School district taken off state’s under-achieving list



August 18, 2011 - 12:00 AM

The Iola school district recently became one of only 24 previously underperforming Kansas school districts to be taken off “on improvement” status while 34 other districts were added to the undesirable list.
No Child Left Behind, enacted in 2002, required every Title I school and district to achieve state-set standards. After the 2008-2009 school year, USD 257 was placed on improvement status due to substandard achievement in one category. Iola High School needed 75 percent of its students with disabilities to graduate in four years.
“We needed a certain amount of kids to do well in a certain number of categories and we came up short in one,” said Brian Pekarek, USD 257 superintendent of schools.
Only 55 percent of Iola seniors with disabilities graduated in 2009. Although the district again failed this year to reach the now 80 percent graduation rate standard, improvement was shown each of the last two years.
USD 257 was taken off on improvement because it showed improvement of 3 percent in special education graduation rates in two consecutive years, achieving a 76.9 percent special education graduation rate after the 2010-2011 school year.
The very essence of No Child L eft Behind and state assessments, though the reason USD 257 was on improvement in the first place, is what is driving the better graduation rates, said Rob Coleman, special education director for ANW Special Education Cooperative, the district’s special education provider.
Each child ANW works with has an individual education plan, Coleman said, adding now that students are required to take state assessment tests to gauge ability, educators are better able to hone in on specific need areas.
“(State assessments) target certain things that you need to work on so it helps us refine our goals. You look at each 
student individually as to what their needs are in relationship to being able to pass the state assessment,” Coleman said. “This gives you focus.”
But the system isn’t the only means to above government-standard education in Iola.
The district secured a $200,000 grant in the summer of 2009 intended to assist the schools in scoring better on the Adequate Yearly Progress report, the document used by the state education department to track math, reading and attendance and graduation rates.
Because the funds were a one-and-done resource, USD 257 “tried to spend the money on things we thought would be sustainable,” said Gail Dunbar, USD 257 curriculum director.  
After being placed on improvement, state education officials visited the Iola schools and made assessments of their own, finding the district needed improvement in K-12 curriculum alignment, accountability for implementation of curriculum and student engagement.
With the grant funds, USD 257 hired the Curriculum Leadership Institute to assist in the alignment process. Instructional Practices Inventory was also brought in to apply and to do observation rating to help educators garner more student engagement. More than 40 USD 257 staff also spent two days in June with Kagen Cooperative Learning, where they were trained in state-of-the-art teaching strategies.         
Also purchased were 25 iPads for the biology program and 48 Netbooks for Jefferson Elementary School.

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