementary, were the only two Reward Schools in Lapeer County in the 2015-16 school year.
“Beating the Odds” schools overcome traditional barriers to student achievement and are outperforming schools with similar risk factors and demographic makeup. Only 219 of the more than 3,000 schools in the state were recognized as Reward Schools.
Beating the odds requires staff collaboration, differentiation, engagement, data-driven decision making and high expectations; it starts with the fundamental belief that all students can learn.
“There isn’t a magic formula to improving student achievement,” said Scott Warren, Schickler’s principal since 2013. “We acknowledged our current reality, created a solid vision that made sense for our building and the population we serve.”
Rachael Fisher, a second grade teacher at Schickler, believes education is a team sport. For Fisher, collaboration among the entire staff is a major factor leading to better outcomes for students.
“Everyone here engages in collaboration to succeed,” said Fisher, who has three of her own children at Schickler. “We know we can try new teaching techniques and be creative with how we reach all learners.”
The sign that greets every visitor to the school sums up the the culture Fisher describes quite succinctly: “You, Me, Us, We, Schickler Family.”
“We don’t look at culture and academics as two different things,” said Karen Allmen, a learning coach at Schickler. “Instead, we’re trying to approach our work with the idea that the feel, environment and attitude of our school can set the stage for learning.”
Allmen sees a recognition in the staff that for students and teachers to do their best, there must be a “whatever it takes” approach to teaching and learning.
“Whether or not a child is in your class, or on your caseload, we help each other get kids what they need,” she said.
Andrea Rezanka, a fifth grade teacher at Schickler, pointed to the staff’s commitment to differentiation – the process of tailoring instructional techniques to reach different types of learners.
“We’ve focused on differentiating our instruction and assessments to create independent learners,” she said. “Focusing on what we can change within our building and classrooms, as well as making sure that our students ‘buy in’ to their education, has also contributed to our success.”
Another focus of the staff is student engagement. There is ample research that points to the connection between student engagement and student achievement. Harnessing the innate curiosity of students while fostering their creativity can transform a classroom.
“(Teachers) need to design purposeful lessons, tie classroom learning to the real-world, affirm, challenge and encourage students to learn,” Rezanka said. “When students are excited, curious, and intrigued, they put forth more effort.”
Allmen believes that high expectations, of students and staff, can change the game.
“There’s research that shows that the expectation level of a teacher has a big impact on how successful a student can be,” Allmen said. “For me, trying to keep expectations high for all the students I interact with, and then thinking about what kind of support each child might need to reach that expectation, is a continuous goal.”
Allmen, who has spent the last four years as a learning coach, says she has witnessed a greater demand for professional development every year.
“(The demand) goes far above and beyond what is required by the District and the State,” she said. “This reflects our shared belief that we are all here to serve all our students, and we want to maximize the time they have with us.”
Michelle Bradford, the District’s Executive Director for Curriculum and Instruction, credits the staff’s consistent adherence to a growth mindset for improving student outcomes.
“It’s leading a culture of transformation for students,” she said. “The staff is comfortable breaking down the four walls of the classroom and collaborating on shared strategies to improve their skills for teaching and learning.”
And it didn’t happen overnight. The Schickler staff has spent the bulk of the last four years working as a team, building up trust and confidence in each other. It was a long overdue recognition for a staff truly dedicated to meeting the needs of all students.
“It was wonderful to see the relentless efforts of our students and staff come to fruition,” Fisher said. “I’m very proud to be a part of such a great family … I wouldn’t want my kids anywhere else.”