WALSH, Colo. (AP) — High school principal Tom Meardon stood at the door of a burgeoning, screeching gymnasium and scanned the crowd for students whose names were neatly typed on a piece of paper in his hand.
The students had gotten D’s and F’s that morning — a distinction that earns them extra time with a teacher instead of the privilege of watching the junior high volleyball game.
Like a bloodhound, Meardon quickly hunted down the only student on the list who had managed to sneak in and sent him dejectedly back to the classroom.
All eyes are on the struggling kids in this town of 700 with no stoplights. And that has made all the difference.
Walsh School District has the highest reading scores in the state.
It may seem as if rural areas would have obvious advantages that would produce excellence — long-standing teachers, intimate class sizes and a personal touch.
That isn’t always true. Roughly half of the more than 150 rural districts across Colorado perform below the state average in reading. Higher than Cherry Creek, Academy 20 or Cheyenne Mountain — districts associated with affluence and topflight test scores.
But a collection of small towns in this corner of Colorado’s farm country are dodging the disadvantages of remoteness and poverty, thin resources and shriveling economies to produce some of the state’s best schools.
Up the road from Walsh in Las Animas, between 80 percent and 90 percent of its third-, fourth- and fifth- graders are reading and doing math at or above grade level. Four years ago, that number was below 50 percent in some grades.
Farther to the southeast in Springfield, the eighth grade is the highest performing class in the state for reading and has jumped 24 percentage points since 2004.
What is especially impressive is that all three of these districts aren’t just rural but also are very poor. More than half the students in all three qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch - a federal benchmark of poverty.
The success of these schools breaks one of the most ironclad laws of educational performance - the link between affluence and educational achievement.
Or to put it another way, in the debate about how to improve the nation’s schools, the puzzle that most confounds education experts is how to create great schools in poor areas — be it inner-city Los Angeles, north Denver or the dying farm towns of eastern Colorado.
In these rural Colorado districts, students are treated like individuals and receive plenty of personal attention. Teachers meet the students where they are, accommodate plans to help them, and don’t stop working until everyone in the classroom gets it.
This is a constant in high-poverty schools performing well, said Daria Hall, assistant director for K-12 policy at The Education Trust, an advocacy and research group based in Washington, D.C.
“You hear teachers say, ‘Well, I taught it; they just didn’t get it.’ The teachers are up there broadcasting information,” she said. “Some teachers very firmly believe they have not taught the material until all their students have learned it.”
And so as billions of dollars are spent on education reform nationally, Las Animas Elementary School principal Libby Hiza scrawls names of students falling behind on a white board in her office.
Las Animas is different from Walsh in many ways. It’s bigger, more transient, and with different kinds of poverty.
Five years ago, the state put this 250-student school on watch for chronically poor performance. At that time, only about 20 percent of its students were proficient in reading and math.
Now, between 80 percent and 90 percent of its third-, fourth- and fifth-graders are reading and doing math at or above grade level. The percentage of advanced third-grade readers jumped from 3 percent in 2004 to 21 percent in 2007.
Hiza, who gives kids little vouchers for candy in the hallways when she sees good behavior, did away with science, social studies and most recesses to focus almost entirely on the basics.
Teachers spent roughly three hours a day on reading and two on math.
Science scores, Hiza acknowledged, have suffered in comparison. Only 22 percent of fifth-graders - the only elementary grade that takes science tests - are proficient.
“There’s only so much time in the day,” Hiza said. “This allows us to concentrate on ... reading well.”
Like Walsh, energy goes not to programs or textbooks - but to individual students who are limping along.
For example, when Hiza spotted a 7-year-old who wasn’t learning how to read, she and her literacy coach met a reading expert from Denver for dinner. At the table, she pushed samples of his schoolwork over the plates of food, beseeching help.
With this extra attention, the little boy, now a third-grader, is recognizing words and sentences.
Even the school’s support staff - the custodian, the lunch lady and the secretary - have learned how to tutor kids.
“Everybody takes on the responsibility of teaching students how to read,” Hiza said. “The school belongs to them.”
Southeastern Colorado has had dramatic hardships, particularly in the past five years. Its districts are shrinking because a number of the communities have sold water rights. Teacher pay is lower than in the metro area. The several-year drought has hit the agricultural community hard, and last winter’s blizzards were another tough shot from Mother Nature.
In Walsh, the high school’s senior class has dwindled from 24 graduates three years ago to this year’s five students. Most kids come from farmer parents whose median household income is less than $25,000 a year, yet almost 90 percent of its third- through 10th-graders are reading at or above grade level.
Superintendent Kyle Hebberd introduces teachers by the year they - or their spouse - graduated from Walsh High School. Administrators try to draw people back to Walsh, and try to get them married so they’ll stay.
Everyone is expected to contribute, said Meardon, the principal who also coaches track, junior high basketball and sponsors the student council.
Teachers are seen lugging in berry cobblers for the little kids, and the FFA coordinator was making Frito pie before the junior high volleyball game.
“Your job description is ‘whatever needs to be done,’” Meardon said.
But beyond these cozy images of small-town life, almost all kids go to free preschool, where, as young as 3, toddlers are learning letters, sounds and how to spell their names.
Teachers take time every day to give one-on-one help to struggling kids. Even elementary teachers walk over to the high school during their free time and tutor.
“Failure is not an option,” said Charylene Smith, who has taught at Walsh Elementary for seven years. “If a student fails, that means the adults aren’t putting enough effort in. Year after year, we say that to ourselves, and it works.”
The high schoolers don’t have open periods, and in their homerooms if students are on the D’s and F’s list, the teacher requires they study the subject they are behind in.
Expectations are also high for parents in Walsh, Hebberd isn’t afraid to say. Some take their kids out of the district because of the demands that they stay involved and support students.
“It’s a lot,” said Tammy McCall, who has a first- and fifth-grader in school. “They do a lot of reading every night, and they have a lot of homework. It’s a good school, you can call the teachers at any time, but it’s a lot of work already.”
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