In Schools that work, the St. Paul Pioneer Press analyzed three years of test scores to find elementary schools where low-income students are doing better than expected. Then the newspaper analyzed what was different in these odds-beating schools, like Dayton’s Bluff in St. Paul.
School visits and interviews showed that the factors seen as critical to success at Dayton’s Bluff also are found at many of the other schools: They have strong principals and a cohesive staff who offer students consistency and structure. They emphasize reading and writing above all else. And they focus instruction on the needs of individual students rather than trying to reach some average child.
After years of rock-bottom test scores, Dayton’s Bluff got a new principal in 2001 and many new teachers. The school started to improve.
Before the upswing, as many as two-thirds of sixth-graders couldn’t read past a second-grade level. Now, about four of the school’s 45 sixth-graders aren’t reading at their grade level — and about 40 percent of kindergarteners are reading at a first-grade level.
The student population remains much the same. Almost all receive free or reduced-price lunches — an indicator of poverty — and almost one-third require extra help with English.
Successful schools are focused on academics, especially reading and math.
Dayton’s Bluff students know their goals and are told how they’re progressing to reach them. Bulletin boards in classrooms and hallways post student work along with samples that meet state standards in those subjects.
“We had a pretty lengthy debate over that,” said design coach Wojtasiak. “Some of us were afraid it might hurt their self-esteem. But you need to give them a target.”
Dayton’s Bluff has mediocre test scores, but it exceeds expectations for its disadvantaged students.