The Anatomy of an Outlier: A Culture of Collaboration at Schickler Elementary is Beating the Odds

This feature appeared in the Choices in Education tab in the Lapeer County Press on October 7, 2017. 

LAPEER, Michigan — Mindy Schwab has witnessed firsthand how changes in instructional practices can impact the success of students. Schwab, a mother of six whose youngest attends Schickler Elementary in Lapeer, watched as one of her daughters struggled at times in her quest to get to the correct answer.

She believes now, as she did then, that there’s value in the process.

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Karen Allmen, learning coach at Schickler Elementary, cuts the ribbon at the grand opening of the school’s new literacy center on October 2, 2017. (Jared Field, photo)

“Once she learned how to study and had an understanding of the concepts involved, she really started to excel,” she said.

This focus on the process is one of a myriad of new approaches to learning that, for many students and

parents, has been a game-changer.

Schwab is a PTC mom and volunteer at Schickler who has seen a monumental change in the perception of the school in recent years, in large part due to the all-hands-on-deck approach to student-centered learning and collaboration – that, and a little old-fashioned homemaking.

“There was always the notion that (Schickler) was the ‘city school,’ but now they don’t seem to have a problem getting kids there,” she said. “Parents want their students there now.”

As LCS Superintendent Matt Wandrie pointed out in a celebratory e-mail on student data sent to all staff last month, he heard the same thing about Schickler when he came to the District in 2011.

“That term is as much about socioeconomics as it is geography,” Wandrie said. “This is a diverse school not just demographically, but with respect to individual needs of students.”

Wandrie said the implication of the term, in his mind, was that one couldn’t expect the same levels of student achievement seen in other schools with smaller at-risk populations.

“We don’t subscribe to that premise and, I can assure you, the staff there rejects it out of hand,” he said. “All students can learn, and every adult connected to the school plays a role in their success.”

Don’t believe it? Spend a day with the Schickler Family.

Beating the Odds

Schickler is now one of the top-performing elementary schools among its peers, a Reward School as designated by the State of Michigan. It’s one of a small percentage of schools recognized by the Michigan Department of Education for “Beating the Odds.”

In 2015, 30 percent of Schickler students were proficient on the M-STEP, the assessment that replaced the MEAP that year. The following year 39 percent of students were proficient. This year, that number increased to 54 percent, making it the top-performing elementary school in the District — remarkable growth by any objective measure.

“People outside Lapeer are taking notice of what’s happening here, and at Schickler specifically,” Wandrie said. “Traditional barriers to student success are being overcome, and we’re excited to tell that story.”

When principal Scott Warren came to Schickler Elementary five years ago with his colleague and current learning coach, Karen Allmen, he knew they were stepping into a difficult situation with a recently blended staff.

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“Our reality, at the time, was very challenging,” he said. “From day one we identified our current reality, took ownership of our problems and set a course for where we wanted to go. That first year was all about community building.”

Warren says the success the school has achieved in recent years is built upon a foundation familiar to all students and staff: The Schickler Family. It is an intentional effort to involve parents, and everyone connected to the school, in the education of students.

“We’ve done 500 things that all contribute to student success, but there’s no silver bullet,” he said. “There’s no doubt, though, that the focus on building a culture conducive for success, for both students and staff, was extremely important.”

When you can cultivate an environment of acceptance and trust, like many of us experience in our own homes, you have created a quality learning environment. Often it’s the small things that make all the difference.

Every school needs a Julie McCallum in the office who treats students like they are her own; every school needs a teacher and coach like Kelly Vangel, who leaves notes of encouragement on the lockers of students who need it most, and welcomes back families by name when they return to school.

Warren points out that a school can employ all the latest and greatest techniques, but everything has to work within the context of the needs of students and staff. He said his staff faced the challenges head on, and didn’t sugarcoat them.

Where you come from does not dictate what you can know or where you can go.

“We were honest about the things we can’t change, the things we have no control over,” Warren said. “But we also recognize that from the minute our students walk in the door to the minute they leave, we can make a difference in their lives.”

It was years in the making.

A Culture of Collaboration

The staff at Schickler is not a team of rivals, a collection of cliques simply sharing a space. For years, the staff at Schickler has been intentional about collaboration from top to bottom.

“At Schickler, collaboration is not one team doing it well,” said Kendra Carter, who teaches second grade. “It’s an entire staff collaboration beyond the scope of our day and across all grade levels.”

Rachael Fisher, who works alongside Carter, said the staff is all-in on honing their practices as a team with shared goals and outcomes. They sharpen each other’s instructional practices every day.

“Our staff is consistently improving and reflecting upon best practices based on our number one priority, our students’ needs,” she said.

Warren credited his staff’s openness to assessment of their own practices by fellow teachers, learning coaches and administrators.

“Where there’s trust, there’s opportunity,” he said. “We have teachers that have no fear about asking for help from colleagues. They are dedicated to the improvement of their craft and helping students take the necessary next steps to further their learning.”

Amy Hundt, a special education teacher at the school, said the learning coach model in place at Schickler is raising the bar for her students. They often meet together, and with individual students, to discuss strategies, analyze data and receive immediate feedback about how to reach students where they are.

“To me, the greatest benefits to this are seeing strategies modeled with my own students,” she said. “Sharing and planning in this way ensures that we’re all on the same page with our instruction, doing and saying the same things during our lessons with the child.”

Lora Richardson, the longest-serving member of the Schickler staff, is probably most qualified to speak about the school’s success.

“This is the most caring, dedicated and hardest-working staff that I’ve ever worked with,” she said. “Students know that the Schickler staff truly cares about them and their success and, because of this, they strive to meet expectations.”

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