‘The power of consistency’ propels academic gains at this Denver elementary school

7 min. read
Denver’s Knapp Elementary School was recognized by the state for its high student growth scores. (Courtesy Knapp Elementary)

By Chalkbeat 

The staff at Knapp Elementary insist there's nothing extraordinary going on inside their well-worn school in southwest Denver.

And yet the students here, nearly all from low-income families and more than half of them learning English as a second language, post some of the highest growth scores in Denver Public Schools, an achievement that has earned the school state recognition six years in a row.

In a district where families routinely drive their children across the city in search of a good school, a majority of students who bound up the concrete steps every day live right in the neighborhood.

Principal Shane Knight said stability is the secret to Knapp's success.

"Nothing we do is dynamic or amazing in terms of, 'Oh, this is something innovative,'" Knight said. "It's the power of consistency and the power of doing the small things well."

Knapp Elementary was one of more than 250 schools to win an award this year from the Colorado Department of Education. Click here for a full list of the various awards and winners.

Knight has been at Knapp for six years, and 78 percent of his teachers returned this year, which is higher than the district average. The only staff attrition the school has experienced in recent years has been the natural kind, he said: retirements, out-of-state moves, and the like.

And even when teachers leave, Knight has been known to lure them back. Walking down the hallway, he pointed them out: He was an assistant principal at another school for a while, Knight said. Now he's back with us. She took a job closer to home to cut down on her long commute. Three weeks into the year, she called and asked if she could come back.

Knight ducked into a first-grade classroom, where the teacher was delivering a lesson entirely in Spanish. Her students sat on the rug, each holding an abacus made out of construction paper, pipe cleaners, and plastic beads. The teacher pointed to the whiteboard, where she'd written an equation: 4 + __ = 20. She asked the students to find el número misterioso.

Tiny fingers slid plastic beads along pipe cleaners. "Dieciséis!" several called out.

"Ding ding ding!" the teacher said. "Muy bien, chicos!"

Knight whispered, "She's the first first-year teacher I've hired in three years."

Knapp is one of 30 "highest-priority" Denver schools where teachers get extra pay and a retention bonus if they return year over year. Knight said the incentives -- which can be as much as $4,000 for highly rated teachers -- do help him recruit educators.

But the bonuses are not the main reason teachers stay. Kevin Simmering has taught fifth grade there for 13 years. He said the spirit of collaboration among the staff is part of what keeps him coming back. Everyone, he said, shares the same long-term goal of preparing students, many of whom experience significant trauma outside of school, for life after Knapp.

"Every day, we teach with a little bit of urgency," Simmering said. "Every day, you take that little bit of urgency, and that consistency -- or grind -- is what contributes a lot to our success."

Lauren Bailey has been at Knapp nine years. When she was a first-year recruit with little experience, Simmering served as her mentor. It's a relationship that extends to this day.

"With Kevin, he's still the person I go to to talk about math at the end of the day," said Bailey, who teaches third grade. "The other day I went over and said, 'What do I do next with this kid?'"

Knight is fond of saying there is no silver bullet, and Bailey said she agrees.

"It's not that any one teacher is doing anything above and beyond," she said. Rather, "there are teams who meld really well, and teachers who go above and beyond to connect with others in the building. That has a great impact."

For students, many of whom show up to kindergarten behind, that impact compounds the longer they stay at Knapp. Just 16 percent of third-graders scored on grade level on the state literacy test last year, which is far below the district average. But 44 percent of Knapp fifth-graders scored on grade level, which is above the district average.

Knapp's growth scores show why. The school's third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders made more year-over-year progress in literacy last year than 70 percent of Colorado students who scored similarly to them on the state test in previous years. In math, Knapp students made more yearly progress than 74 percent of Colorado students with similar score histories.

Circumstances outside of school can present challenges for Knapp's students.

"Every box that says this child is not going to be successful -- homelessness, poverty, immigration status -- almost all of our kids check those boxes," Knight said.

But when a stable staff approaches their jobs with love and tenacity, he said, the progress shows up in the test scores. Some research has found a connection between higher teacher turnover and lower student test scores. Other research has found teachers' opinions of their principals' leadership are a crucial driver of whether they leave or stay.

Knight has made some changes at Knapp, but they've been deliberately slow. The most dramatic shift he made was to keep most Spanish-speaking students in Spanish-language classrooms until the end of third grade instead of transitioning them earlier to English-only classrooms -- a philosophy that values students becoming biliterate instead of simply fluent in English.

He also expanded a teaching method called "guided reading" that has teachers work on particular skills with small groups of students who are at a similar academic level. In addition to reading, teachers now do that in writing and math, too. And he started something he calls "focus groups," asking teachers to pick five students each year and provide them 10 minutes of extra instruction in an effort to catch them up. It worked so well -- the students caught up so fast -- that teachers now work with several focus groups each year, he said.

Knight calls these changes "one-degree tweaks." Do enough of them, he said, and it'll change a school's trajectory. Assistant Principal Nicole Grommeck said this approach -- a steady drip of changes instead of a full-blast fire hose -- also helps the school keep its teachers.

"If you're overwhelming a teacher and turning on the water full blast, teachers push away or become resistant because they can't handle it all," she said. "That directly correlates to our ability to retain teachers for longer. We're asking a reasonable amount of them."

In addition to academic changes, Knight has worked to make the school more welcoming to parents and more empathetic to students. The school uses a restorative approach to discipline that emphasizes repairing harm rather than doling out punishment. In Knight's first year as principal, there were 900 discipline referrals, he said. This year, it's hovering around 100.

In a bit of coincidence, Knapp's mascot is a knight. Knight keeps a plastic sword in his office that he uses to "knight" students who show certain character traits, such as perseverance.

Fifth-grader Adanari Reyes was knighted last year for showing cooperation. What makes Knapp special, she said, is that the school is a family and the teachers "make you learn step by step."

"They push you hard so you can reach your goals," she said.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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