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Keri Thiede, parent volunteer and chair of the governance council at Merrimac Community Charter School, works with fifth-grade student Olivia at the school's Newspaper Club. The Merrimac school is one of several in the district that qualify for federal Title 1 aid.

Eagle file photo

When Sauk Prairie school officials sought to map the academic future for students five years ago, they reached out to the community and asked residents to identify what they found to be the most critical needs.

Resoundingly, the feedback was that additional support was needed for students struggling with math and reading. To address the concern, the district began seeking grants to develop new programs focused on reading and math interventions, among many other grant-supported programs already in place.

As with other school districts, Sauk Prairie depends on grant funds each year to help supplement the cost of education. That includes Title 1 funding and Educator Effectiveness grant support.

“We’ve been really deliberate K through 12 getting that support for our students,” said Jeff Wright, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “If we didn’t have Title 1 funding, it would be very difficult to provide that support. As a district I don’t know how we would be able to provide that support without this grant money. “

Federal grants help cover costs related to special education, professional development and reducing class sizes, English language learners, physical education classes and summer programs, while others are focused directly on student and educator achievement.

The purpose of federal Title I funds are to provide financial assistance to local schools with high percentages of children from low-income families to ensure students meet academic standards. In Sauk Prairie, those schools include Tower Rock, Merrimac Community Charter and Sauk Prairie Middle School. The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education from the 2009-2010 school year details more than 56,000 public schools across the country used Title I funds to provide additional academic support and learning opportunities for low-achieving students to meet standards in core academic subjects. The funds can be used in many types of programs and might support extra instruction in reading and mathematics, as well as special preschool, after-school, and summer programs to extend and reinforce the regular school curriculum.

Sauk Prairie uses the funds to support its reading and math interventions program, Wright said.

“We assess students using screeners – short assessments to see who needs more help in certain core subject areas,” he said. “These students might receive more one-on-one help.”

Wright said in some cases a student may receive additional one-on-one help, or small group instruction on a specific skill.

“Intervention in math is often very tactile,” he said. “It could involve using a string with different color beads to help students get a sense for sets of five.”

The district’s interventions program stretches from kindergarten through 12th grade, but Title 1 grant funds only are used at schools that qualify for the federal aid.

“It’s pretty consistent with how it’s been in the past,” Wright said. “These schools have the highest rates of free and reduced lunch.”

Most of the Title I funding, for which the district receives about $300,000, goes toward staffing, specifically math and reading specialists. Smaller amounts are used on training, software licensing and supplies.

“We also try to incorporate more co-teaching,” Wright said. “It’s a way for teachers to support students in a different way.”

Superintendent Cliff Thompson said there has been a dramatic shift in teaching methods that encourages teachers to work together.

“There really is this collaborative approach to learning movement,” he said. “There’s communication, collaboration and flexibility – and those needs can change every year based on the group of students.”

That’s where the district’s Educator Effectiveness program comes in. The Sauk Prairie School Board recently received an $18,000 state grant to implement its Educator Effectiveness program.

The Wisconsin Educator Effectiveness System aims to help teachers grow as professionals, which can then translate into student learning. Resources support program planning, assessment and management. The program serves as the state’s system for teacher evaluation, Wright said.

Sauk Prairie uses a CESA 6 program called mylearningplan.com, which utilizes an online portfolio for teachers. The money the district receives from the grant goes toward the purchase and maintenance of the program.

Traditional evaluations used to be based on classroom visits by administrators.

“This new system for evaluation respects that not all parts of teaching can be observed,” Wright said. “There’s continued education coursework and professional growth, correspondence with families, instructional planning and the use of assessments and more. All of that is part of the evaluation process.”

The program contains a log for teachers and their administrators to document supporting information as part of the evaluation process.

“You forget all the stuff you’ve done if you don’t put it in a place you can see it,” Wright said.

Teachers set goals for themselves based on student achievement in the beginning of the school year, review it during the middle of the school year and at the end give themselves a score based on the results.

“There is a genuine spirit and intention to grow our teachers as well as our students,” Thompson said. “We have realized as districts that it is exciting for our teachers to share ideas. There is this philosophy of bringing out the best in staff like we do the students.”

Reporter, Sauk Prairie Eagle