Maquoketa Valley Middle School was honored in January by the State Board of Education, as well as state leaders, for their work to raise achievement in literacy and math among groups of students who traditionally face challenges in the classroom. The Breaking Barriers to Teaching and Learning Award was created by the State Board of Education. Each year, the award recognizes successful efforts to eliminate achievement gaps.  This recognition is for having the highest proficiency rates statewide in math and reading among a specific subgroup of students — our students who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes.  State assessment results from the last three years were examined to confirm a positive trend. Across Iowa, 68% of these students are proficient, but at Maquoketa Valley, 88% of them are proficient in reading and math.

It is especially rewarding to be recognized for impacting this subgroup since these are students we cannot specifically identify and target our instructional efforts toward. This means that our overall instruction is positively impacting all  students, including our students facing economic challenges.  In addition to instructional efforts, our guidance department shoulders a lot of responsibility when working with students and families as they coordinate services with local providers.

There are many factors at work to positively impact student achievement. At the middle school, the English Language Arts team re-worked its curriculum over several years to create genre units in which students can choose novels appropriate to their ability. That means students can reach state standards using texts that are accessible to them.  In math, time is spent carefully determining students’ needs and targeting instruction. There is an emphasis on rigor and relevance in our professional development. In addition, all middle school teachers are involved in AIW (Authentic Intellectual Work) teams. These teams meet weekly and consist of content area teachers from the middle school and high school. The sharing and conversations that surround the AIW work keeps the focus on increasing student engagement through a rigorous and relevant curriculum.

Students have 30 minutes of “Whatever I Need” time each day during which students who need academic boosts meet with content area teachers. A Multi-Tiered System of Support has been developed for all grade levels in the district. When problems arise, teachers submit a “ticket” and the MTSS coach meets with the teacher and building principal. Intervention plans are put into place and reviewed on a regular basis to determine if the plan is working, and changes are made as needed. For example, an eighth grade student works with a teacher during a structured intervention twice each week on her reading skills.  “I can tell I have improved because I’m able to read my free reading book faster than at the beginning of the year.  All the teachers are willing to help.  They never leave anyone out.”

While it is our middle school being recognized, we realize how critical the work of the elementary staff is in preparing these students for success. Their hard work in reading and math, as well as behavior/work habits, has helped prepare our students for middle school. Teachers have been working with state standards to focus instruction. They meet weekly in teams to discuss instruction, assessments, and student work. Time is spent re-teaching concepts and working with small groups to address gaps in learning. Professional development has focused around shifts in instruction and strategies for teaching in both literacy and math to provide the highest quality learning opportunities for students.

At Maquoketa Valley, we have a true commitment to continually improving and doing everything we can to positively impact our kids, and it is rewarding when it shows!