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Getting the Lions’ share Morrill schools test scores stand out among area schools
November 25, 2015 Frank Marquez   

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Photos by Frank Marquez/Gering Citizen Morrill seventh graders Brook Hopkins (left) and Kilee Stauffer sit in Mr. Chris Baltz’s science class watching a segment about climate by Bill Nye the ‘Science Guy’ on their newly issued Chromebooks.

Recent results from proficiency test scores released this fall show Morrill has achieved higher proficiency ratings in core subjects than most other area school districts.

Despite a high poverty rating of more than half their students – a factor which often presents challenges in education, the Morrill School District released results from the Nebraska State Assessment System (NeSA) that show high test scores compared with seven other local school districts including Scottsbluff and Gering.

While challenges exist, Morrill has countered by actively monitoring the progress of every student and not only intervening when it becomes necessary, but providing them with every chance at success. In October, the district also made new Chromebooks available to all students in grades 7-12. In grades 3-6, every two students share one.

The Morrill School District is listed with a 56-percent poverty rating – tied with Banner County. Though, Morrill’s scores are higher than Banner County’s. By further comparison, Scottsbluff’s poverty level is at 60 percent, while Minatare is at 80 percent, with Minatare reporting the lowest scores, aligning with typical results for a predominantly poor school despite the size of schools – Scottsbluff (the largest) and Minatare (one of the smallest) in this comparison. Poverty level is determined by a student’s eligibility for free and reduced lunches based on a family’s income.

Mitchell’s poverty rating of 42 percent is more in line with state average of 44. Yet, Morrill and Mitchell are the only school districts in this region listed above the stateaverage in every category, with Morrill on par with Mitchell, if not higher.

In 2010-11, Morrill rated 69 percent proficient in reading, and 58 percent proficient in math, compared with the recent scores of 87 percent and 79 percent, respectively. Only Sioux County, at a 28 percent poverty level, scored higher than Morrill with an 82-percent proficiency rating in math, and 85 percent in writing. Morrill and Mitchell tied for the highest science rating at 79 percent.

Coming from being the head of McPherson County schools for seven years, Joe Sherwood in his first year as Superintendent of Morrill Schools said, “We have gone from not meeting expectations to doing pretty well.

We’re still not 100 percent, and the federal law “No Child Left Behind,” (which is currently under review by Congress), requires 100 percent in reading and math at every grade level for every student. If you look at our annual yearly progress (AYP), we’re still a needs improvement school in Nebraska.”

In some ways Morrill has proven size does matter. Commonly student-to-teacher ratios with low numbers yield high academic ratings. Morrill tends to 365 students in grades pre-K-12, that includes ages 3 to 18.

Count 35 teachers and four administrators, and the attention given to students is more than most area schools can afford. Morrill can match one teacher for every nine students. In most cases, the issue is time.

In Morrill’s case, of a 185 contract days for teachers, they have but 168 days in the classroom, making the most of that time by paying close attention to all their students, especially those struggling.

Calling it intervention, every Friday afternoon for two hours starting at 1:30 p.m., Morrill teachers pull the group of struggling students aside to tutor them at the high school.

For example, there might be 25 students and 18 teachers. “The everyday focus on meet- ing expectations, and intervening when a student is not meeting expectations, and continuing that intervention until they meet standards is making a significant impact on our education system,” Sherwood said. “Our staff and administration is doing a great job.”

Keri Homan, the principal at Morrill Elementary for the past six years, said, “We have had interventions for every student in the past, and that is something that we will do again. Right now, not every student is getting an intervention. However, they are all getting small group reading instruction on their level. We focus on the whole kid, not just teaching content. We focus on behaviors, and social-emotional issues so that we can help meet their needs, and we can teach them. I think that if they’re coming to school hungry or are upset about things they can’t control as a child, we try to help them with those as well as just reading and math.”

Homan taught in first and second grades in Scottsbluff, and Title 1 reading and math to third graders in Torrington. She was also a regular classroom teacher there.

Her experience as well as the expertise of Morrill teachers has built the foundation for the programs that have been implemented in the elementary school.

“(In Torrington), I would do a pullout, and teach five or six kids at a time focusing on specific needs they had in reading or math, giving them extra help, and boosting instruction they were receiving in the regular classroom,” she said.

At Morrill, Homan said, “The teachers spend a lot of time building relationships, getting to know the kids. If they know there are weaknesses, we have a lot of collaboration between our teachers so they can draw on each other’s expertise, especially between grade levels. If we have a first grader who is struggling, the first grade teacher is going to make connections with that Kindergarten teacher. ‘What did you do with this child? How did you help them?’ If we still can’t resolve it, we can take them to a student assistance team, and come up with different interventions based on the student’s needs.”

Homan’s disheveled desk is an indication she spends more time out of her office than in it befitting a school administrator who is passionate about her job. Two weeks ago she dressed as a lion, Morrill’s mascot, and went outside to read a story to every class. “I set up a tent and sat in my lawn chair,” she said. “I love my job, and I love the kids.”

Homan said she and teachers have worked hard to support this type of climate of close attention and the feel of family, and she’s adamant about calling it a WE mentality. “It is a team effort. (The teachers) really want to help the kids learn and make a difference.”

“That’s not something I can do by myself. The teachers have to buy into it. Ultimately, it comes to them, because they’ve got the kids with them. Being a smaller school … we have a unique relationship. We have a very small community. We have taught brothers and sisters. Some of the teachers have taught moms and dads. So, they know the kids. They know the moms and dads. They know the family structure. We really reach out to the whole family, not just to the kids.”

Homan added, “My teachers set super high expectations for their kids, even when things look good, they’ll say ‘well, they can always do better. I wish they were doing this, or I wish they were doing that.’ I don’t think there’s a teacher in my building that would ever settle,” she said. “They have high expectations. Then if they meet their goals, they challenge their kids to meet the next goal. That’s one of the things that helps have high scores. We expect it of all kids, and we work to help them reach those goals. They’re not all successful every time, but we don’t ever give up on them.”

Because of the interventions among other grade-specific activities, Morrill has shown consistent progress with improvement. Test scores have steadily risen in language arts for the past five years, math for four years, and science for three years. Nebraska educators test grades 3-8 and 11 every year in math and reading; science in grades 5, 8, and 11; and writing in grades 4, 8 and 11.

Sherwood attributes the progress to the type of attention Morrill teachers give to students. He said the district two weeks ago issued 14-inch Chromebooks to all students in grades 7-12, and made available one Chromebook for every two students at the elementary school in grades 3-6.

“We feel as though we can’t expect kids to power down when they come to school,” he said. “The students of today are a digital generation. When they’re not at school, they’re on the cell phone or iPad, or some electronic device. They can learn faster than teachers can talk. It’s important that we reorganize our delivery of instruction (not bottlenecked by the presentation of the teacher) – the way learning takes place so that they don’t have to power down, or slow down. As soon as they slow down, they lose interest … That more effectively prepares them

Superintendent Joe Sherwood

Morrill Elementary School Principal Keri Homan dresses up as a Lion to read storybooks to all the classes.
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