Student progress at the Pillsbury Community School in northeast Minneapolis, where more than half of the kids are still learning English, has improved through team-focused teaching. The success has attracted the attention of district officials, who are under pressure and struggling to boost achievement.
Last month, members of the school board, most of whom are up for re-election in a year, mandated faster gains, especially for Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.
After disappointing academic results for the last school year were released by the district in November, Johnson’s number 2, Michael Goar vowed that the district would pursue the eye-catching strategy of installing a second teacher in the primary-grade classrooms of a half-dozen struggling schools. However, the district’s mid-year adjustments are likely to be far more nuanced. Huddles between principals at about a dozen schools and their associate superintendent bosses will determine the midyear changes.
“It’s going to be so dependent on what the school identifies as their need,” said Susanne Griffin-Ziebart, the district’s academic chief.
Additionally, she said the district was trying to find what added resources principals think could make a difference but not pushing for a particular strategy.
“Part of our goal in doing this is to get better at what works and what doesn’t,” she said.
At Pillsbury, team teaching does seem to be working. According to Steve Brandt of the Star Tribune, last spring, the school shot up the state’s new multiple measurements of proficiency, student growth, and achievement gap reduction. Also, the school usually matches the average for reading, despite its concentration of new English speakers, as well as outperforming the district averages for math proficiency. Among such students, it outperforms the state and district for reading proficiency, and in math, it does so by a wide margin. Additionally, the school matches the district for reading proficiency among low-income students, and beats the state as well for math proficiency among those students.
Pillsbury puts a big emphasis on teaming classroom teachers with specialists focused on learning English, special education, and gifted students as the immigrant population is high and almost nine in every ten students qualifying as low-income.
Cavender, who is in her fourth year leading the school, launched the Pillsbury approach.
“The climate is a very collaborative climate,” she said.
Under Cavender, the school supplemented district English-learner money with its own budget to put an English-learner teacher at each grade level. Not counting the building’s autism program, it also budgeted to raise its special education teaching staff from one to 2.7 teachers. A teacher for gifted students was added by the building funds. Giving up a position that handled playground supervision and other duties was one trade-off.
Specialist teachers at Pillsbury are more likely than at other schools to go into mainstream classes to work with students more than they pull students out for individual and small group work. Means classes get more adult time and there are more eyes on student behavior according to the teachers.
“You’re also kind of modeling social intelligence — how adults interact with each other,” said Mark Trumper, the building’s sole teacher specializing in English learners.