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Nothing short of great

Monday, November 28, 2016

School syncs many moving parts for top-notch results

Special Education Teacher Stephanie Murch works on mathematics with a couple students.

The teachers at Cedar Falls’ Hansen Elementary School like to say they think outside the box. But it’s an understatement, akin to saying that George Washington was somewhat important.

For the Hansen team – from special education to general education, from principal to the district – creates an environment in which students are learning. So much so, in fact, that Hansen Elementary leads the state in education delivery for students on Individualized Education Programs.

Consider: 79 percent of the Hansen students on IEPs are proficient in reading and math. That compares to 35 percent statewide – making Hansen the best in the state.

What’s going on? Could it be that special education gets to schedule classes first? Absolutely. Or that the mindset is that students on IEPs are first and foremost general education students? Yes. Strong collaboration? You bet. The school’s co-teaching practices? Sure. The leadership? Unequivocally.

Hansen’s success is indeed the whole of all its parts. And that makes for a well-tuned team, a top-drawer work environment and excelled learning.

What makes Hansen so unique, said 267 Area Education Agency Courtney Owen and the school’s AEA representative, is that everything aligned at just the right time.

“It’s novel because everything is working right just at the same time,” Owen said. “And when that happens, you can get some really cool things to happen.”

Through Hansen Elementary’s history, it has been known for always having strong leadership. But when Principal Tara Estep walked through the doors seven years ago, she upped the ante.

“Tara’s leadership is a huge factor in Hansen’s outcomes,” said Jill White, the district’s student services coordinator. “She has taken her team to new heights. This building is a model building.”

The team agrees.

“Tara is very accepting of us trying new things,” said 23-year Hansen veteran Barb Rogers, a sixth grade special education teacher. “The environment has changed considerably since Tara came. We have a new philosophy about our kids. We have co-teaching. There’s a culture that breeds positivity and acceptance. I love my team, I love my coworkers. And I don’t think most kids know that our kids are in special education today. Everyone knew 23 years ago.”

Estep bristles at accolades. It’s her team, she would say, that does the heavy lifting. But there’s no question that Estep is the architect and ringleader. It started when the school staff created a vision which, boiled down, focuses on delivering unparalleled education to all students. In order for that vision to take root, however, mindsets needed to be channeled.

“We focus on collective efficacy,” Estep said. “’Do I believe I can truly make an impact on the kids?’ ‘Do I believe my colleagues can do it?’ ‘Do I believe they can impact student achievement?’ If we start being skeptical of one another, that’s when we start working in silos and closing our doors. We truly live our vision of educating all our kids.”

The kids do, as well.

“We developed a student belief statement that came from our vision statement,” Estep said. “We made it student friendly so that they could own it.”

Some might find it difficult to get everyone on board. Not Estep.

“Here’s the deal,” she said. “You come into this building, and this is what we are. You are on the boat with us, and if you are not, you will want to be.

“I want to be the kind of leader who people want to follow. I want our teachers to be leaders in the district so others want to follow them. That way, they can build the same vision, the same communities in their own classrooms.”

Principal Tara Estep

Estep says embracing a positive culture is key.

“If we aren’t having fun, the kids are not having fun,” she said. “So it starts as joy among us, and it gets to the students.”

Students on IEPs thrive because the faculty and staff have a mindset that all students can learn at high levels.

“Specifically what we are doing with students on IEPs is no different than what we do for other students,” Estep said. “Our framework provides us with skill-by-skill student focus. We ensure that kids are at their just-right level for reading. Our interventions in general education are focused so that we prevent many students from entering special education. And as a result, we are decreasing the number of students in special education.”

This fall, only 9 percent of Hansen students are on IEPs.

Teachers regularly use formative assessments, which enables them to quickly check learning and to see if their instruction is meeting student needs.

“If the child isn’t doing well, maybe the teacher needs to reteach or intervene,” Estep said. “If the child is going up and beyond, then the child needs enrichment.”

Every Wednesday, teachers – general and special – meet to review data of every single student.

“The special education interventions could not work out without our gen. ed. partners,” said the district’s White. “If we didn’t have our gen. ed. partners agreeing to do it with us, then it would be all for naught. Here, the gen. ed. teachers say, ‘What can we do to help?’”

“What has made these students successful and confident in the general education setting and at school has to do with the collaboration between their general education teacher and I,” said Stephanie Murch, the kindergarten-through-second grade special education teacher. “We make sure that these students are given exactly what the other students in their classrooms are given. If a blue sheet is sent home for homework to their peers, then the general education teacher lets me know and we send home a blue sheet that is at their level. The general education teacher invites me into the classroom when they are sharing reading and during learning activities that we do not want the boys to miss. If I feel part of the classroom, I know my students do as well.”

That isn’t to say that pulling students out for small-group work is passe.

“Last year this group was pushed into the classroom for math because we thought co-teaching was the ultimate goal,” Murch said. “The students were not successful and were showing behaviors. As a school and IEP team, we decided that this is not what was best for them. We always do what is best for the kids. I now pull them into my classroom for math. All of the materials are now at their level, they feel success, and it has built their confidence tremendously. I now teach them at their level and their grade level material but it is all at their pace. This allows them to be exposed to grade-level material and to fill the gaps.”

Early planning is another component to Hansen’s success.

“We start in the spring making plans in the classroom for the following fall,” said teacher Rogers. “We even determine which paras will be good fits for each student.”

Special Education Teacher Renee Fober, working with a student here, says her paraeducators are critical to the school’s success.

“Definitely within the last three years we have gotten progressively better at frontloading,” said Renee Fober, fourth grade special education teacher. “In May, we come up with reading and writing goals together. Especially in writing, students learn so much from their peers. You cannot recreate this in an isolated environment. You get ideas from peers. It makes everyone feel successful. If they learn to believe in themselves, then they can believe they can do anything. That closes the gap right there.”

The school’s paraeducators, she added, are as much a part of the team as are the teachers.

“Paras are hugely supportive of our kids in the classroom,” she said. “We could not do it without them.”

The team’s newest member, Level II Strategist Katie Reed, started this fall at Hansen after moving from Texas.

“They are accepting of new ideas,” Reed said. “And gen. ed. teachers believe it isn’t a bad thing to have a special education student in your classroom. It is welcome here. It was a pleasant surprise. Actually, it still blows me away.”

In her former school, Reed said she wanted to collaborate with others.

“But we didn’t feel like we had enough time,” she said. “Even though co-teaching looks like it may be more work, it isn’t. Everyone is there for the end goal. And I don’t have to recreate a thing: If someone has a great lesson, I can borrow it. It’s a lot more efficient.”

Reed’s former school also was big on exams.

“We had big exams every six weeks, getting ready for the annual assessment,” she said.

At Hansen? No.

“If you are offering quality instruction and providing a strong, positive environment, there’s no need for prepping for the test,” Principal Estep said.

Tools of Hansen’s trade

  • Co-teach whenever possible
  • Regular formative assessments
  • Work toward collective efficacy
  • Review data each week of all kids
  • Staff-created vision statement
  • “Our” children, not “their” kids
  • Early planning (spring for fall)
  • Special ed. leads way in scheduling
  • Paras are critical to success


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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on May 21, 2018 at 7:06am.