From “survival mode” to an award-winning school


Although she’s retiring on a high note the end of this month, eight years ago Katherine Page’s new job as Highland School principal didn’t look too promising.

After the previous principal had left mid-year for medical reasons, “people from the [Columbia Heights] district office were pinch hitting,”she said. “Then there was an interim principal. When I came on board, everybody in the building was doing their own thing. There hadn’t been any cooperative efforts. I think they were in survival mode.”

Page had just begun to pull the staff together when the state released the students’ test scores. Highland’s were not good. The school, in fact, had failed to make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) two years in a row, and according to state rules, the district would have to restructure the school if the low scores continued for a third year.

“AYP really hit us hard,” Page said. One reason the test scores were so low, she added, was because Highland had the district’s entire ESL (English as a Second Language) population.

The following year, the district relocated the ESL kids to their home schools.

She, meanwhile, focused on staff development (teacher training) and put students into reading groups where they belonged, rather than according to their grade level. “We mixed the kids up and put them in groups to meet their needs.”

She said she tried to foster communication and cooperation among teachers.

“They realized they weren’t responsible for every single thing every day. A lot of the newer teachers didn’t have enough experience to know what to do in some situations. The veteran teachers talked about strategies and methods they used. We now have collaboration. We also have additional teachers in the classroom; we were able to add more ESL, math and reading teachers. My whole thing was to find out what we needed to do, focus on it and do it. We did things like putting together a reading test of our own for students, pulling bits and pieces from other tests. Teachers meet once a quarter and discuss every single child in the school. If they are performing at or above their grade level, that’s fine. If not, we want to know what the problems are.”

She said she is a strong believer in life-long education. “Every year, we [she and the teachers] take on a new [education-related] book. I don’t mind change; it keeps you interested. But I don’t jump onto every train that’s running by. You need to find a path that works. You can bring in an outside person [education expert] and it’s great, but it’s better to have our teachers become the experts. We do our own staff development.”

The results of working with the teachers and students began to show. Highland won an Exemplary District Service Award from the Minnesota Association of Administrators of State and Federal Education Programs in 2004. It was designated (by the state) as a Five Star school in reading and math as the result of students’ MCA (Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment) II scores in 2006. It won a Minnesota Academic Excellence Foundation (MAEF) Spotlight Award in 2006 and 2007 (and is the only school to win the award two years in a row); and a Certificate of Recognition from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Reading Research in 2007. It was named a National Distinguished Title 1 School in 2007.

Superintendent Kathy Kelly said that the district has been lucky to have Page. “Through her tenure there have been challenges, changes, and opportunities. She has managed to forge a collaborative community for leaning to support students, parents, and staff. We are sad to lose her; she has been through it all. She took a school that did not make AYP and turned it into a Five Star school in math and reading. That is a state rating, which is the best you can get. The school has been acclaimed and awarded nationally, regionally and locally.

“They reconstituted and reorganized that building on the fly,” Kelly added. “There has been a solid commitment by the staff, coupled with Katherine’s leadership. The way I like to describe it is that they built the bridge while they were crossing the river.”

Page acknowledged the challenges at Highland. She pointed to a poster of Rosie the Riveter (a World War II icon of a working woman) on her office wall, and said, “That’s our motto. We can do it.”

She said it hasn’t been easy to turn the school around. Because of district budget cuts, the school lost its social worker, a secretary, and a counselor. Now it shares a social worker and a counselor with the district’s other two elementary schools.

The student population, which numbers between 450 and 470, comes mostly from low-income families; 75 percent of them qualify for free and reduced price lunch, and at least half of all the students eat breakfast at school. Nearly all of them live in Columbia Heights. Many are immigrants, mostly from African countries such as Somalia. A large number are African American or Hispanic. White students are in the minority.

Although diversity is high, Page said, the school has no racial learning gap (in other words, all ethnic groups perform well on state tests).

Mobility students coming into and leaving the district, often in the middle of the school year is high. “When I started, it was about a third of the students. Now it’s almost half,” Page said. “Some families leave two and three times and come back. Some go back to their home country for months at a time. We have to make hard decisions about whether or not those students can advance with their classes. There is not much retention, but we have done some. It’s easier in the lower grades.”

Sometimes, she said, “families are going through terrible trauma. If that is the case, we lay off the academics. Sometimes you have to let kids go through whatever is happening without the additional pressure.”

Page said she has learned that good teachers need “nerves of steel.” She has terminated some teachers, she said, adding that it is possible to terminate even those with tenure. “There are proper channels. Some people can’t take the stress level we have here. I can see if someone’s going to make it or not. Some are easily upset. Some can’t deal with the trauma in some of the students’ lives.” She said that in the last eight years, they have lost many teachers to retirement. “One year a whole grade level left. The younger ones get married and leave. We have many young teachers here now; 19 percent of them are probationary [meaning, they don’t have tenure yet, which might be offered to them after they have taught for three years].”

She said it was a hard decision to retire this year. “I will miss the staff and the kids. I won’t miss the discipline stuff, though. It’s always the same 20 kids. We work and work and don’t see a lot of change. I also won’t miss the long hours.”

Page, who is married and has two children, has been in education for 35 years, 26 of them teaching first, second and third grade in the Anoka-Hennepin school district. Her last day is June 30; after that, she said, she will soon be fishing with girlfriends at the Lake of the Woods. Later this summer, she’ll be off to Egypt with her sister.

“I’ve got a couple of articles I want to write, but I want to take some time off first. I have learned a lot at the district level and at the staff level. I have really enjoyed this career. It was something I wanted to do. I’m very grateful that Columbia Heights hired a newbie.”

She said she also might do some consulting. “We’ve had a lot of schools come to us, to see what we’re doing. We’ve done nothing magical, but we have stayed our course and kept our focus.”

She said the last week of school is always very difficult for students and staff. “We have wonderful children here. On the last day of school, people are crying. We go outside and blow bubbles, to lighten everything up. The day after school was out, we already had one child come back to visit.”

Kelly said the district has hired a new Highland principal, Michele DeWitt, formerly vice-principal at Meadow Lake Elementary School in New Hope. DeWitt will start work on July 1.