The high desert area of northwestern New Mexico, also known as the Checkerboard area, is patchwork of territory owned by the federal government, private citizens, and the Navajo reservation. There are oil and gas fields mixed with arid mesas, but just below that is fertile farmland and situated among the many farms is a Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) school called the Nenahnezad Community School for K-6 students.
Poverty here is a way of life, and many students come from homes with no running water or electricity. As a result, many of the 180 students live in campus dormitories during the school week. Student turnover at Nenahnezad is near 50 percent each year. In 2007, students were entering the school as much as four grades below level and some were leaving without showing any growth. Principal Dean Cunningham recalls:
We were the lowest performing elementary school on all of Navajo. On the NWEA test we gave that fall, we had one child that was benchmark—and that was from K all the way to sixth. That was unacceptable.
Even before the first day of school, Cunningham began building a data-driven culture at Nenahnezad. He sent key staff members to the NWEA summer conference, Fusion, to learn about using MAP® Growth™ data, and brought NWEA Professional Learning experts to New Mexico for intensive teacher training. As soon as testing began in the fall, he established a spreadsheet that classified students, based on their RIT scores, as intensive, strategic, benchmark, or advanced. He worked to change his teachers’ concept of data-driven education. His goal: to start using MAP Growth as a teaching tool.
It’s all about growth, and we see tremendous growth every year, which is wonderful. We’ve taken NWEA, and we’ve used it to the point of excellence”
By balancing student need and teacher time, Cunningham and his teaching staff established a “replacement core” program for the lowest-performing students in each grade—grouping six students with one teacher for two to three hours of math and two to three hours of reading every day. Data from NWEA assessments was used to adjust instruction throughout the year. Cunningham and his team soon had solid data to show that the program was working: Students in the program gained as much as two and a half grade levels by the end of the year.
Today, five years after Cunningham began his data-based program, Nenahnezad has moved from the lowest-performing to one of the top-ranked BIE schools in all of New Mexico. At the end of the most recent school year, they had no students labeled as intensive in math, four students labeled as intensive in reading, and 24 students with advanced status—including several scoring in the 90th percentile on MAP Growth assessments. Nenahnezad has made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for several years, and it’s a status they now expect to achieve every year.
As Cunningham concludes:
It’s all about growth, and we see tremendous growth every year, which is wonderful. We’ve taken NWEA, and we’ve used it to the point of excellence. We were the only AYP school in the whole San Juan County last year. We were it, we were the ones. And so these little guys work hard, and the teachers work hard, and they deserve it. I’ve got wonderful teachers and coaches at my school that just made that happen. These kids love it. They know exactly what their goal is every time they walk in. And when you’re walking on campus, you’ll have a kid run up to you and say, ‘I hit my goal!’ It means a lot to them. They’re into it. They understand it, and they know that they’re getting better. They know they’re smart.
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