What does it take to truly create a school where no child is left behind?
That question defines what is probably the most pressing issue facing American public education, and a high-poverty school on Madison’s north side west of Warner Park seems to have figured out some of the answers.
Mendota Elementary is among a small handful of schools in Madison where the percentage of children from low-income families hovers above 70 percent. But contrary to what most research would predict, Mendota’s standardized test scores meet or beat Madison’s generally high district averages, as well as test scores from throughout the state, on the annual Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam.
In fact, Mendota’s test scores even exceed those of many other local schools where the majority of students come from more affluent homes with a wealth of resources to devote to child raising, including both time and money.
From “Successful schools, successful students” by reporter Susan Troller, The Capital Times, January 26, 2007.
So what is it about Mendota Elementary that has made it a success, helping many of its kids and families beat the daunting odds stacked against them?
“I think it’s the whole high expectations thing,” said former Mendota parent Jill Jokela, who, like many others, credits Mendota Principal Sandy Gunderson for the school’s surprising success.
“Sandy absolutely understands that demographics may be predictors of performance, but they’re not an excuse for a school to give up. In fact, she knows that everyone associated with the school must believe that their kids will succeed,” Jokela said.
After Mendota’s former longtime principal retired, the school blew through multiple temporary principals.
Poverty rates at the school had reached 60 percent, and teachers were disheartened by the uneven leadership and direction.
Parents were worried about safety, and alarmed that their neighborhood school was in a downward spiral, with test scores showing that only half of the students were scoring proficient or advanced on standardized tests in core subjects. At the time, the literacy rates at Mendota were the lowest in the district.
“It was very chaotic,” Jokela admitted. But she hung in there, and she has nothing but positive words for Gunderson, who is now in her 10th year at Mendota.
Parents express confidence in the school, and there is a palpable sense of creative energy in the classrooms. Teachers and the rest of the dedicated staff work closely with each other, focusing on every child and his or her progress.
Ten years ago, staff undertook a school improvement plan that unflinchingly looked at where the problems were, and what kind of resources would be necessary to address them.
Getting Mendota officially identified as a high-poverty school has been critically important to get resources to limit class sizes and provide extra materials for the school, reading specialist Amy Horton said. Even basics like books were a problem.
“We simply had no materials,” Horton recalled. “Teachers were spending their own money, and it caused us to be horrible hoarders. Under the circumstances, it was hard to feel very collaborative.”
But she says that has changed dramatically. Today, Mendota’s book room is a richly stocked and perfectly organized resource where teachers can easily access appropriate materials to supplement lessons and curriculum for students of widely varying skills and abilities.
Gunderson has promoted an integrated curriculum and strong sense of teamwork among the teachers at Mendota, a system that is geared toward making sure every child’s needs are well known to staff members, and not just teachers.
The halls and classrooms are bright with student art and immaculately clean. The students greet custodians Ed Carberry and Dan Zimmerman enthusiastically by name. In turn, they are also greeted by name.
Teachers, meanwhile, systematically share information about how each student is doing and ideas for improvement.
“There is a lot of curriculum continuity here. All teachers get the big K-5 picture, and I think the teachers are really empowered to supplement any gaps they see. Honestly, I believe that every day each teacher knows where every student is academically,” Gunderson said.
Each morning at Mendota begins with a breakfast program in the cafeteria, with older students eating first and the kindergarten, first- and second-graders getting their food second. They sit by classroom, under the eagle eyes of their teachers.
“This is where we figure out how every child is feeling, what kind of mood they’re in. We want them to get off to a good start every morning,” Gunderson explained.
‘The Mendota way’: There is a high degree of discipline and control at Mendota, from a strict dress code to how students behave in hallways and classrooms.
To teach kindergartners what Gunderson calls “the Mendota way,” small children moving from class to class learn to walk with their arms folded, or held behind them. And they are quiet. It looks regimented, and it is.
“They learn to occupy their own space,” Gunderson noted.
There are evenly spaced tape marks on rugs and kindergartners are expected to keep their bottoms on the floor, their legs crossed in place and their eyes forward. They are praised for being attentive listeners, and while the atmosphere is fun and lively, there is a definite emphasis on structure, routine and predictability.
A former special education teacher, Gunderson notes that all kids, but especially special needs children, seem to thrive in calm classes.
The staff, including Gunderson, is warm and demonstrative with students, and students are both affectionate and remarkably polite.
But when a small girl bolts from a line where her teacher is giving instructions to embrace Gunderson, the principal firmly turns her around and sends her away with the words, “This is not hugging time, this is listening-to-your-teacher time.”
On several recent days, fourth- and fifth-grade classes felt almost serene.
Students spoke quietly, and worked attentively in small groups on assigned tasks. There was surprisingly little horseplay under the watchful eyes of teacher Kim Ireland.
The same was true in Janice Bartholow’s combined fourth- and fifth-grade class as she worked alongside students on math problems that looked like they could stump many high school students, or older journalists.
Most children walk to Mendota, and Gunderson said that the surrounding community has embraced the school, with a strong sense of neighborhood and the feel of a small town where everyone seems to know everyone else.
Both the Vera Court Community Center, which shares a back yard with Mendota, and the Packers Townhouses Community Center, work closely with the school to keep an eye on kids and help make strong connections with families. Teachers and staff have been encouraged to reach out to students and their parents, and that work is paying off.
At recent parent-teacher conferences, more than 50 percent of the classes had 100 percent participation, and all classes had better than 80 percent participation.
When Kim Davis and her husband moved to Madison from Chicago less than six months ago, they scouted schools and neighborhoods across the city for a place to buy a home and set down roots for their young family, which includes a kindergartner, a toddler and an infant.
Davis is a former high school chemistry teacher, and a stay-at-home mom. She said her top priority was finding a school where students were performing well academically. She and her husband also wanted a school that was diverse.
They spent time at Mendota and were impressed, and were not put off by the school’s high poverty rate.
They recently purchased a home within easy biking distance.
“We are thrilled,” she said. “The atmosphere at the school is so friendly, and my daughter loves it. Teachers are willing to speak to me any time, not just during a conference, which means a lot.
“Mrs. Gunderson goes above and beyond if I ask for something. And if she doesn’t know the answer, she says, ‘Kim, I’ll get back to you with the answer.’ And she does.
“Coming from Chicago,” Davis added, “we really appreciate the fact that there is art and music in the elementary schools. As a former teacher, I love this school.”