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How Bethel School District Is Closing the Achievement Gap

by LiDona Wagner

There are outstanding teachers who cultivate a love of learning in their students. There are great schools that create a welcoming and respectful climate for every student. There are also amazing districts that are taking a systems approach to assuring that every child is successful. Bethel School District is an example of taking seriously the challenge of closing the achievement gap. Bethel students outperform the state average at nearly every grade level on state exams.

In fall of 2009, I interviewed Colt Gill, Superintendent of Bethel School District, and asked him to share how a district with high poverty and a mobile population has achieved these results. With six thousand kids, Bethel School District is the 24th largest of the 200 districts in Oregon. Gill was quick to give credit to each school’s Literacy Leadership Team and to research-based practices introduced by nationally recognized researchers at the University of Oregon’s College of Education. Gill shared Bethel’s practice of Recognize, Partner, Power.         

Recognize: Literacy Leadership Teams

In 2009 Bethel School District compiled data on elementary reading from third, fourth, and fifth grade data assessment tests. Across the state an average of 81 percent of all students met or exceeded the elementary level assessments. Bethel students were at 85 percent, which is above the state average. What really stands out is that Bethel’s Latino students are above the state average and nearly at the average for all students. Their elementary African American kids are at the state average for all students and are far outperforming the average for African American students in Oregon. Asian and American Indian students are also above. Gill says, “We feel pretty good about this. But that’s elementary. When you get to middle school we are still very challenged with closing the gap.”

Gill credits progress to the original Bethel Reading Project that started 11 years ago that they’ve been able to take to a deeper level in recent years. The reading project was in full swing when Gill became superintendant, but there were new principals at many schools and new teachers, especially at primary and intermediate levels. “It was definitely time for a refresher on what it is we are doing and why we are doing it. In order to renew our dedication to literacy, we created Literacy Leadership Teams (LLT) in all our schools.”

The LLT’s purpose is to team with the principal to be the school’s Literacy Instructional Leaders. As such they:
• Analyze school-wide literacy data
• Ensure coordination of literacy programs and materials within and between grades
• Develop a Literacy action plan with the staff
• Determine professional development needs
• Align Title 1, Special Education, and ELD services
• Build capacity to meet the literacy needs of all students in the school
• Coordinate with the district and other schools to ensure that students are served well as they transition between schools.

Each LLT is made up of key people in the school. Research on positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) has shown that effective school-wide teams must be composed of the right people. Therefore, every one of these teams has to have an administrator as well as their reading coach or title 1 reading teacher and special education representation. They also need to have classroom teachers that represent the various grade levels of the school. It has been shown that if there is a representative team that is stable, committed, and makes use of data to carry the message forward through the whole staff and there is an administrator to properly allocate resources - then good outcomes will happen.

Gill believes it’s important to recognize that everybody in your organization is really there to work with and help students. They all came into this business for that purpose. Gill says, “I think a part of the role of a leader is to recognize that those passionate staff members are doing everything they can to assist kids and get them to a higher place.” You have to work to understand the strengths each individual brings to the school, so you can recognize and organize those strengths. The next step is to partner and help these people recognize passion and strength in one another – bring them together around the same goal for students. A leader helps them come together to work towards a common goal and that’s where the learning takes place.

Partner: District-wide Professional Development

When a system is working it is sometimes difficult to recognize what additional steps need to be taken. For Bethel the answer came in data. They began to note some slippage in student performance. As they examined it, the problem became clear – new staff had not received the same level of training as staff that had retired. When the district brought in additional training for newer staff, this brought a renewed commitment from those who weren’t there when the Bethel Reading Project was launched. In some schools it’s taken the focus from being primarily a K-3 reading program to creating a school-wide focus on student academic performance and behavioral support.

Bethel has used research-based practices at a district level and partnered with its schools through Literacy Leadership and PBIS teams. An LLT team of six to fifteen members exists in each school. By having coordination of those teams the district can pull them out for a day. Gill reported that, “Recently we pulled all those teams out for a full day together. We took them all to one of our schools and we brought in a person from UO’s College of Education to go over some reading research with us. We also completed a joint of our district writing instruction matrix with our district writing specialist. Then we went over everybody’s most recent academic data with our Director of Instruction. We also took time to review the roles and responsibilities of team members.”

By having all teams together, Bethel can make decisions as a whole group such as, "Yes, as a whole district we’re adopting this writing matrix and this is our writing curriculum. These are the materials we are all going to use and this is how we will operate in all of our schools.” They did the same thing in reading. All schools have the same evidenced-based reading program as their core curriculum.

Bethel strives for consensus and continuity because its mobile student population needs these things. Bethel kids have specific needs that may be different than students of some other districts in Oregon. While all schools have the same goal, districts have different ways of achieving it. Gill says, “We partner together and look at, ‘What is the research saying? What should we be doing for our kids? And how are we going to come together on what it is we can do?’”

For example, Bethel’s mobility rate is about 25 percent, measured by how many students come and go during the year. Teachers strive to adapt quickly to meet new student needs. As soon as new students arrive they get them comfortable with their move and then schedule assessments and interventions based on the outcome of those assessments. If a third grader shows up with a reading score that is lower than anybody else in third grade classes, they will find a reading group at the child’s appropriate level. Bethel personnel will talk to the parents about the after-school reading program and try to move them up quickly.

Because most of Bethel’s mobility is within the district, there is no loss of time figuring out where new students are. The district knows exactly where all the students in the district are performing. Teachers of each school have access to what their new student’s scores were in another school. And all the schools have the same curriculum; the new school can drop students right into the same place they were at the other school.

The district has commitments that literacy instruction happens for 90 minutes a day in first through fifth grade every single day, plus an additional time for writing instruction - an additional thirty minutes a day on top of the ninety. These efforts together have helped to close the achievement gap at the elementary level.

At middle school level, Bethel is still outperforming the state in sub-group populations but there is a dip in the trend, and there is clearly a persisting achievement gap. While 76 percent of the general student population is meeting or exceeding the state standards, only 61 percent of Latino students do so. Some of this is related to the mobility of the population. New arrivals in middle school present a challenge because generally they’re farther behind than those who’ve been in Bethel from the beginning. But if you look at the state level of 48 percent for Latinos and Bethel is at 61 percent then they feel like programs from elementary school are definitely supporting the middle school kids.

Additional support is visibly needed. Each Bethel middle school has a full reading period that all students attend all three years. Plus they have an additional reading intervention for students who are not at the standard. As with the elementary reading program, that is on top of the regular reading class, so they’re getting additional time and instruction in reading.

Bethel has a strong English Language Development program that resides in four schools in the district. They have a “push in” model to support students in the classrooms, but also have a special “pull out” model to help students with academic language. Students are pretty quick to grasp social language and interact with peers pretty well, but when they enter the content areas of science, math, and social studies, and the terms being used there, the academic language, it can be really difficult to fully understand. So Bethel employs special instructional tools to address academic vocabulary issues.

Bethel recognizes that there are cultural differences that create different pulls on students in middle school and high school. Therefore they do a lot with Latino families by having partnerships with local agencies. There are regularly planned Latino Family Nights to get together and discuss both school and social issues. The high school has a Latinos United club that’s pretty well attended and they talk about these concerns. Bethel partners with Jim Garcia at Lane Community College to teach Chicano leadership classes. He teaches a little bit of Chicano history and instills pride and knowledge of their culture in students.

Data show that Bethel’s Native Americans at middle school level are doing well. The district has a Natives Program that includes tutoring and cultural events. They wrote a grant to the federal government to provide the program for all self-identified Native American students. They coordinate with other smaller districts in Lane County, so they can take advantage of the support provided by the program. Bethel provides one-on-one tutoring for each Native American student who requests it.

The achievement gap for Bethel’s secondary African-American students is clear. A partnership with NAACP, started this last year with Springfield and Eugene 4J, provides a tutoring program called “Back to School, Stay in School.” Each district is doing this program slightly differently. At the elementary level in Bethel after-school tutoring is provided twice a week for kids who are performing lower than the all-student rate with their fluency and comprehension programs. These kids are overseen by a district reading specialist and taught either by that specialist or by an educational assistant. It’s not a separate program; it is tied to the reading program in which the student is placed.

Students at the middle and high school levels volunteer themselves for daily after-school tutoring and homework support. Participation in this program is growing. They participate in reading intervention programs during the school day as well. A Saturday component of tutoring with homework support and extended learning through online learning tools was less successful for Bethel students because it was housed outside the district.

Any student is welcome in these middle and high school tutoring sessions. However, students belonging to a sub-group - economically disadvantaged, race/ethnicity, special education - and falling below where all students are performing, are specifically invited. They’re invited but because it is beyond school hours participation is up to them and their parents.

Power: Finding and Providing Resources

Gill believes, “Systems change really is about recognizing people’s skills and their dedication and then partnering and bringing everyone together around common goal areas, doing the research together and making a common plan. Then everything needs to be set in place to make it happen. Teachers have the energy and the drive to do these things and part of our job is breaking down the barriers and trying to find the resources for them. That comes around to support and looking back at the data and bringing people into the cycle.”

Bethel district is big on professional development. It has about 320 teachers; with administrators and classifieds, the staff is 740. Each of the 320 teachers has a similar opportunity for professional development. There is a week before the inservice week that is packed with professional development, primarily towards teachers who are new to the district, so they can get trained in their core curricular area and for their grade level. The district also uses grants to increase its professional development. Last year everyone went to professional development by grade level groups in their reading program. Each group had three days throughout the year where they focused just on writing. There is also quite a bit of math professional development.

An example of math professional development happened on a Saturday this spring. A world renowned mathematician who worked on the national math standards for the United States came to Bethel School District. Professor Hung-Hsi Wu, Professor of Mathematics at Cal-Berkley, came to share his expertise on how to become a better math teacher. Two Bethel teachers had gone to one of his summer programs in California. They were telling him about what Bethel is doing in math instruction and he was impressed. They invited him to Bethel. Wu feels strongly about not missing days with his students at Berkley so Gill suggested a Saturday. Gill said, “He did not charge the district because he learned from our teachers how we are trying to be consistent in our approach to kids, and wanted to be a part of the solution.”

Eighty teachers from every school and every grade level attended that Saturday. They also did follow-up work with district math leaders. They were able to disseminate the information within their school. Professor Wu focused on a program that is a way of teaching students basic functions that work with whole numbers, fractional numbers and then prepares them to do algebra in a way that makes algebra feel like they’re just doing more of what they already learned in earlier math. Wu is helping Bethel prepare kids to be algebra ready by eighth grade. It will take more than one workshop and a few follow-ups. To that end Bethel is partnering on a new NSF grant that will bring Professor Wu back to the district in a significant way in the coming year.

While districts across the state are cutting days, Bethel’s staff said, “We want to do something more, our kids need every day of school they can get and so let’s do at least one day when we are giving back to the community.” Teachers decided to work the first day of school for free. They gave that day to the community.

Gill was in his fifth year as Bethel superintendent. It was just in the last couple years that the district has seen the achievement gap start to narrow at the elementary level. They are working to hang on to that. Improvement has happened at the middle school level, especially for Latino students who are now much closer to the state average. At the high school level, students are still struggling, but these students have not had all of the assistance that is now in place at the elementary and middle levels. Since the Bethel Reading Project and other efforts have now been in place for several years, the district is beginning to see a difference in high school entry scores. That will help close the achievement gap in future years.

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