A Systemic Approach to Building a Culture of Success

By Brenda Werner, PhD | Graduate Education Chair, University of Mary

We have long known the profound impact that socioeconomic conditions have on academic performance. A half-century of research shows that children living in poverty make up the largest portion of underachieving students at all grade levels. Family income and structure are still the top predictors of academic outcomes. Test scores and high-school graduation rates are significantly lower for children of the poor. As well, post-secondary performance is negatively affected—and this trend usually repeats in succeeding generations.

Changes in family structure in recent decades have decreased household income, especially for families headed by single mothers. According to the Brookings Institute, the poverty rate for children raised by a single mother is 45.8 percent, compared to 9.5 percent for children raised by two parents. This impacts both child development and behavior. As well, low-income families usually experience multiple traumas as children grow up, and these families are less likely than those in more affluent communities to have the necessary skills and resources needed to overcome trauma.

The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but irrigate deserts.

– C.S. Lewis

The critical role adults play in the healthy development of children and adolescents cannot be underestimated, according to research by Jack P. Shonkoff, MD, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Positioning a child to flourish early in life involves establishing a strong foundation, which includes developing essential skills such as focusing attention, planning, monitoring, delaying gratification, problem-solving, working in teams and self-regulating. Families are prime partners in the education process. Parents and even a child’s extended family have a direct, lifelong influence on learning, developing socio-emotional proficiency and nurturing healthy lifestyles.

Educating Diverse Students: Dorothy Moses Elementary

The need for school-family partnerships is critical in schools where complex challenges threaten academic success. In Bismarck Public Schools, the state’s largest district, Dorothy Moses Elementary School (K-5) educates one of the most diverse student populations, mostly from low-income and highly transient families.

Remarkably, 48.8 percent of students at Dorothy Moses live at or below the poverty level, compared to 8.4 percent in Bismarck and 15 percent across North Dakota. (The 2016 federal guidelines set the poverty income level for a family of four, for example, at $24,300 or less.) More than half of the students at Dorothy Moses qualify for free or reduced lunch, compared with 24 percent of peers in the district and 31 percent statewide.

Dorothy Moses enrolls 339 students, including 32 African Americans, 214 Caucasians, 71 American Indians, 19 Hispanics and three Asians. The yearly mobility rate at Dorothy Moses is 36 percent, which is more than double the district average (16 percent), in addition to the normal turnover as new kindergarten students enter and the 5th-graders transition to middle school. In total, more than 52 percent of students are new to Dorothy Moses every fall.

In January, Jason Hornbacher, PhD, the principal at Dorothy Moses, gave a presentation to the North Dakota Human Services Committee to provide an educational perspective regarding the mental health issues students and families experience, and the social and emotional impacts of these issues on student learning. “Prior to watching or listening to this,” Hornbacher asked the committee, “I want you to visualize yourself at your current age, current worldly experience and current jobs. Then put yourself in one of these situations and ask yourself how productive you might be going to work, learning something new, and remembering and applying it.”

More students at Dorothy Moses consistently score at or above proficiency on the North Dakota State Assessment than peers across the district and statewide.

Below are several excerpts from the presentation, titled “Walk, Walk, Walk in Their Shoes … Did You Know?”, based on testimony collected during a recent four-month period:

  • Thirty students have court orders stating that one or both parents are not allowed contact with the child, or that parental visits must be supervised through the Children’s Advocacy Centers of North Dakota.
  • Community agencies visited families 130 times to check on safety and other child support issues.
  • Two sisters, ages 5 and 6, experienced their single mother going to jail for the third time in a month.
  • An 8-year-old girl was abandoned by her mother for the second time this year. The child now lives with an unrelated, single mother in herneighborhood.
  • On his first day of school, a 5-year-old boy stood up and walked out of his classroom. After being brought into the school office, the child yells, “He didn’t have to be so mean. My dad didn’t have to be so mean. He could have just said that he was mad. He didn’t have to hit.”
  • A 7-year-old boy is continually shuttled between his mother and grand-parents. Three weeks ago, his grandmother passed away. At the end of every school day, the student waits outside to see who will pick him up.
  • A single father took a second job delivering newspapers to provide for his child. Now he wakes his 7-year-old son up at 1:30 am and takes him along so the boy doesn’t have to stay home alone.

Exceeding Expectations

The snapshots above portray the complex socioeconomic issues affecting student wellbeing and academic success. In response, the faculty at Dorothy Moses addresses student needs while simultaneously developing strong social and core academic skills. Remarkably, as a result, more students at Dorothy Moses consistently score at or above proficiency on the North Dakota State Assessment than peers across the district and statewide.

From the 2010 through the 2013 school year, 83.2 percent of Dorothy Moses students scored at or above proficiency in math, which was 4 percentage points higher than the Bismarck school district and almost 8 percentage points higher than peers statewide. Dorothy Moses students averaged 81.7 percent proficiency in reading, which was almost 3 percentage points higher than Bismarck and 6.5 percentage points higher than students statewide.

The question, then, is why do students at Dorothy Moses outperform peers who often attend schools with fewer socioeconomic challenges?

Relational Mentoring

The principal and teachers at Dorothy Moses focus on relational mentoring with students. They also work with community partners to utilize available resources—including experts in health and human services, housing, business, and service or faith organizations—for students and their families. These practices enable the faculty to take a holistic approach to education, which has proven effective.

A weak academic foundation often results from environmental risk factors, such as poverty, abuse and violence. These traumas typically leave students underprepared for school work. Also hampered is the development of the social skills and executive functioning students need to navigate daily demands. “The most important thing children need to thrive is to live in an environment of relationships that begins in their family, and also extends out to include adults at childcare centers and in other programs,” said Shonkoff in “Building Adult Capabilities to Improve Child Outcomes.” “What children need is for that entire environment of relationships to be invested in their healthy development.”

Experts, such as Ann Gearity, PhD, at the University of Minnesota, point to compelling evidence that when caring adults invest in students, it is not too late to develop essential social and academic skills. “Children change when care and environmental supplies change, or when their own developmental capacities are repaired to permit better adaptation,” she wrote in a training manual for working with children who have experienced complex trauma. Relational intervention can repair core developmental capacities and so improve the mental skills underlying academic performance.

Investing in Human Capital

Due to high poverty levels, Dorothy Moses qualifies as a Title I school, which means it is eligible to receive federal funds to help improve academic performance. Dorothy Moses is one of nine Title I schools in the district and one of 93 statewide. Also, the school receives Title VII funds, based on the enrollment of Native American students. Principal Hornbacher invests Title funds in people rather than programs or technology. He hired Lisa Kadlec as family liaison to assist with home communication and strengthen the school/family partnership. He also hired Tracy Famias, a licensed school social worker, as dean of students. Hired as well was Josh Standing Elk, a Native American educator, to help struggling students learn study skills. Instructional aides (full-time and part-time) were retained to work with teachers to provide tutoring and mentoring.

“Family education is central,” said Kadlec in an interview. Since it is often difficult to get families to come to school conferences, “at music performance, we take 15 to 20 minutes to talk about the cultural piece, and how extended families provide support, and how important it is for parents to be involved.” Dorothy Moses has developed a deliberately welcoming climate. “Everyone, from office staff to teachers, works to ensure that when students and families walk in the door, they feel welcome, not intimidated.”

A major concern at the school is identifying the barriers that prevent students from arriving on time and attending daily. Kadlec noted that transportation difficulties, for example, can keep students home.

“Sometimes students begin to form a pattern at a young age of missing school regularly,” said Famias in an interview. “When we investigate, we find a lot is going on. It is critical to intervene early and build trusting relationships with the student and family, so we can get to the heart of issues and get families the resources they need.”

Faculty works in collaboration to determine if needs are environmental, socio-emotional or academic, or a combination of these. They also model how students can self-regulate and problem-solve when facing challenges.


Lisa Kadlec, family liaison, (center top) coordinates the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile program for student dental care. Christy Peterson, DDS, (right) volunteers her dental services with dental assistant Linda Stumpf (left).

Connecting with Community Partners

Community involvement is a crucial component of student and family support at Dorothy Moses. The local Rotary Club, for example, began participating as guest readers in the classroom. “When they got here, they saw the needs and they were back,” said Hornbacher. “They have established a valuable partnership with us in supporting children regularly, not a one-time shot.” Utilizing grant resources and other community partners, the school provides students with nutrition education and fresh fruits and vegetables. As well, the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile delivers preventative and restorative dental care for students and siblings under 21 years of age. For many children, it’s the first time they have been examined by a dentist.

Hornbacher’s professional experience—his spiritual calling to make a difference with students in poverty—has taught him the importance of believing in the power of a caring community. Hornbacher notes that Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which passed Congress recently, will enable educators to use resources to address needs more systematically. “The additional focus on parents and families was present in the No Child Left Behind Act,” said Hornbacher, “but I believe ESSA will refocus attention on schools and districts. The idea that education is a team effort between the families, schools and community is a notion that will be explored more holistically.”


Differentiating Instruction

To address individual learning issues in schools that are increasingly diverse—in language, culture, academic readiness, interests, motivation and learning preferences—Dorothy Moses, as many schools, utilizes Differentiated Instruction (DI), which tailors instruction and support mechanisms to each student’s specific needs. Teachers also focus on creating a learning environment rich in formative assessment (practice tests and other forms of evaluation) to plan DI for each student. Teachers work closely with parents so that the implementation of DI is reinforced at home.

Intervention and Enrichment is a DI strategy, which was first introduced to teachers by Eleanora Hilton-Taylor, the Response to Intervention (RTI) coach at Dorothy Moses. Instructors focus on learning standards and academic basics according to each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Additional class time is allotted for small-group math and reading instruction to enrich student learning, and to provide additional targeted instruction and intervention by highly qualified teachers.

Grade-level teams of teachers begin with a common pre-assessment test to establish a baseline for each student. After teaching an academic standard, another test is administered. Academic standards define the skills and content knowledge that students are expected to learn in a subject at each grade level. Then Hilton-Taylor uses student scores to group students by readiness level: highest performing, on grade-level and below grade-level. Math and reading core instruction is planned accordingly.

By the end of the third cycle of teaching and assessment, learning gains can be measured. Hilton-Taylor charted the results of this Intervention and Enrichment approach for all Dorothy Moses students. “Only three students, who suffered chronic absenteeism, remained below grade,” she said. “In the first school year (2013-14) we did only math, and last year (2014-15) we added English in certain grades. The end-of-year data for both school years showed consistent growth and pockets of excellence.”

In the 2013-14 school year, 76.2 percent of 4th-grade students at Dorothy Moses met or exceeded their end-of-year growth projection in math, compared to 65.8 percent or peers in the Bismarck district. That is a remarkable 16-percent positive differential.

In the 2013-14 school year, 76.2 percent of 4th-grade students at Dorothy Moses met or exceeded their end-of-year growth projection in math, compared to 65.8 percent of peers in the Bismarck district. That is a remarkable 16-percent positive differential.

“Seeing the successes over and over again kept us motivated,” said Hilton-Taylor, who praised the commitment of the faculty and staff at Dorothy Moses and also added, “Without Dr. Hornbacher it could not have happened. He committed to providing the needed training and resources.”

Teachers and administrators worked together researching instructional materials to find the best matches for their students. “It is not a curriculum or text or set of worksheets we use,” Hilton-Taylor emphasized. “We gather the support materials teachers ask for and give them what they need.” Fourth-grade teachers Beth Urlacher and Carmela Ballantyne created math packets customized for parents at each child’s readiness level, so that parents could continue targeted practice at home.

“Intervention and Enrichment helps meet the needs of high-achieving students too,” said Ballantyne in an interview, “because after students master a standard, they do advanced work, which gives them the opportunity to score above grade level.”

Collaborating to Meet Student Needs

Hornbacher credits his teachers for their willingness to collaborate professionally and extend their expertise and care beyond their respective classrooms for the benefit of all students. “The data indicates student growth, which is an obviously positive outcome,” he said. “Teachers collaborate to engage students in learning and they share successful instructional practices, all to the benefit of staff and students.” This open sharing flourishes in a school culture where teachers feel safe enough to take risks regarding the success or failure of a given lesson. Then they share these experiences with faculty members.

“In addition, staff view student grade-level performance as theirs and own the growth of all students,” observed Hornbacher. This approach enables teachers to share and then learn from each other, and also rely on each other to meet the varying needs of all students. “Teacher collaboration is an empowering process, as teachers understand that the answers to many of their questions are somewhere within the walls of the school.”

“Teacher collaboration is an empowering process, as teachers understand that the answers to many of their questions are somewhere within the walls of the school.”

“Ultimately, the collaborative approach means more than saying good morning and sharing a well-defined lesson plan with the teacher next door,” Hornbacher added. He cited the group design of lessons, when several teachers sit down to discuss and plan instructional practices, as a crucial difference-maker.

In a group interview, the team of 1st-grade teachers related that the smallest student groups consist of those with below-grade-level skills. They receive targeted intervention at the same time as teachers challenge high achievers in other small-group settings.

Also, the groupings are flexible as progress continues. “We revisit the groupings every week and move students when appropriate,” said Shelly Feeney, a 1st-grade teacher. She pointed out that the repeating cycles of small-group instruction (30 minutes of math and 60 minutes of reading instruction) and assessment help students hold onto the academic skills and concepts.

Intervention and Enrichment helps students at Dorothy Moses learn and move beyond expected growth in each learning standard. In this process, the most impactful investment has proven to be relational between teacher and student, and relational among educators who are engaged in vigilant assessment and reacting to that assessment in a supportive learning environment.

Finding Balance in Doing It All

The needs of students growing up in poverty are complex. Understanding this and meeting needs both require a system-wide effort—an ultimate juggling act involving the implementation of a systemic approach to maximizing resources, better utilization of community partners, engagement of parents and families, and the adoption of innovative differentiated instruction.

“It can be overwhelming at times,” noted Famias. “Working in an environment where students have experienced a high degree of trauma can also impact the adults working with kids.” Administrators and education leaders often remind faculty to take care of themselves and each other.

“Kids need stable, consistent adults who want to be there and want to do their work while not always feeling overwhelmed,” said Hornbacher. “The pacing is an art.” An art whose highest reward is seeing challenged children surmount life-limiting obstacles.

Brenda Werner, PhD, is the Director of the Graduate Education Program at the University of Mary. She earned a BS in Secondary English Education and K-12 Health/Physical Education from Minot State University, an MS in Teaching from Fort Hays State University, and a PhD in Secondary Education and Administration from the University of North Dakota. After 11 years teaching English at Bismarck High School, Werner was named the 2012 North Dakota Teacher of the Year. In 2014, Werner traveled to China as a member of the National Education Association’s Global Fellowship Program.

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