Student Success

Building a Culture of High Student Growth: One Cinderella District's Steps

From conferences to YouTube channels, educators know the value of studying exemplary teachers for success tips. But when it comes to studying successful schools, how do we choose who to follow? Do we compare test scores, college acceptance rates, socio-economic factors? Do we compare schools in rural Kansas versus Chicago's inner city? Do we compare the size of cafeterias or science labs?

It's like comparing apples and oranges, with a few guavas, carrots, and a tomato thrown in.

Simply evaluating school-to-school achievement rates will yield only part of the story, because those factors are often linked to life outside of school: at-home literacy, access to enrichment opportunities, families' economic status … in other words, things that aren't under a school's control.

But what if we looked at growth, rather than achievement?

Schiller Park, High Growth, and the Transformative Ten

NWEA researchers analyzed years of MAP® Growth™ data, and they noticed that schools showing levels of high growth rather than high achievement — meaning students' test scores improved over time without necessarily meeting grade-level standards — were existing in non-homogeneous communities with a variety of income levels and demographics. In other words, they found the schools where the magic was inside, not circumstantial. Thus, the question became, "What can be learned from these high-growth schools?"

This shined a spotlight on one high-growth district: Schiller Park, just outside of O'Hare airport in Illinois. Schiller Park demonstrated continuous student growth across all measurable categories for six years. In the district, 55% of students in the district are non-white, 62% of students receive free or reduced-price lunches, 25% of students are identified as English language learners, and the district's per-pupil spending in 2021 was around $2,000 below the state average. It wasn't outside factors at work in Schiller Park's success — the district profile looks different than a prototypical high-achieving district. So, what was it, exactly?

Countless hours of classroom observation, interviews, and assessment data research revealed consistent instructional strategies that pushed students to make the academic gains we know all students are capable of. NWEA calls these the Transformative Ten:

Optimize Instructional Time

  • Provide supplemental learning time for targeted retrieval practice
  • Mix whole-group, small-group, and individual activities
  • Adjust student groups in real time
  • Share students and strategies within a grade level

Expose Students to More Content

  • Differentiate tasks within a unit
  • Provide targeted practice for foundational skills
  • Teach from multiple standards at once

Empower Students

  • Create opportunities for self-directed learning
  • Use student discourse as formative assessment
  • Explicitly teach academic vocabulary

So, we have our answer to, "What instructional strategies help students grow?" But stopping there ignores the fullness of school-success replicability. Teachers at Schiller Park didn't all asynchronously, independently begin refining these strategies. They were a team, which means they huddled up. They had a captain and a plan.

Quality teaching blossoms from quality leadership.

Strong Leadership Arises from Urgent Needs

In a recent webinar with the Schiller Park leadership team, it was clear that their success stems from a rigorous commitment to their students. "This isn't an easy place to work. I ask a lot," Superintendent Dr. Kim Boryszewski (Dr. B) admitted.
As with all success stories, Schiller Park's steps arose by necessity. There was a need to bolster teacher-admin relationships. There was a need to support students from diverse, underprivileged backgrounds. There was a need for macro-level data to drive classroom decisions.
Just as the Transformative Ten emerged from teacher observation, so do what I'm dubbing the "Foundational Four." Here are four tenets observed from Schiller Park leadership to help others bottle their success.

1) Need to Reach Goals? Embrace Change, Starting at the Top

While change can be tricky, it's like a muscle: The more you use it, the less inflexible it becomes. At SD 81, change begins at the top, and it begins with goal setting. "And that starts at the board table, continues with me, and filters into our classrooms," Dr. B said.

Once goals are set, change inevitably follows. But change isn't always easy, and sometimes, pivoting is painful. Last year, winter test data didn't yield the results Schiller Park had hoped. Dr. B made the unpopular decision to retest in March before Spring Break. Test scores rose after the changes, and ultimately, a moment of discomfort brought teachers and students closer to their mutual goals.

Most essentially, SD 81's board remembers their educator roots, which ensures their ability to listen to teachers' needs. "We're teachers first," said Dr. B. Board members know the education landscape, and they remember that agile change — and a few extra subs for PD days — is what will bring results.

"Sometimes change is difficult, and it takes endurance to maintain momentum, but I can attest to this: you are what you talk about. And around here, we talk about kids, we talk about instructional practice, and we talk about data, often." — Superintendent Dr. Kim Boryszewski

2) Need Teacher Buy-In? Emphasize the Human Connection

Safety is a baseline need for change, and SD 81 is committed to empowering teachers to take risks. Teacher motivation is rarely the barrier, but rather fatigue, isolation, and feeling confused about the collective direction. Schiller Park addressed these with three core values when it comes to human connection:

A commitment to vulnerability. The relationship between teacher and administrator has traditionally felt unsafe and full of judgment. Teachers worry their data won't measure up. But when administrators prioritize human-centric interactions, they become vulnerable, too.

A robust mentorship program. Whether new to teaching or new to Schiller Park, first-year teachers are paired with a mentor for scheduled, ongoing meetings, providing both a professional and personal confidante. "At the end of the year, we celebrate the mentorship, sharing our mutual impact on each other and of course, our stumbles. That camaraderie really shines here," Principal Melissa Kartsimas said.

A felt presence in the school day. Administrators at SD 81 should log their steps during the week. Rarely in their offices, they traverse their schools, making sure that teachers are supported, individualized instruction has enough hands, and students know who they are.

3) Need Data-Driven Decision Making? Personalize Professional Development

When it comes to effective teacher PD, SD 81 asked what they believe is an obvious question: If we expect teachers to differentiate student learning, why wouldn't they deserve the same in their professional development?

Teachers, like students, deserve to be "met where they are." This, of course, requires time — the scarcest resource for any school. School improvement days, daily planning periods, and a weekly early release provides ongoing time for teachers to collaborate, formally and informally.

Recently, SD 81 added more instructional coaches to their rotation, providing teachers with even more job-embedded, just-in-time learning, whether providing instructional feedback or helping teachers use data to guide instruction. Teachers at Schiller Park never have to wonder if and when they will receive support … they can step out in the hallway and find a helping hand.

"Data is a tool, not a weapon. Teachers should not feel like the big bad administrator is going to use their MAP® scores to point out their flaws. It's a team sport, and teachers should feel supported." — Superintendent Dr. Kim Boryszewski

4) Need a School Culture Makeover? Get Rid of Some Walls

Bye bye, cubicles! It turns out, if it works for Fortune-500 companies, it might work for schools, too.

SD 81's 21st-century learning spaces lend themselves to flexible grouping, collaboration, and co-teaching, not only at the grade level but across the entire building. Kartsimas shared, "Learning is more than the four walls of a classroom. Our kids are always on the move, fluidly transitioning from whole class to small group or individualized instruction."

This transparent learning culture extends to a shared sense of student belonging. Teachers' planning sessions divide and conquer, sounding a lot more like a locker room huddle than a "stay-in-your-lane" share-out. If a fourth grader needs second grade instruction, intentional planning across grade level teams is put in place.

This "student sharing" across teams not only makes educator efforts more fruitful, but it increases a student's sense of inclusion. Now, instead of just knowing their fourth grade teacher, students feel the investment from a second and third grade teacher, two or three instructional coaches, and their principal.

A Culture of Innovation

When you have a culture that embraces change, empowers teachers, and keeps students at the center — without walls! — bold decisions can arise.

Schiller Park's most unconventional risk (spoiler alert: it paid off) was a teacher who pitched a self-directed math classroom. "She knew we needed more individualization," Principal Constance Stavrou shared. "She piloted it in her sixth-grade math room, and shortly after, the seventh and eighth grade followed suit."

Yet, Dr. B believes the secrets to Schiller Park's success are remarkably uncomplicated: "I don't think there's anything all that special about us. Invest in your people. We believe in what we're doing here, and at the end of the day, we're in it for the kids."

Pretty simple, right?