Friday, September 29, 2023 Categories:
Story by Deb Seminary, contributing writer

The COVID pandemic had many impacts on our children, and one of the most significant was the decrease in their school grades and test scores. One North Dakota school district saw the decline and immediately went to work to reverse the situation. The result? Their English Language Arts (ELA) academic achievement scores went from 26% in the 2020-2021 school year to 48% in the 2022-2023 school year. Their math scores increased from 20% to 32% in the same time frame.  

“After COVID we looked at our data, saw where some of the holes were in our curriculum and evaluated what we were seeing from some of the educational practices that happened during COVID,” said Dr. Sherry Tandeski, St. John Elementary principal. “We implemented an intense, six-week summer academy the summer of 2021, which really helped with our scores. (The summer academy is offered to all students, K – 8.) We also started goal setting and data tracking with our students.”

At the middle school, they implemented a lot of what they did at the elementary level – focusing on the data specifically.

“We implemented MTSS (Multi-Tier System of Supports) teams to group students to provide individual instruction,” explained St. John Middle School Principal Catherine Anderson. “We also added additional classes for reading and math and evaluated our curriculum.”

The high school concentrated more on literacy and are currently in their third year working with Dr. Brenda Tufte, associate dean of education and behavioral science and professor of education at the University of Mary, on professional development. In addition to professional development, regular education paraprofessionals are assigned to students that need extra support.

“We started a freshman reading class, but mostly we concentrated on building relationships with our students,” said Charles Anderson, St. John High School principal. “This helped get them to school and gave them the desire to work hard in the classroom. If there was a positive that came out of COVID, it was that students appreciated getting back to school. Once we started seeing successes, we worked hard on celebrating them. We were also honored with the Department of Public Instruction (NDDPI) Distinguished School Award, which meant a lot to the students.”

Another addition is a PreK Program that has really helped with preparing students in reading and math. “We got a Best in Class Grant to help with the funding, curriculum, and training,” said Dr. Tandeski. “The kindergarten teachers talk about how much more ready students are when they get to their classes.”

Several grants have helped fund their additional needs. Besides ESSER funds, they received the Comprehensive Literacy State Development Grant that allowed them to get reading coaches and provide training for staff, a Science of Reading Grant, a MathND Grant, and a Stronger Connections Grant for social-emotional learning (SEL). They also received a GEAR UP grant specifically for the Summer Academy.

The funds also helped the schools target professional development. They looked at schedules and needs which resulted in intense training on Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS), Tufte to help with literacy, and bringing a trainer on staff to make sure all teachers have the training they need. The additional funds helped to add a nurse, a school resource officer, and a third special education teacher to the K-12 school.

“We have an amazing staff dedicated to their careers and they work extremely hard,” said Catherine. “We share data and make sure they are part of the vision. Their positive attitudes and willingness to take on new things definitely helps us reach our goals. We have 100% buy-in from our staff because they care about our kids.”

The St. John Public School District is located in rural North Dakota and has a very high percentage of at-risk students. However, the teacher shortage does not seem to be an issue.

“We have been very lucky – we don’t have high (staff) turnover,” said Charles. “Once they come here, they usually don’t leave. We have a local college that brings teachers to us – their students want to come here for their educational practicums and student teaching. We have had staff challenges, but not like a lot of other schools.

“One of the things we do is help the staff understand where our students come from and what they may be going through, making sure we are always communicating, talking about students that may need extra help. Again, always talking about building relationships. At our recent homecoming coronation they asked the candidates what they would miss most about high school and a majority talked about missing the staff. That just reinforces the importance of the relationship building we are doing with our students.”

Some of the specific things they have done to help build better relationships with their students include bringing in Brian Mendler, an expert in dealing with tough students. They also brought in two local presenters to help better understand students and the school sends as many staff as possible to the annual North Dakota Indian Education Summit in the summer so they can understand where students’ families come from and what they may be dealing with. 

The schools have done many things to make sure their students have the best environment for learning.

“In K-8 we have implemented the House Mentoring System,” said Catherine. “It divides students into houses to celebrate greatness, promote teamwork and school pride, while building character in our students through positive mentoring activities. They also work on goal setting and community projects while doing good deeds throughout the school day to earn house points. 

“The House concept has really created a positive culture, like a family within the school,” added Dr. Tandeski.

At the middle school they have the BARR system, which is Building Assets, Reducing Risks. It helps to identify student needs by focusing on being more proactive in challenging times and meeting needs before they escalate. The elementary school has implemented Beat the Odds®, a social-emotional learning curriculum helping students work on self-regulation skills.

“We also have our humanoid robots from RoboKind, Mylo and Veda, which has allowed us to teach self-regulation and calming skills to Pre-K-2nd grade students,” said Dr. Tandeski. “The curriculum provides strategies we send home with them so they can practice there, as well.”

“I love seeing the middle school students showing pride in their school and taking ownership over their own learning,” said Catherine. “They are setting goals not just for scores but for their behaviors, and they are seeing hope. They have learned coping skills and are working really hard to achieve and be better.”

Because they have a lot of at-risk students, they try to implement more opportunities for family involvement and time for students to be at school. They have multiple family nights and parent-teacher conferences. In high school they have an eighth hour study hall for all students so they can get homework done before they go home. In the elementary school, they have a breakfast club where students read with staff – and sometimes even middle school students – at breakfast.

“Our biggest success is the high school graduation rate, which is 100%,” said Charles. “That is the one thing that sticks out and the one question I get most, ‘what are you guys doing?’ Our students almost have a ‘refuse to lose’ attitude, and it starts when they get here. They may struggle, but they are constantly working – at the elementary and middle school levels – to get where they need to be when they enter high school.”

All three principals credit their school board and superintendents for their successes.

“It starts at the top,” said Charles. “They allow us to do our jobs and are very supportive. We also thank all of our state resources – NDDPI and North Central Education Cooperative in particular. They work side by side with us.”

The St. John Public School District is working hard to ensure their students have the tools they need to succeed. Their test scores and graduation rate show that all that hard work is paying off.