Two years ago, Socorro ISD Superintendent Jose Espinoza challenged his cabinet to find a solution for the district’s persistent academic achievement gap.
The cabinet members framed their challenges with tough questions: Are students being promoted while doing below-grade-level work in math and reading? Is the district meeting the needs of the most at-risk students, especially English language learners (ELL), economically disadvantaged and special education students? Are systemic changes needed to close the achievement gaps? If so, are stakeholders willing to go the extra mile to implement and support needed changes, in spite of possible budget constraints? Espinoza’s call for action emphasized that the one-size-fits-all approach did not meet the needs of all students.
After conducting research on best practices for improving student academic outcomes, the cabinet found inspiration in Jaime Escalante’s legendary teaching style, which inspired the 1988 film, “Stand and Deliver.” Escalante’s success was driven by his relentlessly high expectations of all his students, regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Escalante’s emphasis on ganas (passion or desire) to beat the odds empowered his poor and minority students — like many students in Socorro ISD — to reach their full potential in school, work and life.
The spirit of Escalante’s teaching style can be found in Socorro ISD’s WIN Academy program, designed for the district’s most at-risk students. WIN stands for:
- Work hard.
- “I can do it” attitude.
- Never give up.
Fifth graders in the Socorro ISD WIN Academy engage in hands-on learning during science class at Robert R. Rojas Elementary School.
Six keys to success define the academy program that serves the district’s most at-risk elementary students. The first key is a strong and supportive district and school administration that allocates dedicated funding, researches best practices, researches and designs effective professional development, and supports technology integration.
The second key is the program’s “100 percent no excuses” vision of high expectations for everyone, especially the students who struggle the most. Students and their parents sign a commitment to meet attendance, behavior and academic goals. Parents agree to extended school days and Saturday tutorials. Also, teachers commit to “looping” with students on flexible schedules,which means they teach them over multiple years. Looping creates the deeper, more lasting relationships that many at-risk students need to thrive.
Thirdly, the program builds strong team spirit with parents. This is done through the WIN Parent Academy, which trains and motivates parents to be valuable partners in their children’s academic journey. Every six weeks, the parents learn about project-based learning (PBL), hear about what their kids are learning, and how their kids are progressing.
The fourth key promotes extended instructional time so staff members can provide extra support. Nine-hour school days on Mondays through Thursdays, double-blocked time for reading and math, and monthly Saturday tutorials provide students the opportunity to gain two or more years of knowledge in one year.
The fifth key is to take a flexible, nontraditional approach to learning that offers a blended model of PBL and digital learning platforms. This approach combines the expectations of the contemporary workplace with a personalized learning platform.
The WIN Academy has reported improved academic outcomes, attendance and behavior in its students. For example, the percentage of students earning an “A” in math almost doubled — from 5 percent in the 2014-2015 year to 9.2 percent in the 2015-2016 year — while the percent of students who failed decreased from 7.8 percent to 3.5 percent. Also, teachers are seeing once-shy students come out of their shells and enjoy school.
The district anticipates an even larger impact on students as the program matures and is expanded and improved. An indispensable aspect of the process of continuous improvement is the ability to measure accomplishments. Socorro ISD is enhancing its analysis of performance data to insure its substantial investments are leading to results.
Socorro ISD had to overcome some challenges before it saw these successes. It had to be targeted and strategic in getting buy-in from the parents of the students who most needed the WIN Academy program. Also, as the district expanded WIN Academy into seventh grade, it had to overcome conflicts with University Interscholastic League activities by hand-scheduling participating students. Moreover, Socorro ISD had to overcome the logistical and financial challenges that arose from additional transportation due to longer school days.
The district also invested tremendous effort to recruit the right teachers with the passion and dedication to teach longer days. Finding teachers with the appropriate certifications, such as bilingual/ELL, was an essential piece. Understanding that success hinges upon participating teachers, the district offers WIN teachers a $6,500 stipend for the extra ganas that is expected of them.
The creation of WIN Academy also prompted Socorro ISD staff to identify new and relevant professional development. Embedded coaching was implemented to assist teachers transitioning into an entirely new instructional model.
Success breeds success. Socorro ISD has been awarded a grant from the prestigious W.K. Kellogg Foundation to support the program’s operational costs. Progress would not have been possible without the district leadership’s sustained focus on the WIN Academy.This focus was a result of a realization that the status quo for many of the district’s students was not serving them well, which led them down a path full of challenges exceeded only by the rewards of better-adjusted students and improved student achievement.