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Turnaround begins: Waubun district aims for higher grade

New Waubun High School Principal Michael Carey sits at the back of John Short's junior high school science class as he evaluates the teacher. Carey hopes to raise students' low test scores with the technique. Dave Wallis / The Forum

WAUBUN, Minn. - Last spring brought shock and anger to the high school in this White Earth Reservation town.

The state's education department abruptly labeled the school one of Minnesota's lowest-performing. The federal government had a prescription for a "turnaround," and it involved the ousting of the school's popular principal.

The school got a $1.4 million federal grant to engineer the turnaround over three years. The changes this fall have yielded some grumbling - and a sense the school is on the right track to boost the low test scores that earned it the harsh labels. With an energetic new principal at the helm, students and teachers are tackling a perennial goal with renewed gusto.

"We're still a little upset all this had to happen," says senior Brooke Klemetsrud. "But we want to prove people wrong. That gave us a kick in the butt to get going."

After the school landed on the state's in-need-of-a-makeover list last semester, students chafed at the labels. In one of Minnesota's poorest areas, their school had strengths even the consultants the state dispatched to size it up noted: a high graduation rate, a positive climate and respectful relationships between students and teachers. A few students had recently scored generous college scholarships.

"It was kind of a downer," says senior Tracee Winter. "It was like, 'You guys are stupid, and you need help.' "

Over the summer, the district scrambled to prep for the changes coming this fall. It hired a new principal, Michael Carey, a former science teacher and a college readiness expert in Detroit Lakes.

It worked out a deal with the teacher's union over longer school days, another federal requirement for grantees. It also had to hire replacements for an unusually large number of teachers though Carey isn't sure the restructuring chased staff away.

This semester, Carey has been spending a lot of time sitting quietly in the backs of classrooms, taking notes.

"Why are you here?" students asked anxiously at first. "I'm just here," he responded, trying to "play it very casual."

Under the grant requirements, Carey must observe and evaluate teachers three times a school year. That's time-consuming, but it's given him great insights into strengthening instruction.

The school also tacked on 20 minutes to the school day and shrunk between-class breaks from six to three minutes. A tutor is available for help with homework and other issues before and after school.

Teachers turn in much more detailed lesson plans and weekly reports on student progress. They get together for an hour-and-a-half of collaborative professional development each Wednesday.

"It feels like I am a first-year teacher again," says English teacher Becky Hastad, "and I've been doing this for 20 years."

For so-called turnaround schools, the state has set a goal of a 10 percent spike in both reading and math proficiency each of the three years of the grant. If schools don't make gains, they could lose the funding.

In a small school like Waubun Secondary, Carey points out, as few as five students per grade need to gain proficiency to hit the 10 percent goal.

"If you look at it that way, it's a little less daunting," he says. "It's still a lot of work, but it's more manageable."

Still, say Carey and educators at the school, Waubun can't do it without its students. To stress that need for student buy-in, the school started enforcing its tardiness policy, which calls for lunch detention after three late arrivals to class. In the first month, roughly a third of students got detention.

"In the past, we've been guilty of enabling students to some degree," says Superintendent Mitch Anderson. "Now, we're not backing down."

Some students have grumbled about the lengthier day, which cuts into practice for school athletes.

But there's little doubt students are more focused and motivated this year. Physical education teacher and volleyball coach David Varriano spots players bringing homework on bus rides to games.

Hastad's students even got into Shakespeare's "Macbeth," which often elicits groans of "I don't get this" and "I don't care."

Students concur. Even last spring, the high school tackled math and reading tests with a new awareness of their high stakes; the district scored a 10 percent increase in reading. Senior Ryan Frye, a college-bound football player who dubs himself "kind of a slacker," says he didn't "whiz" through the test as he used to.

Students report a shift in the school mood this year, a new focus and energy. Says Klemetsrud, the senior, "This is going to be a really good school."