Focus on student performance, teacher autonomy basis for Polk County’s success

Saluda Elementary's Ginger Rackley places an emphasis on getting to know each student's instructional needs in her fifth grade class.

Ginger Rackley feels she best prepares her Saluda Elementary fifth graders for North Carolina’s end-of-grade examinations by not even thinking about those tests.

Rackley focuses her energy on knowing her students, finding out how each best responds to instruction, tailoring her plans based on those observations. Teach to the test? Hardly – Rackley teaches to the student, building a knowledge base that prepares each for future success, be it in classrooms at a higher level or on mandated state exams.

“The state of North Carolina requires me to teach the Common Core and Essential Standards. So, I do teach these standards,” Rackley said. “But I have the flexibility to design my own yearly plans and weekly lesson plans. I know my students better than anyone and need to adjust my lesson plans as needed to meet the needs of all my students.

“Polk County allows us to do this. Many districts require their teachers to teach according to a script and have so many mandated programs that teachers are doing paperwork and assessing students more than they are teaching them. Polk County trusts (its) teachers to teach the required curriculum without reading from a script.”

The numbers from the most recent School Performances Grades issued by the North Carolina Department of Education reflect the value of Rackley’s approach. Polk County Schools ranked first in the state in the percentage of fifth grade students meeting grade level proficiency on the end-of-grade math exam, with Rackley’s students scoring among the best in the state.

SPG success could be found throughout Polk County Schools; all seven Polk County schools scored a B or higher, one of just two districts in the state to do so and the only one with at least one of its schools also earning an A. Saluda Elementary joined Polk County Early College as A schools in this year’s data, with Tryon Elementary narrowly missing that level.

Each school’s grade reflects a weighted average of the percentage of students scoring at or above proficient on end-of-course and end-of-grade exams (80 percent) and the percentage of students reaching expected growth levels (20 percent). The percentages are converted to a 100-point scale and corresponding letter grade.

The philosophy of allowing teachers to teach material as they see fit, of focusing on the student and not the test, is prevalent throughout Polk County, and may well explain why the district routinely ranks among the best in the state.

“We believe strongly in defined autonomy for our teachers and staff,” said Polk County Schools Superintendent Aaron Greene. “We ask them to hold high expectations for students, make sure they are teaching the standards and, most importantly, to know every student personally and work hard to meet their individual needs. Over the years, this focus on student relationships and support has proven to be successful. Programs and curriculum are important, but our people make the difference.

“Once again, the students and educators of Polk County Schools deserve congratulations for their hard work and effort. We are fortunate to have a supportive community, dedicated educators and wonderful students and families that all work together to support student growth and learning.”

Polk County Middle School seventh graders in Stephanie Gilbert’s social studies class work on a recent project.

Polk County Middle School had 89 percent of its students showing expected growth in performance. That figure almost doubled the target for earning an Exceeded rating for the targeted growth level. Five other district schools met expected growth levels.

The exceptional growth at Polk County Middle, according to principal Hank Utz, also begins with a singular focus on students.

“I know one thing we do well is keep our focus on the individual,” Utz said. “We really take a look at each student and how we can best serve that student’s needs.

“We have teachers willing to change their schedules and come in early or change their planning period in order to help a student. That’s always been a strong point of this school and school system, the attention we try to give students.”

The focus on putting students first isn’t limited to faculty members, Utz noted.

“The thing about Polk County is that everybody you deal with – bus drivers, cafeteria workers, the technical guys – all of them keep in mind what is best for the students,” Utz said. “They always will help out in any way they can. That’s a tribute to the county in general.”

In addition to its A ranking, Saluda Elementary is also an A+ School, participating in a program where arts instruction is integrated into the daily classroom routine. Saluda Principal Dr. Cari Maneen feels that approach has proven important to the school’s success.

“Our faculty does not spend a lot of time charting and analyzing student data. We look at individual children, share with one another best practices that work and use those practices to prepare and teach engaging lessons to reach each child,” Dr. Maneen said. “I have been asked by administrators from other counties if our arts practices take away from the core curriculum. On the contrary, our arts practices enrich our curriculum by teaching the required standards using multiple pathways and enriched assessments to make learning more accessible, engaging and individualized. We help each child experience success by teaching the whole child.

“We are committed to preparing our students to think critically and creatively, solve complex problems and communicate well. While achievement tests and assessments are part of education, if we fail to nurture the whole child, we are failing our children.”

And therein perhaps lies the secret to Polk County Schools’ success, a relentless focus on doing what’s right for students and providing each with the tailored instruction needed for success.

“We are fortunate to have community members, families, administrators and the School Board that support our mission and trust the experience and expertise of our teachers,” Dr. Maneen said. “I believe that together we have developed a strong school community that caters to the interests and needs of our children, a school community that works hard and values our children and what they can achieve.

“Our accomplishments come from our school community working together for one common goal, and that is the success of each child.”