I have a very intriguing story to tell you about a small, rural community that seems to be outperforming both American students from wealthier schools and students in developed countries around the world. So, what do they do that makes them so successful? Well, let’s take a look.
First, let me introduce you to the rural Waconda Lake area in North Central Kansas. The Waconda school district is made up of four small towns: Cawker City, Downs, Glen Elder, and Tipton, with seven schools that are spread over a 411 square mile area. The people in the community either work in agriculture or manufacturing. This is a quiet, agricultural community, whose best known local landmark is an enormous ball of twine, which they claim is the largest in the world.
But their real claim to fame is more academic, according to The Global Report Card, which was published in Education Next. According to this recent report, the average student, in this district of 385 students, scores better than 90% of students in 20 developed countries on their math and reading tests, and it is the second highest performing school district in math in the U.S., in spite of the fact that 65% of its children live in poverty.
Jeff Travis, the district’s superintendent for seven years, reported that 65% of the students in the district qualify for free or reduced lunches through the federal government. And yet, unlike other high poverty schools in our nation which tend to produce low test scores and high dropout rates, this district has risen above its poverty level and is outperforming affluent school systems.
What, I’m sure you’re wondering, does this district do to be so successful? Travis suggests that one possible theory is that the kids at Waconda have no realization that they are materially deprived. . “North Central Kansas is rural, and urban poverty is kind of different [from] rural poverty,” he said. “A lot of our people don’t even understand that they’re living in poverty.”
There are no students who need English learning classes, and most of them are white, according to state data. Travis also said that about 10% of the students are in foster homes. “We just [have] a lot of adults that care about kids, so it’s been a popular thing for parents to take in foster children,” he explained.
Travis also attributed their success to the simple matter of expectation. He said that after years of earning high test scores, it has become an expectation in the community that their students will excel. He said that in most years, no one drops out of high school! Imagine that! Additionally, over the past four years, the district has earned 14 Governor Achievement Awards and one national “Blue Ribbon Award School.”
Travis said, “It’s a tradition now, and they expect themselves to do well. Like a ball team that continues to win because of a tradition, we have an academic tradition. Everybody’s pretty happy [but] nobody understands how big a deal it is.”
He attributes three essential factors to the district’s great success. First, is the tremendous amount of parental involvement which occurs in these schools. Almost every parent attends their child’s parent-teacher conferences at the elementary level, and Travis says the participation is still very high in the older grades.
The second factor, according to Travis, is small class sizes. He explained that the district is committed to keeping classes from pre-kindergarten to third grade very small. With only 12 to 15 students in each class, he said, “We get to a lot of problems quickly and early in child development,”
The third factor is the district’s assessment card which follows each student from grade to grade. This is a card, created by the district, which lists the skills that the state expects children to master in each subject. These cards are updated by teachers all the time, which gives them a good idea of what they need to work on in order to pass their state standardized tests.
In spite of national education reform movements which advocate linking teacher pay to student test scores, Travis said that their district doesn’t keep up with these education trends. “We don’t believe in the next biggest thing or the next biggest theory. We’ve not made any major changes.”
But the news in Waconda is not all good; like districts everywhere, they face funding challenges. About 10% of their staff positions have been cut over the past few years due to budget cuts, and the average teacher only makes about $40,000, making theirs the lowest teaching salary of any district in their state. Travis acknowledged, “It’s going to get tougher as we go.”
Travis also shared that the district faces an additional challenge; many of the high-achieving students go to Kansas City rather than staying in their home towns. “It’s where the services and the goods and fun are,” he said. But they do what they can to encourage them to come back after college by challenging them to design a small business plan for the area.
While one of the authors of The Global Report Card said that the small size of this district may have slightly skewed the results of their research, it is pretty clear to me that this district has something really awesome going on. And I think that Travis hit the nail on the head when he said that the community expects that its students will do well, and the parents are actively involved.
I wonder how many districts can say the same thing. Maybe education reform is more about attitude, expectation, and community involvement. Maybe this little community has a thing or two to teach us all…