One Kansas School District’s Success
Four small towns in Kansas are accomplishing what school districts across the nation strive to achieve. In Waconda Unified School District, almost all students pass state math and English assessments, most at “exceeds standards” or “exemplary” levels. Nearly 100% of students graduate from high school and go on to college.
Composed of communities where fewer than 20% of citizens have college degrees (the national average is 28%) and annual incomes are below the national average (65% of students qualify for free or reduced federal lunches), the approximately 375 students, along with routinely acing the state tests, also perform in the top 10%, compared to international students.
Experts’ opinions about the success of this district vary. A Columbia University professor dismisses Waconda students’ achievements as a result of demographics, saying, “It’s a homogeneous, intact, all-white community.” (The Hechinger Report, 03-19-2012) Aside from having no issues with English language learners, it is unclear how the demographics could possibly help the children learn. “Roughly ten percent are foster children. Nearly one in five is classified as having special needs,” according to the Hechinger Report. Latchkey after-school circumstances are the norm. And, most significantly, Waconda outperforms other schools in the area with similar demographics.
What does help children to learn in Waconda? It seems to be basic, traditional education, dedicated educators, attention to early intervention, and the high expectations of parents. “Sometimes you get one of those elements in a school [or] two. But to have [all] come together, that’s not the norm at all,” John Hill, president of the National Rural Education Association told the Hechinger Report.
The district practices mastery-based education: students must know subject matter before moving on. An assessment card tracks student progress from kindergarten through high school graduation. Individualized intervention is started once deficiencies are noted. Intervention includes specialist teachers and community volunteers who help students.
The school superintendent, Jeff Travis, says the district doesn’t follow education trends. He says, “We don’t believe in the next biggest thing or the next biggest theory.” (Yahoo News, 10-20-2011) Teacher salaries are not tied to test performance and students do not have iPads.
Teacher commitment is high, with before- and after-school help readily available, according to the Hechinger Report. “Sixth-grade teacher Lynn Wacker, for instance, spends time each night responding to the text messages of one student whose mother doesn’t get home from work until after 8 p.m., answering questions about homework.” Another student says that her math teacher came in 40 minutes early nearly every morning to help her with trigonometry.
Superintendent Travis told Education Reporter that only 8 of the 35 district teachers are members of the Kansas National Education Association union.
While parents in the district work long hours and are often not available to help children with homework, attendance at teacher conferences is near 100%. Parents care about education and expect that their children will succeed and go on to college.