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Student performance heads north at diverse urban school

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Pictured here, teachers Alyssa McDonald and Melissa Spencer recount the recent successes at North High School in Des Moines.

Imagine a diverse urban school in which behavior referrals drop by nearly half in one year. Imagine that same school increasing its graduation rate in the same time period. And its proficiency rates. And its Advanced Placement enrollment? Up from 20 students three years ago to over 300 today.

But this isn’t imagination at work. It’s North High School in Des Moines.

Once at the bottom of the statewide education system, North’s impressive climb began about three years ago with the arrival of Principal Matt Smith.

Smith set in place what his teachers describe as an educational revolution. Nonetheless, the Texas native gives full credit to his staff.

That’s not surprising to his team.

Jessica Gogerty, a former teacher and school improvement leader, said from Day One the faculty knew Smith was giving new life to an old school.

“Matt Smith organized us differently. He went to the teachers first to find the problems, and they did – they figured out what needed to be done,” said Gogerty, now school improvement leader at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines. “But it was Matt who got them together to collaborate on solutions. The teaching staff really didn’t change. What changed was how they were supported.”

Vice Principal Mike Vukovich said North’s low performance wasn’t because of disinterested teachers. Indeed, the teachers genuinely cared for their students, 85 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

However, “we were letting the kids off the hook academically because we knew they were going home to situations that the suburban kids don’t have to face,” Vukovich said. “But in the end, how is that really helping them?”

The school’s transformation first had to come from within.

“We needed to look in the mirror first,” Vukovich said. “We can’t blame the kids. If we did, we wouldn’t get anywhere.”

School administrators then took the following steps, in this order:

  1. Worked on environment to make it safe and appealing for both faculty and students alike.
  2. Focused on gaining trust among teachers.
  3. Started regular and frequent walk-throughs in classrooms; teachers were given a form showing what observers were looking for (engagement among students, class objectives posted). There were follow-up conversations after each visit to ensure everyone was on the same page.
  4. Changed the master schedule to incorporate 45-minute blocks in the middle of the day. Students who fall below reading targets receive reading instruction during this period. Teachers of various subjects participate and receive training in instructional strategies.
  5. Changed professional development to focus on reading, writing and speaking. This focus is incorporated into every class, regardless of topic.
  6. Incorporated data into everyday decisions. Data showing how North compared to other high schools in the state were shared with students. Staff members then showed the students where they thought they should be and later praised them – dancing onstage at student pep rallies, for example – when certain thresholds were met.
  7. Created data teams, an initiative that the school district is pushing.

Melissa Spencer, a science teacher who left North for a few years to serve as the school district’s union president, came back based on the enthusiastic reports she was receiving from peers. She found they were not exaggerating.

“It’s a completely different building,” she said. “Teachers get more feedback. We’re working on a standards-based education. It is more about mastering subjects.”

English teacher Alyssa McDonald has seen the transformation among her peers.

“There’s been a big shift in teacher thinking,” she said. “Students know why they’re doing everything. Every activity is attached to a standard; we’re no longer handing out A’s just because they showed up. If you don’t practice your work, then on game day you’re not going to win. It’s intrinsic motivation. Everything they do in class they understand is related to success.”

“It’s all about relevancy,” added Eddie McCulley, a school improvement leader at North. “And what is relevant will be very different for teenagers. Our relevancy has shifted. Now the tasks at hand are relevant to the standards.”

The students see that and are responding.

“We’re not practicing to fill in the bubbles (on standardized tests), we’re teaching them content so that when it comes to the bubble, the students say, ‘Oh, this is easy,’” McDonald said. “We’re giving them confidence – something they really needed. When kids are failing, they feel defeated right away. You begin to believe you cannot do it.”

Vukovich, much like his boss, tends to give full credit to the faculty.

“It comes down to people – people who believe that every student can succeed,” he said. “If you don’t have those people in place, it’s not going to work.”

“And don’t forget leadership,” Spencer added. “They are the ones who set up the master schedule and gave us the tools.”

Graduation Rates:

  • 2010 - 82 %
  • 2011 -  69 %*
  • 2012 - 76 %

*Academic expectations were raised that year.

Reading Proficiency:

  • 2010 - 45 %
  • 2011: 63 %*
  • 2012: 55 %

*2012 incorporated different testing. 2010 and 2011 represent an apples-to-apples comparison.


  • 2010-11 school year: 772  
  • 2011-12 school year: 225  
  • 2012-13 school year (to date): 230

Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on January 18, 2018 at 9:44am.