NAUGATUCK — A local school with a history of poor performance on standardized tests has risen to become the district’s shining star.
Hillside Intermediate School, which was labeled a “failing” school by the state Department of Education just a handful of years ago, was the top scoring school in the district as measured by last year’s Connecticut Mastery Tests.
“We still have a long we to go, but we’ve made a lot of progress, and it has happened over four years. If you are hoping that I am going to tell you there’s a quick fix or one initiative that we did that we can replicate you will be disappointed because there’s nothing really easy or quick about this. It’s just true change,” Hillside Principal Johnna Hunt told the Board of Education Jan. 9.
Hunt became principal of Hop Brook Intermediate School in 2009; that school reverted to an elementary school the following year, and Hillside became an intermediate school. At the time, the school was deemed failing under the federal No Child Left Behind act.
The school was not reaching its minimum goals on the CMT and not showing any signs of progressing towards those goals. Roughly 69 percent of students were at the proficient level for all categories on the CMT at the time.
“Probably the scariest part was that we were facing restructuring by the state Department of Education. We had to actually submit to the state a restructuring plan because we were labeled a failing school. We never agreed with that label anyway, but we were definitely not making the progress we needed to make. We were pretty stagnant,” Hunt said.
Connecticut has since received a waiver from No Child Left Behind and developed its own accountability system. Under the state’s new system, Hillside’s scores on the CMT administered last spring put the school in the “progressing” category, which is one step below the top category of “excelling.”
Western Elementary School is the only other borough school in the progressing category.
Aside from student scores, Hunt added the school climate also needed improvement.
The school is broken into four teams. When the school was struggling, she said, teachers were only collaborating with other teachers in their team rather than teachers across their discipline.
“For all schools, to be successful, you have to have a mission and vision. I think that was something that was lacking at first,” Hunt said.
So, Hunt said, the staff started coming together to have conversations about what was important to the school, which direction the school should be headed and what the ultimate vision of the school should be.
“Again not uncommon to all schools, but when you are in a situation where you need to bring about change you have to find time to have those conversations to happen so people can be all on the same page,” Hunt said.
Hillside also received help from the Area Cooperative Education Services program in the form of an executive coach and a data team facilitator, Hunt said. The executive coach worked with Hunt and the data team facilitator worked with teachers in order to create the current data teams the school has now. Data teams are groups of teachers in the same discipline that meet and help set goals for the students in that subject.
“After we give an assessment in the data team we analyze all the data, we look at the strengths and weaknesses of the students, we find specific strategies that we think will help the students more and improve student learning. Then we go back and revise anything we need to revise,” music and choir teacher Jennifer Schweiger, head of the specials data team, which includes physical education, library media and health, said.
In addition, the heads of each data team meet once a week to work on school-wide issues, Schweiger said.
“I’d say the benefits are really the time together to talk and analyze and look at data with our colleagues, and that every single person has a voice,” Schweiger said.
In the 2011-12 school year those benefits began to pay off as the school made “safe harbor” under No Child Left Behind. To make “safe harbor” a school had to decrease the number of students below proficiency by at least 10 percent in a year.
The school also received recognition from the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now for its improvement. In 2011, the organization ranked Hillside third in the state for performance gains for middle schools.
“So, we were slowly chipping away. We were making gains each year,” Hunt said.
With the increased scores the school was no longer considered a failing school and not subject to restructuring.
“It wasn’t over night. It wasn’t just in one year we did something. But each year we put our plan in place we saw gains, and more children were being successful,” Hunt said.
Hillside’s ascension continued in the 2012-13 school year when the school was the highest scoring school in the district.
In 2013, the students scored an average of 79.5 percent proficiency in math, 77.2 percent proficiency in reading, 81.7 percent proficiency in writing and 80.1 percent proficiency in science.
“I think the biggest question is, how did we get here,” Hunt said.
Data team leaders Karie Stango, a sixth-grade math teacher, and Katrina Spina, a content area studies teacher, pointed to the school’s work with individual students in need of help as well as efforts to improve the climate in the school.
Stango said the school identifies which students need additional assistance and creates targeted groups to ensure those students receive the help they need. Teachers meet with each student’s parents to explain where the student is and what the school will do to help that student improve academically, she said.
In addition each student is assigned a mentor who checks in with the student to see how he or she is progressing and make that student feel more connected to the school, Stango said.
The school has also taken steps to reward all students for good behavior and make them feel more engaged in school.
Students that display one of the school’s core expectations — to be safe, respectful, responsible and productive — are awarded a golden ticket, Spina said.
At the end each semester the tickets are drawn in a raffle and one student from each of the school’s four teams win a prize. At the end of the year all of the winners and their families are treated to a dinner at the school, Spina said.
“We wanted to improve student climate in our school. We wanted children to come to our school and be happy to be there, feel safe and feel cared about by our staff,” Spina said.
While Hunt is proud of the progress the school has made in the past four years, she knows there’s more work to be done.
“By no means do we think that we are where we need to be. We are making strides and we are proud of the steps that we’ve made, but we have much to do. We need to increase our reading, writing, math and science scores. Yes, we met our target, but it’s not where we want to be. We always strive to be higher,” Hunt said.