A banner outside Curtis Middle School still proclaims, “We are proud to be an America’s Choice school,” and signs of the program dot classrooms and hallways.
Teachers use the “workshop model” for instruction, a hallmark of the America’s Choice program.
Students, teachers and family members are encouraged to read more — and students track what they read to earn prizes or privileges — as part of a schoolwide “25 Book Campaign.”
Children who are below grade level in math or reading get additional help through “Navigator” classes.
America’s Choice, first adopted as a way to boost test scores at two middle schools, has become part of the scenery in Wichita middle schools. But the district recently ended its partnership with the reform program, opting to forgo the final year of what was slated to be a five-year affiliation.
The reasons are numerous, officials say. Some elements of the turnaround program worked; some didn’t. Some sites showed significant improvement; others floundered.
America’s Choice was one of several programs aimed at improving performance at Wichita’s middle schools, many of which have struggled for decades, and officials say their goal was to learn teaching strategies they could continue long after the contracts expired.
“It’s nothing new for us to get something new … or to let something go, and we do it for a lot of different reasons,” said Denise Seguine, the district’s chief academic officer.
“Sometimes it did what it was supposed to do, and that time is over. It was right at the time, and now it’s not.”
Over the past four years, Wichita has paid about $5.5 million to America’s Choice, a for-profit subsidiary of the National Center on Education and the Economy. The program was sold in 2010 to London-based Pearson PLC, an international education and technology company, but continues to operate as America’s Choice.
The district first contracted with the company in 2008 as part of a start-from-scratch restructuring at Marshall and Mead middle schools. The schools had failed to meet state test targets for six straight years and faced sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The next year, Wichita renewed its contract with America’s Choice and expanded the program to five more middle schools: Curtis, Hamilton, Jardine, Pleasant Valley and Truesdell.
Officials said turning around struggling schools with low test scores could take up to five years. They renewed the contract annually and financed it primarily with federal Title 1 funds, which are designated for schools with a large number of low-income students.
This summer, without fanfare or discussion among Wichita school board members, the district’s contract with America’s Choice was not renewed for a fifth year.
Did the program do what officials had hoped?
Yes and no, they say. But it made a difference.
“Maybe it didn’t do all the things we thought it would, but it did some things we didn’t anticipate, too,” Seguine said.
“When we first started … we were looking at it from the curriculum side, but that wasn’t really the biggest part of America’s Choice,” she said.
“We gained the workshop model, which is huge and very effective districtwide. We gained some structures to build a culture of learning in our schools, an enhancement of reading. … Those are all very important pieces.”
Of the seven middle schools that adopted America’s Choice, all showed improvement on state reading tests over the past four years and most raised their math scores.
But scores are still well below average. At Hamilton, Marshall, Mead, Pleasant Valley and Truesdell last year, fewer than half of students scored proficient or above in math.
Curtis, now in year three of a three-year, $6 million federal grant to pull itself off a list of the lowest-performing high-poverty schools in the state, showed the most improvement, raising scores about 16 percent in reading and nearly 15 percent in math.
Stephanie Wasko, principal at Curtis, said she can’t point to one program or strategy as the secret to raising achievement.
“You’ve got one thread here and one thread there, but it’s all woven into a fabric,” she said. “None of it’s any good if you don’t implement with fidelity.”
More than anything, Seguine said, the district moved away from America’s Choice because it adopted the Multi-Tier System of Supports, a districtwide plan to improve achievement and behavior, and is transitioning to the state-led “Common Core State Standards” initiative.
Some of those programs can’t work together. For example, the America’s Choice “Ramp-Up” programs, designed for students two or more years below grade level, don’t fit with Common Core requirements.
“As we got into year three (of America’s Choice), Common Core was coming in and MTSS was telling us a different story,” Seguine said. “So then we thought, ‘We’ve got what we need.’ ”
America’s Choice is not a school management company like Edison, which operated a handful of Wichita schools from 1995 to 2002. Rather, the company partners with states, districts or individual schools to raise student achievement.
Company experts worked with staff members at seven middle schools in a professional development capacity, Seguine said. Teachers got help with establishing routines, teaching lessons, interpreting test data and more, as well as curriculum materials for the Ramp-Up and Navigator classes.
The goal from the beginning, Seguine said, was to take what worked from America’s Choice and find a way for Wichita schools to continue those strategies on their own.
“I don’t see it as we are necessarily abandoning anything, just because we don’t renew a contract,” she said. “We have the internal capacity to keep things going, and to build on that.”
Indeed, as you walk through Curtis Middle School in southeast Wichita, you can see signs of America’s Choice along with several other programs:
• “CHAMPS” posters in classrooms and hallways note teachers’ expectations, a hallmark of Randy Sprick’s Safe & Civil Schools program, a component of the district’s new five-year plan to boost achievement.
• Holly Linton’s sixth-grade science class is learning the Cornell note-taking system, an element of AVID — Advancement Via Individual Determination — a program that prepares underachieving students for college.
• And a board in Crystal Liermann’s math class shows a list of rewards for good behavior, part of a classroom management strategy from national expert Amie Dean.
“I never approach anything like, ‘This is going to solve every single problem,’ ” said Rachael Walker, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Curtis.
“But nine times out of 10, there’s good stuff in there. It just all depends on what works for you and what you do with it.”
Wichita school board member Barbara Fuller, a skeptical supporter of America’s Choice since the first contract in 2008, said she sometimes hears from teachers frustrated by reform programs that seem to come and go in five-year cycles.
“I feel like we’ve had good presentations, but we’ve had nothing to do with real data that we could put our arms around,” Fuller said.
“With anything like this, I think it’s good to have a conversation and ask: ‘What’s good about this program?’
“There’ll be one group (of teachers) who like it and think it made a significant change, and the other who will say, ‘Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about that anymore.’ ”
Keeping the strategies
The district’s contract with America’s Choice paid for professional consultants, called “cluster leaders,” who worked at the schools, coaching teachers and analyzing test data. It also paid for materials and ongoing training for new teachers.
Seguine said district coaches will do the training now, including teaching the so-called “workshop model.” In it, teachers introduce lessons with about 10 minutes of instruction. That’s followed by 20 to 30 minutes of “struggle time,” during which small groups of students — aided occasionally by the teacher — figure out ways to attack a problem or concept. The class regroups at the end.
Liermann, the Curtis math teacher, said she thinks the workshop model and America’s Choice were crucial to improving test scores, behavior and the culture of learning at her school.
Now that the district’s contract with the company is done, she thinks her school and others will hang onto the strategies.
“I’m sad to see it go, but I think Curtis is set. It’s just the way we teach now,” Liermann said. “I think we’re going to be able to sustain it and move forward.”