Iowa Area Education Agencies

Southwest Iowa schools turning heads

January 28, 2015

This article has been posted with permission by the Iowa Department of Education. It appeared in the February 2015 issue of Each and Every Child, an e-newsletter by the Department.

It’s just a typical monthly meeting with the special education team at Corning Elementary in the southwest Iowa town that bears the same name. They are poring over progress monitoring data. Faces are intent, eyes fixated on charts.

“So this is what happens after the Christmas break – everyone’s scores go down.”

“We’ll get them up again.”

“See that line? That’s something you need to celebrate.”

“Think about where they all started.”

“I know.”

“I know.”

“This little guy who we swore would never be a reader is a reader He’s at grade level now, he never was before.”

“And now we’re actually looking to exit him.”

They turn to another child, and Nancy Amdor breaks in.

“There are four data points below the line,” says Amdor, a special education representative of the Green Hills Area Education Agency. “That indicates that we need to think about what we’re doing and consider changing our approach.”

Some discussion follows, and it is agreed the teachers would schedule additional reading intervention. Onto the next student.

Like special education meetings across the state, this meeting was not in any way particularly special. But the results they are getting are. Consider: In Corning last year, 54 percent of students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in grades 3-5 were proficient in reading. In the Green Hills Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) Literacy Partnership, 58 percent of students in grades 3-5 with IEPs exceeded Standard Score Growth Expectations on the Iowa Assessment based on 2013-2014 data. And the education gap for students who are in grades 3-5 has fallen from 59 percent to 31 percent.

Results have turned heads and made believers out of educators.

“All you have to do is look at the results and know we are doing what’s right for the students,” said special education teacher Melody Miller.

So just what’s going on? It’s a combination of a partnership aimed at literacy and a firebrand by the name of Lynn Hockenberry.

Hockenberry, a literacy consultant for Green Hills AEA, is the very essence of the whole being larger than the sum of her parts: educator, task master, cheerleader, booster, Mother Confessor. She gives all credit away to others, and tears up upon their successes. It is leadership personified.

Hockenberry would pooh-pooh such descriptions, and focus your attention on the issues at hand: the students.

Green Hills’ emphasis on reducing the achievement gap goes back to 2011, when the agency decided one of its explicit goals was to reduce the gap from 51 percent to 26 percent by targeting services in the area of SDI, Multi-Tiered System of Supports (also known as Response to Intervention), and data. They started with four elementary schools and three literacy consultants who volunteered for this work. As opposed to reinventing the wheel, however, they also chose to see other systems at work.

“After reading Each and Every Child and learning of the successes Benton Community Schools were having (see the November/December 2012 issue), we contacted Grant Wood AEA and were able to visit Benton Community Schools,” Hockenberry said.

“This was a turning point for us as we expanded to think about additional instructional materials for our teacher and students.”

The initial success of this work over the first two years led to the agency expanding the number of literacy consultants supporting the work to six. The consultants volunteered for the positions and work in collaboration with their special education representative colleagues in the SDI Literacy Partnership. Green Hills’ program, which is now in 40 schools, is straightforward.

Teachers receive four days of training during their first year in the partnership. These are provided off site in central locations and enable teachers to study the knowledge base and learn the strategies that they will be employing in their SDI literacy time.

“One of the key components of the work we are doing in partnerships with schools is the ongoing coaching and support that SDI teachers receive from the SDI literacy consultants and our partners at the AEA, the special education representatives,” Hockenberry said. “This ongoing component fosters relationship building and provides us the opportunity to get to really know
teachers and students. In addition to the coaching, members of our team demonstrate lessons with students, observe teachers and provide non-evaluative feedback, provide diagnostic testing with students, and assist with ongoing data analysis.”

The focus on data and coaching are critical components of each conversation.

Green Hills also developed a 30-minute block to provide a framework for teachers to implement high-priority focus area skills. The framework includes high-impact skills in the areas of comprehension, fluency and word work. A writing component designed to increase writing fluency is also employed on a daily basis.

Consultants meet regularly with special education teachers, special education representatives and principals to study the data and make additional instructional recommendations based on the data.

“In cases where students are not making progress using the 30-minute plan, additional diagnostic data is gathered and in some cases the use of additional specially designed intervention materials are recommended by the consultant for consideration,” she said. “These interventions are more intensive, systematic, and targeted in nature.”

Before the program, special education teachers were operating in silos, doing what they thought was best for their students. “In some cases, students were receiving 20 minutes of reading instruction, and the instruction may have been not specific enough to meet the child’s needs,” she said.

But the program has changed that – particularly as teachers see impressive results. The success, Hockenberry said, has given teachers a renewed confidence.

“We see teachers who are now empowered to do the right thing and ask for things for their kids,” she said. “When I first started, I would say to teachers, ‘We might need more than 30 minutes of instruction time,’ and they would say ‘well, you won’t get that.’

“But once we got data from diagnostic assessments and students started making progress by targeting the right skills, with the right materials to match the child’s need – there you have it. Schools started seeing progress, and opened up to increased literacy time. Teachers are now becoming empowered and saying, ‘I need this block of time.’”

Perhaps most important is that Hockenberry and members of the SDI Literacy team focus on eliminating preconceived notions, which she calls “changing habits of mind,” a sort of default way of thinking.

“Sure, I encountered some who would say, ‘well, that person is on an IEP, we would expect them to learn at a slower rate,’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘no, I would expect to accelerate the child’s growth rate.’”

But results take care of any remaining doubts.

“Our team is passionate about this work,” Hockenberry said. “I am privileged to work with this amazing group of consultants who are constantly studying data and the evidence base to find ways to help students. Frankly, in the last four years, I have seen more changes in teacher behavior and results than ever in the past. We are at a tipping point that once you start making a difference for one child, you make a believer in the teacher. Then you start seeing mindsets change: ‘if this child can do this, another child can.’”

But don’t take Hockenberry’s word for it. Listen to the Corning Elementary teachers.

“Before Lynn, I thought special education was strictly pull out,” said Wendy Ahrens. “And the goals were not related to what was going on in the general education classroom. That’s all changed.”

“At first, I was like, ‘oh my goodness, what are you pouring on us now?’” said Melody Miller.

Principal Jennifer Berns at first wondered if this was simply the Tactic du Jour.

“I have seen many things come and go,” she said. “But this is different. It is results oriented. The results are right there – you cannot deny it.”

In the end, it was Hockenberry’s persistence that won them over and put them on the path to success.

“Lynn kept showing up and saying things like, ‘what are we going to do about this?’” Miller said. “She didn’t leave me alone. She would teach a lesson and model it so I could see it in action. And we keep trying until we find something that works.”

“Lynn taught me to never give up, and now I don’t,” Ahrens said.

“Lynn should be molded,” Miller adds.

The group giggles, but then delves back into their work. They are now studying one boy’s progress.

“Just think about it, he was reading two years behind class level just three years ago,” Hockenberry muses, and then she tears up. “He’s now reading at grade level, and we’re talking about exiting him.”

Indeed, a typical special education meeting at Corning, with anything-but-typical results.





Iowa Area Education Agencies
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Iowa Area Education Agencies (AEAs) were created in 1974 by the Iowa legislature to ensure equal educational opportunities for all children from birth through age 21. As regional service agencies, AEAs provide special education and school improvement services for students, families, teachers, administrators, and their communities.

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