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August 17, 2018

Advancing Educator Effectiveness in Rural Schools

How Etowah, Tennessee, dramatically improved teacher and student outcomes and built an attitude of trust

In a four-year span, Etowah City School in the community of Etowah, Tennessee, tucked away in a rural stretch between Chattanooga and Knoxville, has gone from being labelled as a "focus" school due to its lack of progress and growth to one that hosts visits from much larger, nearby school districts with populations in the tens of thousands. Other districts in Tennessee are enthusiastic to see just how such a drastic improvement in student performance came to fruition.

In the 2016-17 school year, the school of just 420 students experienced historic high levels of student academic growth. On a 1-5 scale, Etowah's schoolwide composite growth score and schoolwide composite literacy growth score both improved from a 1 to a 5 since the 2014-15 school year. Growth in both ELA and Math scores has continued through 2017-18. It has dropped the "focus" tag and was recognized as a Tennessee Reward School by the state department of education.

One of the factors that has been pivotal to Etowah's success has been the school's participation in the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching's federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant and the subsequent implementation of NIET's TAP System for Teacher and Student Advancement. "TAP has helped us to focus on what will move kids," said Superintendent/Director of Schools Dr. Mike Frazier. He attributes TAP's impact on student growth largely to the leadership of the school's TAP master teacher, Tracey Partain. A key element of TAP is creating a structure for teacher leadership through master and mentor teacher positions. The expert teachers in these formalized roles are given the authority to drive instruction and participate in decision-making processes. As a master teacher, Partain leads collaborative professional learning "cluster group" sessions and school planning, coaches the mentor teachers, conducts educator evaluations and shares duties with administrators to move the whole school forward.

This support has been crucial in Etowah, and Partain's organization of these activities has garnered praise from her fellow educators. "She takes our goals into account, and provides opportunities within the curriculum to tie the content to the standards we need to reach," said Kevin Allen, a seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher. "The strategies she's helped us develop can apply to any subject. For example, last year [in cluster] we worked on math-specific versions of the [close-read] strategy. That flexibility would not have been possible without Tracey Partain."

The close-read strategy refers to the way in which the school encouraged students to fully analyze the words in front of them. "The students used to regurgitate information that was presented to them, but now they are working to truly understand and digest that material," said Principal Brian Trammell. One aspect of the close-read strategy is "reading with a pencil," in which students annotate texts in the margins as they read them.

As students' reading comprehension skills improved, they were able to apply those same critical understanding skills and comprehension strategies to various subjects. Word problems in math classes, and social studies and science texts were all being "read with a pencil." Students even began writing with a pencil: circling their intros and conclusions, highlighting best phrases or vocabulary words, and finding examples of critical attributes like voice in their writing, according to state standards.

Over the course of the last four years of implementing the TAP System, the school's cluster group meetings have focused on student needs relating directly to understanding text: vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing. Partain says "it’s been a progression," and not always an easy journey. She says it took her and other teachers "awhile, maybe between two and three years, to really see the impact TAP was having on us. Now, our teachers go to trainings sponsored by the state department of education and realize we are already doing a lot of what they are saying we should do."

An essential factor in improving student growth through cluster meetings has been setting individualized goals for the students with specific strategies for how to reach those goals. As per the TAP System, Partain asked teachers to bring examples of student work into the cluster meetings to show how students were progressing in meeting their goals. Teachers looked at each other's student work, talking to instructors for grade levels below and above to see where the students stood in a larger context. The analysis of that student work in cluster meetings helped the teachers know how to better address their students' specific needs.

"We realized what we needed to do to get there," said second-grade math teacher Ashley Dugan. "We obtained data and looked at where the [students] were and honed in on specific skills they needed. For example, my students struggled with word problems. They were able to use that strategy [learned in cluster] and became comfortable with those problems. After a while, I didn't have to tell them. They just did it on their own."

To reward and further encourage the growth that the students were showing, students' writing started showing up in the hallway bulletin board displays, a practice that has carried into the 2017-18 school year. Teachers showcasing student writing in this way highlights the impact of the changes to their instructional practice.

Principal Trammell displays student work

School pride has extended beyond the campus walls. For a school like Etowah, situated in a rural town just three and a half miles long and a mile wide, connections to the local community are paramount. To engage more members of the community last year in the school's work to improve student growth, Trammell initiated the placement of signs in students' yards to celebrate successes they were seeing in student academic progress. Signs read announcements such as, "My teacher is proud of me because I learned my multiplication facts."

The school encouraged parents to take pictures of the students with the signs and share them on social media. This proved to be a powerful incentive for students and is representative of the culture change that was beginning to take place in the school community. An outgrowth of that change was that the chronic absenteeism rate of the school fell from 22 to just 8 percent.

As the culture of the school changed from one of distrust to one of positivity, the staff gained more rapport with the community. As an outgrowth of this newfound rapport, a community mentorship program blossomed. The school would use data to identify areas of need and ask members of the Etowah community to come in to address those issues with specific students.

Given the social and emotional barriers that many of the students faced being from a school in which 75% of the students were on free or reduced-price lunch programs in 2012, it was invaluable for them to see people in the community invest in them. One mentor even bought a student an iPad so he could download books and have a world of information at his fingertips.

Students articulated the impact the new strategies had on their learning. Eighth-grader McKenzie Gordon said the strategies she has learned from her teachers has helped her focus on identifying the main ideas and has "increased our vocabulary." Her goals for this year are to complete Algebra I and pass the state End-of-Course assessment so that she can be ahead when she enters high school. She is already visiting colleges with a local community organization and someday wants to study to be a pediatrician.

When asked about the reasons for the school's high growth, Noah, a second-grader, said, "Well, because people like me work so hard … and even people not like me work hard, too." He said his teachers helped him learn how to read better through the "reading with a pencil" strategy they learned in cluster.

"I'm most excited for the community. They have more to be proud of than ever before. They should be proud of their teachers and proud of their school," said Frazier. "The mindset about this school is changing. We are a place to be proud of."