Clifton Elementary transforms scores, school culture

Anne Djokic leads the morning assembly, a routine begun at Clifton Elementary School to help students sharpen their concentration for the day. Djokic is a teacher for gifted and talented students at the school and also helps struggling students as an interventionist.

Photos by Gretel Daugherty and Dean Humphrey—Clifton Elementary School Principal Michelle Mansheim answers a question for an audience of students’ parents during a recent pizza dinner at the school. Parents’ night is one way the school is using a federal No Child Left Behind grant to help students improve scores, trying to increase parental involvement in their children’s progress.


Morning assemblies help students start day with positive attitude

One element of Clifton Elementary School’s transformation that didn’t require dipping into grant dollars was the addition of morning assemblies.

Since the school added them last year, fewer students are showing up late. The assemblies gather children for a half hour between breakfast time at the school and the start of the school day at 8:50 a.m. So, if they show up for the assembly, there are fewer chances of students showing up late for their first class, something Clifton fourth-grade teacher Alice Haberkorn said used to be a problem.

“The assembly starts at 8:20 a.m., so kids are getting here earlier,” Haberkorn said. And when the assembly is over, “The kids are prepared and ready to go in the morning.”

Before, problems from home or on the playground might follow students to school and affect their mood for the day. But with Clifton employee Anne Djokic leading the assemblies with a fast-paced, ebullient flair, it’s hard for kids to keep a chip on their shoulders. Djokic teaches vocabulary words to the students “through music and motivation” and honors students who have done well on tests.

“It gets them focused. They walk in ready to learn,” Djokic said.

Since the assemblies began, starting the day with a better attitude has helped decrease referrals to the principal’s office.

Principal Michelle Mansheim said student referrals to her office went from 257 her first year at the school, 2008-09, to 173 last year. So far this year there have been 33 student referrals to the office.

“We are changing the culture here,” Djokic said. “Last year we had nearly 100 hours of administration dealing with problems that happened before school. Now we have 500 kids singing songs, recognizing birthdays and learning vocabulary.”

A lot changed last year at Clifton Elementary School.

Discipline problems and tardiness decreased, and scores increased as students were assessed more often throughout the year to track their progress. They started the day on a high note with a new morning assembly during which they learned vocabulary words and celebrated academic achievements. All students attend math and literacy interventions.

Parents came to school more often for nutrition, parenting and finance classes, and they were given homework projects they could work on with their children.

Teachers had six more days of training and 60 days of observation and coaching from experienced teachers from other states, and they started using a newly rewritten curriculum that matched state standards. If the extra work didn’t scare them from coming back the next year, they got a bonus.

These changes and others were all part of Clifton’s transformation plan, which was supported by a federal grant worth $866,037 a year from 2010–11 to 2012–13.

A slice of the grant is paying for teacher and staff bonuses, materials, summer school and training. Most of it, $650,000 a year, is paying Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Evans Newton Inc. to bring “master teachers” from around the U.S. to coach Clifton’s teachers, create assessments to track student progress every six to eight weeks, and align the school’s math and literacy curriculum with new state standards a year before the rest of the district had to move onto the new standards.

Clifton was one of 19 Colorado schools and the only one on the Western Slope approved to receive a three-year School Improvement Grant beginning in fall 2010. The $33 million set aside for the schools came from the federal government as part of No Child Left Behind. New rules in the federal law gave priority for the grant money to Title I schools that had not met No Child Left Behind standards for at least two consecutive years and where students scored in the bottom 5 percent for scores and growth on Colorado Student Assessment Program tests.

Ranking in the bottom 10 of all Colorado elementary schools for CSAP growth and achievement between 2006 and 2009 more than qualified Clifton for the grant. Less than half of Clifton students scored proficient in math, reading or writing CSAP tests in 2009, two springs before the grant began.

This spring, 65 percent of third- through fifth-graders who took the CSAP reading test at Clifton scored at grade-level or better. Seventy percent did so in math. Students in all grades and all CSAP subjects grew their knowledge base at a faster pace year-over-year than the state average.

The school had three years to make adequate yearly progress on achievement and growth goals set forward by No Child Left Behind. It did so in one year.

The federal government gave Clifton four options for changing itself. It could close down, but that would send about 500 students flooding into other local schools. It could become a charter school, but, at the time, Principal Michelle Mansheim didn’t believe the school had the community support needed to do that.

The school could get rid of half of its staff and its principal, but Colorado’s education commissioner at the time, Dwight Jones, decided to let Mansheim stay because she had been with the school one year, starting in 2008. As for getting new teachers, turnover already was high. Nine out of 22 teachers left between spring 2009 and fall 2009, and 10 out of 23 did not come back after the following school year.

The school chose a “transformation” plan, which meant it would have to improve instruction, increase learning time and try to make parents more comfortable with the school.

Task for teachers

District 51 created a plan with performance and growth goals and a list of objectives for turning the school around. The district selected Evans Newton from a list of state-approved education-services providers to coach teachers, transform curriculum and create assessments tailored to match the curriculum.

Clifton fourth-grade teacher Alice Haberkorn said she appreciated having a math coach from Florida and a language arts teacher from Oklahoma come to her classroom, especially since she had only been teaching for one year when the coaches arrived.

“If my knowledge base isn’t where I need it to be, I can observe them teaching a lesson, or they can co-teach with me,” Haberkorn said. Even when the coaches are not around, “It’s as easy as shooting them an email and saying, ‘I need help,’ and they can access my data from anywhere in the country.”

The assessments help her test how well students are learning concepts, and additional training has helped Haberkorn, who began her teaching career at Clifton in 2009. Even though she has seen growth in her students and feels more confident as a teacher, Haberkorn said the transformation wasn’t easy. She said she went home and cried every day last year because the task of helping a school raise its test scores and change its culture within three years seemed so monumental.

But she stuck it out, as did all but three teachers, who were replaced by existing Clifton staff. Like all the teachers who returned, she received a $1,500 bonus paid for by the School Improvement Grant. Other staff received $500 for coming back.

Haberkorn said the money was appreciated, but it wasn’t the only reason teachers returned.

“It’s really nice, I can’t lie. I put it on my student loan. But it isn’t my biggest incentive,” she said. “What really convinced me to stick around after such a hard year is I think this is the track education is heading toward.”

Maintaining staff allowed teachers to build on the lessons they learned, rather than having to start anew with many new teachers, according to Clifton kindergarten teacher Val Lambdin.

“This year we had the same staff, so we didn’t have to bring anyone up to speed,” Lambdin said. “Before, it was hard to put anything in place because only a few of us were left after three years.”

Students help each other

Laura and Doug Sikes have noticed the changes at Clifton Elementary. For one, their son, Elijah, a fourth-grader at Clifton, feels challenged at school for the first time in years.

“He was struggling to be motivated to do the work because it was too easy, and he wanted to move forward, and he felt like he couldn’t,” Doug Sikes said.

Teachers are expecting more out of all students since the transformation began, according to Anne Djokic, who has been at Clifton for 11 of her 32 years in education and provides interventions and runs the morning assembly.

“We’ve changed how we talk. Kids are called learners. We say there are no excuses. They’re raising the bar for themselves,” Djokic said.

Monarch Ellis, a 10-year-old in Clifton’s fourth-grade, said she likes Clifton more than other schools she has been to because the students all help each other learn.

“Even though I have a lot of homework, I like it because it helps me,” she said.

Kids have bought into the transformation as much as teachers and staff, Clifton fifth-grade teacher Jamie Popp said.

“They really like that (higher) expectation,” Popp said. “They’re more confident in their academics. They feel smart, which they are.”

Some teachers say the students are doing better because teachers are able to track their progress better with the assessments that Evans Newton designed specifically for Clifton’s curriculum. Others think it’s because students are taking the tests more seriously.

Still others say it’s easier for them to concentrate since the school added morning assemblies before school at 8:20 a.m. The assemblies, which didn’t cost anything to add, were an idea Mansheim and her assistant principal, Chris Capron, learned on a grant-funded trip to a school in Tulsa, Okla., that had transformed itself.

Before, students trickled in late to class or, if they arrived early, spent time on the playground, where some fights erupted. Clifton first-grade teacher Brandi MacDonald said the assemblies help students start the day fresh.

“They used to have issues, before school on the playground, maybe at home or on the bus, and they’d come to school upset,” MacDonald said. Since the assemblies started, “The discipline issues have gone down significantly.”

Parents’ nights

Referrals to the principals’ office for discipline shrank from 635 in 2006–07 to 173 last year. The most any child was sent to the office last year was a dozen times. In 2006–07, one student took 45 trips to the office.

Aside from adding assemblies, Clifton started contacting parents more often after students were referred to the principal’s office. It’s one of the ways the school is trying to connect more with parents.

Parents also have more fun conversations to look forward to at parents’ nights, events that range from Food for Thought nights, where families get a free dinner and kids play in another room while parents learn more about the school and learning, to parenting, cooking and financial classes.

The programs are not new, but the School Improvement Grant allowed Clifton to expand the number of Food for Thought nights from four to eight. The Parent-Teacher Association pays for craft and bingo nights and the classes are paid for with a federal 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant received by Clifton Elementary, Rocky Mountain Elementary and Mount Garfield Middle School for the same years as the School Improvement Grant. That grant also funds an after-school program at the school that focuses on math and literacy during the week and adds art, a student-responsibility lesson and a visit from the John McConnell Math and Science Center of Western Colorado on Wednesdays.

Debora Beck, president of the Clifton Parent-Teacher Organization and mother to third-grader Sequoyah, said she always has been involved in her son’s school, and she’s glad to see more parents joining in. She said attendance at parent nights, which occur about every other week, varies but usually includes at least 20 people. She’s getting a little more interest in PTA membership, too.

“Everyone’s afraid of the time commitment. But I work, I’m a single parent, I’m in that financially-challenged bracket,” Beck said. “When they hear it can be done, they say, ‘Oh, OK.’ “

Monarch Ellis’ mother, Cynthia Ellis, said she also has tried to stay involved in her daughter’s schools. She said Clifton, which Monarch has attended for two years, has made her feel especially welcome. That’s important to the school’s transformation, Djokic said, and not always easy to find when parents are struggling to make ends meet. Clifton has one of the district’s highest rates of students on free and reduced-price meals.

“We have a lot of support for the families,” Djokic said. “They love their children, they’re doing the best they can.”

Other schools

Not every District 51 school has or needs a $2.6 million grant to change its school culture. But plenty are willing to copy what has been successful for Clifton Elementary.

Rocky Mountain Elementary School added a morning assembly this year that resembles the one at Clifton. As a result, tardiness is the lowest that it’s ever been at the school, and behavioral referrals have been cut in half, according to Rocky Mountain Principal Patti Virden.

Virden said Title I money has allowed the school to have an in-house learning facilitator for years to help with professional development. That person’s job description has morphed recently to include more coaching following the model Evans Newton is using with Clifton Elementary.

The school district is using Evans Newton’s initial evaluation for how Clifton could improve as a guide for improving all schools. District 51 Executive Director of Elementary Schools Andy Laase said all elements of Clifton Elementary’s transformation can be replicated, just maybe not with the exact same quality as the tools Clifton has been able to afford. For example, the district has assessments that track student progress, just not in a way tailored exactly to a classroom’s curriculum.

The district’s curriculum department revised lesson plans to fit state standards, which Clifton Elementary achieved a year earlier, thanks to Evans Newton. Teachers in that same department are coaching other teachers, but only a handful of coaches are available for the whole district.

“The coaching piece is a little harder” to replicate, Laase said. “The process here (at Clifton) is on multiple steroids. It’s moving much faster because they can bring in the resources to do it.”

Mansheim said bringing in outside coaches on a regular basis so teachers can get advice from some of the best instructors in the country has been the most important part of the grant. Without the grant, she believes the changes at Clifton would not have been as swift or complete.

“We were given a gift and it’s what we did with that gift,” Mansheim said. “We’ve proven you can give a large amount of money to a school and see change. Every penny is accounted for. We didn’t just buy stuff.”

‘Remarkable’ turnaround

The importance of money in schools has been a hot topic since District 51 attempted a mill levy override earlier this month that would have pumped $12.5 million a year in property taxes into covering state budget cuts, purchasing new technology, adding school days and hiring back teachers. District 51 Superintendent Steve Schultz said he believes Clifton is a model of how schools can use money to do good things.

“I think it’s demonstrated things can be done differently and yield results,” Schultz said. “The interest for me was, is it going to yield different results, and so far it has.”

Virden said she hopes to see changes in test scores at Rocky Mountain this spring minus a School Improvement Grant. She readily admits deep change in a school’s test scores can take three to five years, and she said it’s “remarkable” Clifton saw results in one year.

“Obviously their results are really great. We certainly hope to see big changes in a year and see more and more as the years go on,” Virden said.

Pear Park Elementary Principal Cheryl Taylor said Clifton’s transformation was a lofty challenge and required teachers, staff and families changing everything they previously had done.

“They have done an amazing job. It would be like never having run a mile and within three months going out and running a marathon,” she said.

Taylor has seen a school change before. She oversaw a turnaround effort at Mount Garfield Middle School in 2003, lifting scores there in one year by holding students accountable for homework, attendance and following instructions in class. She also oversaw improvement in Pear Park’s test scores in 2007 compared with its opening year in 2006, she said, mainly by having some time to develop a school culture with high expectations.

Taylor suggested Clifton Elementary stick to its core values after the grant money is gone in order to maintain the success the school has experienced so far.

Mansheim said the school will be able to use the assessments after the grant is over and can keep practices such as the assemblies and interventions. The teachers will keep what they’ve learned from coaches, but the monetary incentives to stay will be gone.

Mansheim said the coaching piece was the most important part of the grant, and without the grant the school would not have seen growth as fast as it has. She met leaders of a school in Spokane at a conference, and they told her it took them nine years to see the growth Clifton has experienced. She said she is determined not to let the school sink back into its old habits as fast as it got out of them.

“We’ve set ourselves up, we believe, for continued success,” Mansheim said. “But it will be hard to maintain without the funding.”


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