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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
McKell Withers, superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District, left; Martell Menlove, state superintendent of of Public Instruction; Brian Conley, Northwest Middle School principal; and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan participate in a school improvement grant roundtable discussion at Northwest Middle School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013. Duncan visited the school to witness the progress the school has made since receiving a $2.3 million school improvement grant in 2010.

SALT LAKE CITY — For the past three years, Northwest Middle School has been working to increase student achievement with the help of a $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Northwest's efforts have turned heads beyond Utah, prompting a visit from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Thursday to discuss effective strategies and what other schools could learn from the Salt Lake City school.

"I came here for a really specific reason. This school has made phenomenal, phenomenal progress," Duncan said. "In a short amount of time, not decades but in a couple years, (Northwest has produced) dramatically, dramatically different results."

Money from the grant was used primarily for performance-based incentive pay, a controversial practice among educators but one that the Northwest Middle School administration and faculty credit with fostering a culture of teamwork and collaboration.

Instruction time was extended by adding five minutes to each class period and an "eighth period" of after-school programming. The school year was also lengthened to include a full day each month of curriculum intervention.

Since 2010, the percentage of Northwest students testing proficient in math has increased from 37 percent to 79 percent. Science proficiency at the school has jumped from 38 percent to 58 percent, and the average reading level has climbed from fourth grade to seventh grade.

The school has also gone from the bottom 10 percent of middle schools under the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System — which awards points based on student performance — to the top 25 percent.

Northwest is also one of the most diverse middle schools in the state, with minority students making up 87 percent of the student body and more than 90 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

"I think what you are doing here, honestly, has national implications," Duncan said during a roundtable discussion with school officials, teachers, parents and students. "Turning around schools is some of the hardest work, sometimes some of the most controversial work. But I would argue it’s some of the most important work we can do in our country."

Northwest Middle School Principal Brian Conley described the shift in attitudes at the school as the difference between a swim team and a football team. Before the school improvement efforts, there were a number of individual teachers seeing success, he said, but now the focus is on school-wide progress.

"It isn't just about pitting teachers against teachers for more money," Conley said. "We're going to win as a group or we're going to fail as a team and learn from that failure."

Assistant Principal Rachel Nance said there was some initial trepidation when the performance pay was announced and a noticeable tension when the first bonus paychecks went out.

But that tension has since subsided, Nance said, and the teaching staff reacted positively when told the performance pay would continue now that the grant's term has ended.

"There was an overwhelming applause from the faculty," she said. "Every teacher in the building got part of the bonus, and that’s why part of this was really developing an entire school culture that focused on achievement."

Katie Hipple, a math teacher at Northwest, said the performance-based pay had a contagious effect of fostering healthy competition. She said teachers saw each other's success and were motivated to seek out help and input from their peers.

"The teacher performance pay has gathered us together as a team," Hipple said. "We’re collaborating all the time because together we want to get better."

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.

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"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