How Waconda, Kansas Became the Little School District That Could

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CAWKER CITY, Kan. — Barbara Palen works her way around her classroom at Lakeside Middle School in this tiny farming community (population: 469) some three hours northwest of Topeka. The 14 fourth-graders are starting a new math unit, and Palen wants to know how their parents use measurements.

One boy quietly offers that his dad, a farmer, takes measurements when putting up a fence.

Another explains that his dad fixes cars and trucks and has to measure under the hood.

"And he lets you help him sometimes, doesn't he?" Palen asks. "So if you learn measurement, you'll be able to help him more. That's so cool."

For the next eight years, all 14 of Palen's students are likely to pass state math and English exams. All are likely to graduate from high school, and almost all will go on to higher education. District staff tell stories of previous graduates who run successful local businesses and who've become surgeons or cancer researchers.

The methods behind the educational success of this community, which encompasses four blink-and-you'll-miss-'em towns stretched out on the flat plains of north-central Kansas, provide a stark contrast to popular education reforms playing out across the United States. Waconda does not link student test-scores to teacher evaluations or offer merit pay to its teachers; it has no plans to distribute iPads to students.

Waconda's approach is rooted in the basics, with a community that champions education, coupled with faculty dedication and a relentless focus on early intervention and prevention.

"Sometimes you get one of those elements in a school [or] two. But to have three come together, that's not the norm at all," says John Hill, president of the National Rural Education Association, a membership organization of rural districts and state agencies. "I think that says something very special about that community."

Waconda has earned awards and a reputation as an exceptionally high-performing district, despite not being affluent or having high property taxes. The mean annual household income in Cawker City is just $41,800, which is $10,000 below the national average. About 60 percent of students are eligible for free- or reduced-priced lunch, a federal measure of poverty. Roughly 10 percent are foster children. Nearly one in five is classified as having special needs.

Seventeen percent of adults in the district's four towns have a bachelor's degree, compared to a national average of about 28 percent. Many parents work long hours or night shifts, meaning the percentage of latchkey children, if it were calculated, "would be alarming," says Superintendent Jeff Travis.

In 2010, Waconda's only middle school received a federal Blue Ribbon award, distinguishing it as one of the country's best 266 public schools based on site visits from federal officials and a self-evaluation. In a typical year, every single Waconda student passes state exams in English and math — and the majority test at the "exceeds standards" or "exemplary" levels. Neighboring school districts do well, but don't match Waconda's near-perfect track record on state exams. Nearby Beloit — a district with 780 students and significantly lower poverty rates — had 89 percent of students pass last year's reading test and 87 percent pass math, which are similar to statewide passage rates. For students on free- or reduced-price lunch, though, the statewide passage rates were somewhat lower, at 81 percent for English and 78 percent for math.

To some, Waconda's test scores aren't surprising. The district has just 375 students, and the area has a small-town intimacy to it — teachers are likely to run into their students at church or the bank. Its population doesn't include English language learners. The average class size is just 11 students in the lower grades. The district has a 16-to-1 student — to-teacher ratio, slightly above the national average.

"It's a homogeneous, intact, all-white community," says Douglas Ready, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College. He argues that nearly all of Waconda's success could be attributable to the community and its demographics rather than the school system itself.

Last fall, the Global Report Card, developed by researchers affiliated with the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, suggested that Waconda's students outperformed about 90 percent of their peers worldwide. The report card uses state, national and international test-score results to compare school systems around the globe.

The researchers behind the Global Report Card are quick to point out that their measurements aren't perfect — they don't adjust for student demographics, for one — and that Waconda's size increases the margin of error in estimates of its performance. Still, the tiny Kansas district caught the researchers' attention. Its performance has improved dramatically since 2004, when it was at the 68th percentile in math and the71st percentile in reading on the Global Report Card.

"There are places that are not wealthy, that are not places [where] we think we have pockets of excellence, but we do," says Jay Greene, one of the creators of the report card and an education professor at the University of Arkansas. "There's certainly something good going on in Waconda."

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