Hatch Valley Public Schools On the Road to Higher Achievement

by Leslie Blair
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIV, Number 2, May 2002, Within Our Reach: Higher Student Achievement
Georgia Lane
Associate superintendent Georgia Lane

Nestled against the Sierras de las Uvas in southern New Mexico, the Hatch Valley is steeped in a tradition of family-owned farming and ranching. Hatch is a quiet community surrounded by chile fields and pecan orchards dependent on the Rio Grande for irrigation. Many area families rely upon migrant farm work, although they reside most of the year in the valley. Students from migrant families are likely to miss the beginning and end of the school year and return late to school after the Christmas break. This attendance pattern, coupled with a high percentage of students (75 percent) with limited English proficiency, creates instructional challenges that the district must address in order to raise achievement.

Like the more than 400 schools labeled as low performing in SEDL's five-state region, Hatch Valley Public Schools have low standardized test scores and lack the capacity—skills, knowledge and resources—to make significant, lasting improvements in student achievement by themselves. Unlike many of these schools, however, the Hatch schools are on the road to improvement. The school district has spent the past two years creating a climate in which instruction can flourish. Superintendent Billy Henson has overseen the upgrading of facilities, which have been described as the jewels of the community. The school buildings, however, are not the district's only assets.

"Our biggest asset," says associate superintendent Georgia Lane, "is our staff. Everyone wants to figure out how to better serve our students—from the central office staff to the principals, teachers, and custodians."

Not only are staff members on board, but the students themselves are as well. Lane reports that the secondary students see the need to achieve at higher levels. "This year we've pushed hard and opened their eyes to the need to do better," she says. "They want to send out a different message than we're sending out now through our test scores."

Hatch Valley Middle School principal Mario Zuniga participates in a staff seminar. Zuniga was awarded one of SEDL's Education Leaders Fellowships. The fellows will come to Austin this summer to work with SEDL staff on a number of issues and research projects.

Hatch Valley is one of about twenty districts that SEDL is working with in a systemic way to help transform low-performing schools into high-performing learning communities by building the capacity of the schools and districts to improve teaching and learning over the long run. Two schools in each district are participating in the five-year project along with the central office. This work is being conducted under SEDL's Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) with the U.S. Department of Education.

Most of the schools and districts with which SEDL is working have adopted multiple improvement programs. Joan Buttram, SEDL executive vice president and chief operating officer, explains, "Many of these schools find a problem, then find a program to address that problem. They find another problem and another program to address that problem. But then they face the task of how to fit all of the programs together to build coherence for teachers and students. We want schools to move away from that piecemeal, revolving-door approach to improvement, to a concerted effort to ensure long-term student success."

SEDL's partnership with the schools and districts includes long-term technical assistance in assessing school and district needs, focusing improvement efforts, and implementing strategies to strengthen instruction, especially in the core subjects of reading and math.

Because the systemic approach requires all components of the educational system—standards, curriculum and instruction, assessment, policy and governance, professional staff, resources, and family and community—to be integrated in the improvement process, it helps build strong school cultures that foster professional and student growth. Five competencies must be mastered by the schools and districts in order to address each of those components:

  • collecting, interpreting, and using data,
  • creating coherence,
  • forging alliances,
  • building capacity, and
  • promoting innovation.

A vital element of SEDL's partnerships is a research component that will help determine how schools best make the transition to a high-performing learning community. The research examines how schools and districts can work simultaneously on multiple levels and master the competencies needed to become a high-performing learning community. The research also identifies the pathways that are most successful in supporting the transformation and include the development of tools and strategies to help schools and districts make the transformation.

SEDL program manager Shirley Hord interviews Luis Barreras, the sole counselor for Hatch Valley Middle School.

SEDL program manager David Rainey, who is leading the REL field work, describes SEDL's initial work with Hatch and other partner districts: "SEDL is helping the staff take a close, critical look at student and other data. We're facilitating discussions of the data at multiple levels of the system, district, and school to get to the root causes of the schools' problems. We are also assisting schools and districts in developing strategies to address those problems."

And that type of assistance is what Georgia Lane has seen as so valuable in the district's first year of working with SEDL. "The SEDL partnership has provided us with an avenue to explore the possible causes of the areas of concern in our district," she says. "It has given us the opportunity to analyze data and not just use perception as a tool to make decisions." Lane says that for her staff, "working through misconceptions has been difficult." She explains, "People do not want to give up their beliefs even if they are not supported by data."Hatch staff are not the only school team members struggling with data and perceptions. Rainey reports that many schools and districts have been surprised by their school profiles that emerge from the extensive data collection and analysis process, called a data scan. It includes gathering standardized and state-mandated test scores and school assessment scores, all disaggregated by ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, grade, subject, teacher, and objective as well as by such special populations of students as special education students, students with limited English proficiency, and gifted and talented students. The data scan also includes gathering and analyzing other sources such as the district and school improvement plans, the school calendar, the faculty staff handbook, the student handbook, district and school budgets, internal communications, and regularly published and disseminated communications, such as parent or staff newsletters."

The staffs learn that their perceptions aren't supported by the data collected. They are also amazed by the number of fragmented programs that become apparent once the data scan is completed," Rainey says.

Photo of Hatch Valley

The Rio Grande provides life-giving water to crops in the Hatch Valley.

What is a High-Performing Learning Community?

In response to continuing low achievement in many of our nation's schools, the Office of Educational Research & Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education gave the ten Regional Educational Laboratories this charge for the years 2001-2005: to support the efforts of states, districts, schools, communities, institutions of higher education and others to transform low performing schools into high-performing learning communities that meet the needs of all students. But what is a high- performing learning community? High-performing learning communities produce high levels of achievement for all students and are able to sustain these high levels of achievement as their environment changes and challenges arise. Schools and districts that are high-performing learning communities are characterized by having

  • a shared vision that links students to high learning standards;
  • a supportive organizational structure that organizes space, time, and resources to maximize student learning;
  • a challenging curriculum and engaged student learning that reflects high standards in all content areas and high expectations for all students' learning;
  • a collaborative culture that is supportive of continuous improvement by students, teachers, and other adults;
  • proactive community relations that encourage schools to become not only a community resource but also a place where parents and community members are active participants in student learning and in the life of the school; and
  • facilitative leadership that makes it possible for the school or district to move forward in the change process by guiding and supporting faculty and staff and by instituting policies and procedures that help them move through the process and meet the needs of all students.

Sources: Berman, P., J. Ericson, S. Aburto, A. Lashaw, and M. Thompson. (1998). Understanding High Performance Learning Communities: A Literature Review. Emeryville, California: RPP International. Hord, S. M. (1992). Facilitative Leadership: The Imperative for Change. Austin, Texas: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

After the data scan is complete, SEDL staff members help the districts develop vertical leadership teams. Rainey stresses the importance of the diversity of the leadership teams to working systemically. The teams therefore include a cross-section of stakeholders—classroom teachers, school and district administrators and support personnel, parents, and community leaders. The teams are engaged in collectively interpreting the findings from the data scan, and also make a decision about whether the district should begin working systemically on improving mathematics or reading achievement.

 Maria O'Brien, from the Hatch Valley Public Schools central administration office, discusses district data with SEDL program associate Joe Parker.

The next stage of the SEDL process is a systems exploration—a district self-assessment that will lead to the leadership team's developing a problem statement and determining the root causes of the challenges facing the district. SEDL has developed a self-assessment instrument which addresses the six characteristics that help define a high-performing learning community—shared vision, supportive organizational structure, challenging curriculum and engaged student learning, culture of continuous inquiry and improvement, facilitative leadership, and supportive relationships between the system and surroundings. Each team member completes an assessment and the team works through the issues brought out in the assessments. Providing evidence and data for each item on the assessment instrument is an important piece of the overall self assessment. The assessment is then used to plan future work and activities that promotes becoming a high-performing learning community.

 SEDL program specialist Tara Leo reviews a school survey with social studies teacher Doc Lopez.

Becoming a high-performing learning community is a long-term, difficult process for the schools. Rainey explains that most schools are accustomed to quick fixes. In the case of low test scores, for example, the initial reaction may be to rush in with staff development. "But the problems are more complex," he says. To help sustain the work, SEDL is working to build staff skills and capacity to meet the immediate needs of the district while building the structures and support needed to become a high-performing learning community and maintain it over time.

SEDL staff who are working intensively with the 20 districts stress that SEDL's role is not to provide answers but to help provide school staff with the resources and skills and the pressure and support they need to work through the improvement process. And that is just the sort of help Lane realized her staff needed. "We're really excited. Our teachers have just worked so hard at improvement, but we've gone as far as we can go by ourselves. We hope that SEDL can get us there a little faster. You can make the leaps required for school improvement if you know how to do it."

The Power of Data

SEDL staff have been helping school staff learn to disaggregate and analyze data. Data analysis is one of the skills important to schools in meeting their immediate needs, such as a short time line to pull up state test scores, but it is also necessary to sustain long-term school improvement. As a testament to the power of disaggregating data, Hatch Valley Schools associate superintendent Georgia Lane relays a story of one of the Hatch High School teachers. During the district's new teacher induction program, one of the days is devoted to disaggregating the data of students who will be in individual classrooms. The teacher came to Lane after a long day of analyzing data and making charts. She told Lane, "Now I am going to have to redo my lesson plans. My students are nowhere near at the level I thought they would be. I am going to have to rethink what I will do in the classroom." Lane reports, "I am very pleased to say that she was the most successful teacher this year in terms of state-mandated tests. We just received these scores. Her students did extremely well."


Leslie Blair is a SEDL communications associate and editor of SEDL Letter.

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