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Milan Village School, pathway to success

April 21, 2010
MILAN — After years of work, the Milan Village School succeeded this year in becoming one of six schools and two districts to be removed from the "in need of improvement" list, putting itself in good standing with the state.

The success is part of an effort the school has been making for a number of years, said Principal David Backler, which is starting to pay off.

"Getting off the list is a big big deal," he said.

The state Department of Education announced preliminary results for the 2010 Adequate Yearly Progress reports, or AYP, for New Hampshire schools and districts earlier this month. While most schools either regressed or stayed put, Milan moved ahead. Thirty-four schools failed to meet their AYP goals for a second year in a row and were therefore added to the schools in need of improvement list. Six schools met made their AYP goals for a second year in a row and therefore were removed from the list.

Milan was also one of two school districts that met AYP goals for a second year in a row, so they were removed from the list of districts in need of improvements as well. Seventeen districts were added to the list this year.

"When I started we were significantly below state average," Principal Backler said.

It took him and his staff five years to get student test scores up sufficiently to pass the New England Common Assessment Program tests, or NECAPs, which in part determine whether a school passes or fails.

"The biggest thing is you need to show improvement in math and reading," he said.

But success isn't just based on whether the school as a whole does well. While the school overall has to pass, Principal Backler said, there are various subgroups within the school that are also measured. If any of these subgroups don't show adequate progress, he said, the school as a whole will fail.

The key, he said, has been integrating data and technology into teaching.

At the Village School student data is entered into a computer and plotted over time. Teachers and administrators can see how individual students, grades, or the whole school are progressing over time. They can see what level of mastery a student has of reading in the spring and how much of that understanding they retain when they come back in the fall.

The technology and the data have given the school the tools to address issues as they arise, Mr. Backler said, so individual students don't fall so far behind they aren't able to catch up to the rest of the class. The result is the entire student body leaps forward, he said, closer to achieving their true potential.

"It's nice when you're starting with good data trends," he said. "You can spend 99 percent of your time on instruction, with instruction guided by your data."

One example he gave was summer break: students were losing a lot over the summer and coming back not as prepared as when they left. The data the school collected let administrators see the trend, so teachers sent home summer packets for the students to do. If students did the work, Principal Backler said, they got to watch a movie. It improved student performance while keeping the kids engaged, he said.

Another thing that's important, he said, is making sure subjects are broken down completely, so if a student needs help they get exactly the help they need.

A student might have trouble with math for example, he said, but not with all facets of it: they may understand everything but fractions, or decimals, which hurts the rest of their work. Instead of taking them out of class to go over a multitude of things they already know, he said, it's important to get them caught up quickly. They find out just what is wrong, address it, and get the student back in the classroom. That way they get back with their class, he said, and keep them moving at a normal pace.

"Reduce redundancy and refine what we're doing," he said. "This is something I'm dedicated to doing."

The school is working hard to create competent adults, he said, and to teach them the tools they need later in life. The kids are prepared for standardized tests, he said, because they have a mastery of the questions, not because they have been trained through rote memorization.

The progress has been clear, as the AYP results have shown, but Principal Backler has even higher goals for his students.

He wants to instill a love for the region in students, he said, while preparing them for higher education. Hopefully they will go away to college, he said, maybe they will then want to come back. The school puts kids in the outdoors to help them gain an appreciation for the North Country, he said, and teachers tell kids they'll need science and math if they want to work as a forester or other job in the region.

The result is students recognize they need calculus and biology if they want to come back to the area and have a job, he said, even at a young age. They are working to build the North Country of the future.

But, he said, it's a lot of work, and no one has put in more work than the students.

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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