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Kansas education
Fourth-grade teacher Barbara Palen helps a student during a weekly math practice test in Waconda, Kan., a tiny district in the heartland where test scores are soaring. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

CAWKER CITY, Kan. — Barbara Palen works her way around her classroom at Lakeside Middle School in this tiny farming community (population: 469) some three hours northwest of Topeka. The 14 fourth-graders are starting a new math unit, and Palen wants to know how their parents use measurements.

One boy quietly offers that his dad, a farmer, takes measurements when putting up a fence.

Another explains that his dad fixes cars and trucks and has to measure under the hood.

“And he lets you help him sometimes, doesn’t he?” Palen asks. “So if you learn measurement, you’ll be able to help him more. That’s so cool.”

For the next eight years, all 14 of Palen’s students are likely to pass state math and English exams. All are likely to graduate from high school, and almost all will go on to higher education. District staff tell stories of previous graduates who run successful local businesses and who’ve become surgeons or cancer researchers.

The methods behind the educational success of this community, which encompasses four blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em towns stretched out on the flat plains of north-central Kansas, provide a stark contrast to popular education reforms playing out across the United States. Waconda does not link student test-scores to teacher evaluations or offer merit pay to its teachers; it has no plans to distribute iPads to students.

Waconda’s approach is rooted in the basics, with a community that champions education, coupled with faculty dedication and a relentless focus on early intervention and prevention.

“Sometimes you get one of those elements in a school [or] two. But to have three come together, that’s not the norm at all,” says John Hill, president of the National Rural Education Association, a membership organization of rural districts and state agencies. “I think that says something very special about that community.”

Waconda has earned awards and a reputation as an exceptionally high-performing district, despite not being affluent or having high property taxes. The mean annual household income in Cawker City is just $41,800, which is $10,000 below the national average. About 60 percent of students are eligible for free- or reduced-priced lunch, a federal measure of poverty. Roughly 10 percent are foster children. Nearly one in five is classified as having special needs.

Seventeen percent of adults in the district’s four towns have a bachelor’s degree, compared to a national average of about 28 percent. Many parents work long hours or night shifts, meaning the percentage of latchkey children, if it were calculated, “would be alarming,” says Superintendent Jeff Travis.

In 2010, Waconda’s only middle school received a federal Blue Ribbon award, distinguishing it as one of the country’s best 266 public schools based on site visits from federal officials and a self-evaluation. In a typical year, every single Waconda student passes state exams in English and math—and the majority test at the “exceeds standards” or “exemplary” levels.

Neighboring school districts do well, but don’t match Waconda’s near-perfect track record on state exams. Nearby Beloit—a district with 780 students and significantly lower poverty rates—had 89 percent of students pass last year’s reading test and 87 percent pass math, which are similar to statewide passage rates. For students on free- or reduced-price lunch, though, the statewide passage rates were somewhat lower, at 81 percent for English and 78 percent for math.

To some, Waconda’s test scores aren’t surprising. The district has just 375 students, and the area has a small-town intimacy to it—teachers are likely to run into their students at church or the bank. Its population doesn’t include English language learners. The average class size is just 11 students in the lower grades. The district has a 16-to-1 student–to-teacher ratio, slightly above the national average.

“It’s a homogeneous, intact, all-white community,” says Douglas Ready, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. He argues that nearly all of Waconda’s success could be attributable to the community and its demographics rather than the school system itself.

Last fall, the Global Report Card, developed by researchers affiliated with the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, suggested that Waconda’s students outperformed about 90 percent of their peers worldwide. The report card uses state, national and international test-score results to compare school systems around the globe.

The researchers behind the Global Report Card are quick to point out that their measurements aren’t perfect—they don’t adjust for student demographics, for one—and that Waconda’s size increases the margin of error in estimates of its performance. Still, the tiny Kansas district caught the researchers’ attention. Its performance has improved dramatically since 2004, when it was at the 68th percentile in math and the 71st percentile in reading on the Global Report Card.

“There are places that are not wealthy, that are not places [where] we think we have pockets of excellence, but we do,” says Jay Greene, one of the creators of the report card and an education professor at the University of Arkansas. “There’s certainly something good going on in Waconda.”

‘Target them early’

Education in Waconda begins with preschool, which isn’t mandatory but is free and open to all. About 90 percent of preschool-aged children enroll in the half-day program each year. The first year of the program, 17 out of 21 students came from one-parent households. Some come to school ready to read. Others can’t recognize basic shapes or colors.

Preschool, which research has shown can have both short- and long-term benefits for students, is the first step in addressing these disparities. Waconda strives to have all of its students performing at or above grade-level by fourth grade. Students are screened when they enter preschool, and their progress is continually assessed through short diagnostic tests and teacher observations.

Kansas education
Third-graders at Waconda’s Glen Elder Elementary School prepare for Kansas Day — celebrated each year on January 29th — by learning about and coloring in pictures of the state tree. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

Each child has an assessment card that follows him or her from school entry to high-school graduation, tracking how well he or she has grasped every content standard in every subject area.

Walking around the computer lab, Palen knows exactly how her fourth-graders are doing as they work through a 10-question practice test to prepare for the approaching state exams.

Palen calls out reminders—“Remember, when we take the real test, I can read you the question, but you have to ask me”—and offers incentives to stay focused: “After this, you can go play cool math games.”

Some raise their hands again; others cruise through without difficulty. All are able to tackle grade-level questions about plotting points with (x,y) coordinates.

“We do a lot of testing,” said Palen, whose students will take practice tests about once a week in the months leading up to the state exams. “That’s how we see where the kids are.”

If any of the students aren’t catching on, Waconda can offer a wealth of assessments to diagnose problems and subsequent one-on-one tutoring, either with specialist teachers or community volunteers.

“If we target them early, then we are able to close the gap early, rather than later when the gap is too big,” says Jennifer Brummer, who teaches third and fourth grade at Tipton Community School.

The one-on-one attention doesn’t disappear when students get to fourth grade. More programs kick in afterwards, including a chance to work directly with Title 1 teachers—those hired with federal funds distributed to schools based on the percentage of students eligible for free- or reduced-priced lunch—or spend more hours in after-school programs, where they can do homework and practice any skills they might be struggling with.

Jill Weber attributes her son Mason’s success to the long hours he logs with teachers here. He’s been going to the after-school program for three or four days a week since first grade, and now as a fifth-grader he stays in the building until 5 p.m.

“He just benefits really well from it,” Weber says, citing Mason’s recent “Excellence in Math” award in his class. “I don’t think he would have gotten that if he hadn’t got the extra help that these after-school teachers give.”

The personalized interventions continue throughout high school. Students deemed at risk—typically, those with low grades or poor attendance—get extra attention outside the classroom or work on computer programs to practice specific skills and monitor their progress. One teacher at the high school spends her mornings working with small groups of students, sitting with them as they watch lessons on DVD to make up work they missed or failed to master, and grilling them with questions from the textbook.

“We all know all the kids here at our school,” Brummer says. “We can identify what that child needs and really come up with a good strategy that works for that student. It’s not just a name on a paper.”

‘What you’ll do next in life’

In mid-January, Christmas decorations still hang on the light posts that line the main street in Cawker City. The two-tenths-of-a-mile-long stretch of road is marked by abandoned storefronts and a gazebo housing America’s largest ball of twine.

Kansas education
The main street in Cawker City (population: 469) lies mostly abandoned on a cold January day. The small town is home to one of the world’s largest balls of twine. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

Seven miles down a mostly empty stretch of one-lane highway, Downs—another tiny town in the Waconda district—has a bit more to offer: a grocery store, a laundry mat and a handful of restaurants. The nearest Walmart is a 90-minute drive.

Waconda’s small communities—where everyone knows everyone and everything—are what high-school senior Jenny Koops has known all her life. Born and raised in Downs, she’s attended Waconda schools since kindergarten. She’ll graduate in June and attend Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn. to study biology.

Her mother, a nurse, has an associate degree, and her father started college but dropped out. Koops and her three older sisters, two of whom have already earned bachelor’s degrees, have always believed they’d get four-year degrees.

“It’s kind of like, that’s what you’ll do next in life. You’re going to go to college and you’re going to get a degree,” she says. “You can go wherever you want, but you were going to go.”

Professor Ready, of Columbia’s Teachers College, believes this is something the schools can’t claim credit for. “The school system is one interconnected cog in the community,” he says. “The social capital, the culture, the college-going ethos—that’s a community thing, that’s not a district thing.”
Koops works at her father’s combo gas station/hunting store when she’s not in school, and takes out-of-town shopping trips with her friends. They are all heavily involved in extracurricular activities, from Future Farmers of America to the school’s eight-man football team. On a bulletin board in her high school hang both college test-prep posters and a sign that reads “Pregnant? We can help.”

Her parents are often too busy to sit down and help with homework. Her father works 14- to 15-hour days, she estimates. Her mother sees patients in four different counties and is almost always on call.

When Koops struggled with trigonometry last year, she met her math teacher nearly every day for 40 minutes before school started. “If my teacher was going to come in before 7:30—that was pretty awesome to me,” she says. “She was going to make sure I could do [the problems].”

Teachers model the work ethic they demand of students. The high-school Spanish teacher also teaches business. The middle-school vocal music teacher works with at-risk seventh- and eighth-graders in English, math and science. An elementary-school secretary does everything from man the library to coordinate the district’s bus schedule. Most have taught in the district their entire careers, some for more than three decades. By comparison, 46 percent of new teachers nationally quit within five years.

District officials estimate that about a third of teachers belong to the Kansas affiliate of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union. The starting salary for teachers in Waconda is $27,000, while the highest salary a teacher can earn here is $43,875—after 20 years on the job and with a graduate degree. Nationally, the average starting teacher salary is $39,000, and veteran teachers in some cities or suburbs can make more than $100,000 a year.

The teachers “want these kids to succeed so badly, and they just really put their whole heart and soul into it,” says Weber, Mason’s mom. “They just care so much. That’s so refreshing as a parent to know that these teachers aren’t just in it for a paycheck.”

Many teachers say they view themselves and their schools as stabilizing forces in children’s lives, particularly at the elementary level. Parental expectations and involvement may be high—the district gets close to100-percent participation at parent-teacher conferences at the elementary-school level—but day-to-day, many students are on their own to do homework.

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.

“We take on the role of parents, not just teachers,” Wacker says. “I want to see these kids grow up to be good people, get good jobs.”

This combination of knowing students well and a determination to do right by them is what makes all the difference, Wacker says, to the success of the little district on the plains—a place that could provide some national lessons as well.

“I don’t know if you can duplicate it,” Wacker says. “But [it’s] worth trying.”

This story appeared on on March 19, 2012 as part of an exclusive collaboration. Republication is not allowed.

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