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U.S. education secretary praises school improvement efforts at Northwest Middle

Published: Thursday, Dec. 5 2013 4:21 p.m. MST

In addition to teacher incentives, the school implemented a number of rewards for students to encourage attendance and achievement. Students with a 3.2 GPA or higher are named to the school's Warrior Club, earning early lunch privileges and a weekly snack or prize.

"My son wants to be here every day," parent Maria Moreno said, "because if they're here every day, they get rewards. He wanted to be in the Warrior Club so bad."

The school has made an effort to inform parents about the student achievement data available to them. Conley said that at any school-hosted performance, such as band and choir concerts, administrators take the stage between acts and display the school's progress.

"We lower the big screen and we just share about two minutes of data with parents," he said. "The parents historically in our community just lacked access to that information."

That data sharing extends to students as well, with a push for teachers to track the progress of each student and regularly communicate what can and needs to be done to improve.

"They greet us and they remind us about assignments that we are missing," eighth-grader Valeria Lazareno said. "I feel like I know all of my teachers."

Assistant Principal Pam Pederson said she no longer hears students say "my teacher hates me" as an excuse for bad grades. Instead, students are fully aware of what areas they struggle in and what resources are available.

"We are relentless in sharing information with them and giving them power over their lives," Pedersen said. "I truly believe that children can have power to make their lives better, and we have to give them the tools to do it."

Salt Lake City School District Superintendent McKell Withers spoke highly of the use of student achievement data, but added that data should not be used to place labels on teachers and schools.

Withers described those efforts as "misguided" and said sometimes labels are insisted under the guise of transparency, when in reality they hold teachers' and schools' efforts back.

"Politically, there are so many people who want to put an A (grade) on this school and then ignore subgroups of students within this school," he said.

Duncan said there is rarely a simple answer to what makes a school successful and that extra money by itself has little effect without hard work.

But he added that there are lessons other schools could learn from Northwest, such as the need for strong leadership, a hardworking staff, high expectations, clear data and honest conversations with students, parents and the community.

"The results from just a couple years ago are radically, radically different," Duncan said of Northwest's progress. "This is absolutely a success story, and having more educators, having more parents, having more community members understand what it takes to get radically better results for kids, I think that's why so many of us come to work every single day."

Northwest's grant from the U.S. Department of Education expired at the end of the 2012-13 school year, but Conley said the school will continue to offer performance-based incentives through a $100,000 grant from the Education Reform Foundation.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood

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