Pattonville schools succeed by meeting students where they are

The Pattonville School District has a seemingly simple mantra: All children are capable of high academic performance.

“We really believe every single student is going to be proficient,” said Tim Pecoraro, Pattonville’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “We know they’re not all going to get there at the same time. But our teachers believe that, our students believe that.”

School leaders say this conviction has helped Pattonville quietly emerge as one of the region’s highest-performing school districts in recent years, according to state school performance reports.

About two decades ago, Pattonville looked like a district doomed to fail.

In 1998, the federal government approved a plan to build a $1.1 billion runway extension at St. Louis Lambert International Airport, within Pattonville’s boundaries. About 2,000 businesses and single-family homes were razed to make room for the runway, which opened in 2006.

Middle-class families and professionals moved away. The proportion of apartments in the district rose and so did the district’s student mobility rate, Superintendent Mike Fulton said. High mobility can make students more likely to struggle in school.

The district’s rate of student poverty has doubled since the runway plan was approved. Slightly more than half of students are students of color, and students represent 64 countries and speak 39 languages, according to the district. Among groups of students considered more likely to struggle academically, such as black, Hispanic and low-income students, Pattonville outperforms the state average on state standardized tests, though those students still lag behind white students. But the district avoids mentioning achievement gaps for students of color and low-income students because that can become an excuse, Fulton said.

“We don’t even talk about the achievement gap. That’s not the right question,” Fulton said. “We want all kids to get to high performance. It’s that attitude that I think differentiates us.”

Once school officials began to realize the impact the runway was going to make on the district, they began formulating their next moves, said Fulton, who joined Pattonville as an assistant superintendent in 1995 before taking the helm in 2007.

District leaders wrote a strategic plan and set three key goals: Every child would be a proficient learner, a responsible citizen, and college- and career-ready. Those goals became the district’s “North Star” from which it has not wavered, Fulton said.

That long-term vision was matched with stable leadership to carry it out. Fulton is capping off 11 school years as superintendent. He is one of the region’s longest-serving district leaders but will become head of the Shawnee Mission School District in Kansas next year. Fulton will be replaced by Pecoraro, who has worked closely with Fulton and shares his vision.

“We have to focus our efforts on driving belief into the system, into the community, that all of our kids matter and that all kids are capable of high performance even if we don’t know how to get them there yet, and that belief became really important to sustaining community,” Fulton said.

AT THEIR OWN PACE

At Drummond Elementary School on a recent school day, two third-grade teachers took different approaches to reading lessons.

Kathleen Terbrock has a class of Tier 1 third-grade students, meaning they scored proficient or advanced when the school tested them earlier in the school year. Several of her students read chapter books quietly on their own at the start of class while others munched on breakfast. Then Terbrock gathered all of them to sit on the floor at the front of the classroom. She presented a book about deserts and asked for their impressions and questions about deserts.

Meanwhile, in a classroom down the hall, teacher Courtney Cady’s third-graders were in Tier 3, meaning they tested at least two grade levels behind in English.

Cady sat at a table with two boys who read aloud from a picture book about penguin families. They spoke in unison word by word, with pauses between each word to pace themselves. Cady praised the boys when they differentiated between long and short vowels and read a sentence as a question. Cady’s other students sat in their seats with their chins on their desks, using an iPad program called “Epic” that reads aloud stories while highlighting each word so they can follow along.

Drummond is one example of how Pattonville meets every student at his or her level, whether they come to school reading at their grade level or three years behind. All Drummond’s third-graders are taught from the same district curriculum, but their teachers take them at different paces.

Students learn at different rates, Fulton said, therefore it doesn’t make sense for schools to create “a lock-step system based on age,” then stigmatize those who aren’t on pace.

“It’s time to re-conceptualize a learning system that just kind of naturally flows with a few key equity outcomes that are important to all kids,” he said.

A Pattonville sixth-grader can take geometry or algebra in middle school for high school credit. Conversely, Pattonville High School offers a two-year algebra course for students who are behind in math.

Meeting students where they are also means giving high school students credit for their experiences outside the classroom. Some students have earned school credit while working at Walgreens and Bridgeton City Hall, or traveling to Germany and Costa Rica. Computer science students created the district’s mobile app and other students are becoming certified nursing assistants through a high school class.

“Last summer, someone did chemistry research,” Pecoraro said. “Are we really going to make them do a chemistry class when they come back?”

SUPPORTING TEACHERS

This type of learning requires a lot of good teachers to make it happen.

Surveys, district data and interviews with teachers indicate that Pattonville not only attracts and recruits quality teachers, but it also keeps them happy enough to want to stay.

For the past three years, the district was among the region’s best workplaces in the Post-Dispatch’s annual rankings, which are based entirely on employee surveys. It was rated the sixth-best place to work among large employers last year, placing it above Ladue and Francis Howell school districts.

While other local school districts report struggles in retaining teachers and filling vacancies, Pattonville held onto 91 percent of its teachers this year from last year, according to state education department data.

Last year, the district received more than 2,000 applications for 30 certified positions.

Several Pattonville teachers said in interviews that they believe their bosses support them and listen to them. They said they have the autonomy and flexibility to teach in a way that best serves their students.

“We do what’s best for kids every day, and we’re supported from the top down,” said Terbrock, who came to Drummond straight out of college. “That’s why I stayed.”

The district frequently solicits feedback from teachers, and schools hold meetings at which teachers have a say in how to use the curriculum in the classroom.

“We really believe in the intelligence of our teachers to provide that feedback of, ‘Hey, here’s where we need to go,’” said Joe Dobrinic, who left his job as principal of Hazelwood West High School to become principal at Pattonville High in 2011. “As a result, the teachers have a lot of ownership.”

Newly hired teachers go through a two-year induction process that involves mentors, cultural proficiency training, observation of teachers at other schools, first-year teacher support groups and a feedback survey to cap it off, Pecoraro said.

“The administrators, they take care of their teachers,” said Lori Yudovich, a reading specialist at Bridgeway Elementary who has worked for Pattonville for 18 years. “And they know the teachers will take care of the students.”