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Pullman Elementary School's achievement gains celebrated

Afton Murray, a Reading Recovery teacher at Pullman Elementary School, helps first-grader Ashley Hoyt with her reading during a recent Hat Day. Recovery has helped boost Pullman's reading scores. Bulletin photo by Judy Spooner

Joining an exclusive group, Pullman Elementary School was recently designated a "celebration school."

The honor, from the Minnesota Department of Education, recognizes Pullman for growth its students made on Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests given last spring.

Pullman teachers and support staff members are very proud of how they sparked student achievement, but it was only a pause, according to Principal Ed Ross, before returning to the focus of keeping up the effort.

The motto is "no excuses," he said. "We meet the kids where they are."

Educators for more than 10 years have wanted students to be judged on the amount of growth they made in a year's time instead of only reporting the percentage of students who pass the tests.

Last year, under a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law, the federal department of education said Minnesota could change its accountability system and add the "growth" measurement. Together with proficiency, closing the achievement gap between white students and those of color and graduation rates, the new MMR (Multiple Measurement Rating) was introduced.

Pullman got a combined MMR score of 43.5 over the two years and soared to 66.9 last year making the school eligible for a "celebration" designation along with 211 other schools. But it had to apply, stating what the school did to motivate the growth, to get an official designation, something given to an elite 10 percent of eligible schools.

Celebration status is a long way from when the school was placed on the "not making adequate yearly progress" list three years ago and stayed there for two years. In the second year, parents were offered the chance to transfer their students to Cottage Grove Elementary School with busing paid for by the district.

Last year, the school was taken off the list because students passed, and in some instances, exceeded proficiency levels.

Pullman showed it was closing the achievement gap when all of its student subgroups -- Asian, Hispanic, black, Native American, special education, lower income and English as a second language -- passed tests.

"It shows that it's possible," Ross said.

It took many changes at the school to raise test scores. The first year, reading scores went up but math suffered from lack of attention, so math got the emphasis the second year.

Because Pullman is a Title I school and eligible for federal money because of high number of free and reduced-price lunches, the money focused on helping those students, nearly half the school's population.

Math and reading specialists were added in addition to math and reading AmeriCorps paid tutors.

But the former proficiency-only model had some fallout. Kids on the high end showed good scores every year, but no growth.

Schools, because of rules and not lack of commitment, put emphasis on getting kids around the proficiency level to boost scores. Those students who were predicted not to pass the tests got less attention.

But that's all old news, now, Ross said. High-achieving kids have to hit goals each year as do kids who are not passing tests.

"Maybe they're not proficient, but are hitting growth targets," Ross said. "It all counts, now."

To ensure Pullman, and Crestview and Newport elementary schools, continue to climb, pre-school classes for 4-year-olds are offered at no charge to parents because children were coming to kindergarten already behind their peers.

All-day kindergarten is also offered free of charge at Pullman and Newport.

Minnesota Education Department Commissioner Brenda Cassellius sent a letter congratulating Ross and staff members on being named a Celebration school.

"It's a direct reflection of the gains you have directed toward improving outcomes for your students," she wrote.

She said the staff was dedicated and achieved an outstanding accomplishment.

The school's test scores and application to become a Celebration school were on display at the Minnesota Academic Excellence Foundation conference, Cassellius said.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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