No Mind Left Behind: How Taft Middle School Is Transforming Its Approach for Struggling Learners

By Heather Sparks, 2009 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year

Note: A National Board Certified Teacher, Heather Sparks teaches math at Taft Middle School in inner-city Oklahoma City. The school serves some 850 students in grades 6 through 8, more than 90% of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs.

This is a story of hope. Three years ago, our principal told our faculty that she wanted us to find and implement a school-wide reform project that would help us make a difference for our low-performing students. The first program we tried just didn’t take root; we just didn’t see a real connection with the learning issues we were seeing in our kids, many of whom come from very challenging situations.

I had gone through the Schools Attuned course in 2001 and knew what a powerful professional growth experience it is. I had also helped bring the program to two other schools I worked in before coming to Taft. So I was thrilled when my colleagues decided we should give it a try as part of our long-term strategy to better serve our students. Over the past two years, almost our entire staff of 72 has participated in Schools Attuned (the last few are taking the course this summer), and even those who were initially skeptical are now enthusiastic about this approach for our school.

With the All Kinds of Minds focus on understanding the learning process, our faculty members have really been able to see how it is going to help us entirely change the way we work with the kids who are struggling. My colleagues have individually talked about how they are doing things differently in their own classrooms – not leaping to conclusions about students, helping identify strengths, looking for clues about what underlies a particular student’s challenges.

As a faculty, the Schools Attuned training has given us a common language to use so we can talk about individual students and what we’re observing; it has also given us tools we can use to collaboratively intervene with those students, both across subject areas and as students move from grade to grade. My math team has begun looking at how we can integrate what we have learned about learning into approaching our curriculum. At the school level we’re looking at using Title I dollars to fund faculty to take on profile advisor roles at each grade level to provide additional support.

What did we do for struggling students before we took this on as our school-wide approach? We’d say, “OK, let’s meet with his parents,” or “let’s refer her for summer school.” Or we’d start the referral process for special ed. But these aren’t real strategies for addressing student learning issues, which is why the concepts and tools from All Kinds of Minds have really drawn us in.

Although we’re still early in the process of implementing this school-wide, I am excited about the way it is transforming our school. The ideas and knowledge we have gained through the All Kinds of Minds professional development are not things you learn in college, and I believe teachers can’t leave it unchanged. It’s a gift we now have to enable us to make a difference for all the kids we as teachers struggle to reach.

Share your stories, school implementation strategies or inquiries with Heather  in the comments below!

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