Magnet program generates buzz at priority school
By Madelynn Coldiron
When the Jefferson County school board looked to turn around a struggling middle school, it didn’t latch onto some flashy new education program. Instead, it decided one of its strategies would be an approach that was founded near the turn of the 20th century.
Westport Middle School, laboring under a history of multiple principal turnovers, decreasing enrollment and a poor reputation in the community, became a public Montessori magnet school, one of the few in Kentucky. The Montessori approach – named for its creator, Italian educator Maria Montessori – is designed to help children develop creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving abilities and social skills.
Photo: From left: Montessori program students Jayna Karlen, Erin Davis, Rose Russman and Nathan Arriola inspect the model of the Louisville Zoo they built, complete with dolphin exhibit.
Not long after the school board approved the move, the school was placed on the state education department’s persistently low-achieving schools (now called priority schools) list.
“The buzz about Westport was bad – families tried to avoid it,” said Jefferson County school board member Deborah Wesslund, whose district includes the school. “And now the buzz has changed. It still has a ways to go but people are saying, ‘Boy, I’m hearing great things going on at Westport.’”
Wesslund and Principal Staci Eddleman said the choice of a Montessori magnet was driven in part by the school transformation and in part by requests from parents of the district’s two Montessori elementaries.
“Montessori instruction in so many ways is best practice, especially at the middle school age when they need movement, they need choice, they need help learning how to organize and research and get information. We’ll be looking more at integrating more of those strategies schoolwide,” Eddleman said.
The 2010-11 school year was used to lay the groundwork for the magnet program. Last year, the program accepted its first 50 students into the sixth grade. This year 50 new Montessori students entered the sixth grade; next year, Eddleman said the goal is 100 sixth-graders in Montessori. By then the first two cohorts will have moved up a grade so that Montessori students will be in each grade of the middle school.
Schoolwide, students within each grade are split into “teams,” and the Montessori students comprise a team. They get their core content teaching together using the Montessori approach and join other students for electives.
The program has generated enthusiasm, self-confidence and leadership skills among the students involved, and school involvement from their parents, Eddleman said, adding the whole building has benefited.
“Those things spread –it’s not just about the Montessori program being the center of the universe. But those things are infectious and they spread schoolwide,” she said.
Sixth-grade Montessori math and social studies teacher Sharon Klump said because content teachers plan and talk together, “You’ll see a lot of Montessori aspects throughout the school.”
PTSA President Ashley Ryan, mother of a seventh-grade grade Montessori student, said her daughter can’t wait to get to school every day.
“This is a very warm, nurturing environment, and it’s not just the Montessori kids that are that way,” she said.
Just one facet
The Montessori magnet was just one of the changes Westport Middle School made, starting with its staff. Half the building’s certified staff was replaced in the 2010-11 school year, through a variety of methods, some of which required an agreement with the district’s teachers union.
Eddleman said it was important to hire the right teachers who are sensitive to the needs of this age group and who are enthusiastic and committed.
“We all wanted to be part of the process of something that was going to be turning around,” Klump said.
Academic instruction was also made more rigorous through more professional development, reduced interruptions to instructional time, scheduling of enrichment and intervention periods, and a high-level language arts curriculum.
Besides more rigorous instruction, the major goals for the turnaround were creating a student-centered culture and positive public connections.
The school beefed up extracurriculars, adding new sports and clubs to “get the kids invested in their school,” Eddleman said. “Kids feel connected to their school and that translates into how they do in the classroom, too.”
Changing public perception has been the most difficult aspect of the turnaround, the principal said.
“We can control the professional development, we can control the instructional practices in the classroom. We can’t control what the people in the community think about us as directly, in the same way. But we do think we’ve made progress,” she said.
The school has hosted intra-district events, community events and otherwise welcomed the public to tour the building.
While the school didn’t perform quite as well as hoped on the K-PREP test this year, it was one of the few schools in the district to improve in all four areas of the ACT and Explore assessments. Enrollment has been increasing steadily, Eddleman said.
“A big thing to remember is this doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “You can switch out your teaching staff, you can bring in a magnet program but nothing is going to make a school do a complete 180 in one year. And we see little successes and we see gains and improvements every year and we feel like we get better at what we’re doing every year.”
— This is part of an occasional series that examines the strategies priority (persistently low-achieving) schools have used to implement a turnaround.