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One-time standout Warren Township school now needs an overhaul

Once a star school, Warren Township’s Sunny Heights Elementary spiraled downhill over the past two years, but the district is hoping a grant can help turn it around.

Sunny Heights touted an “A” letter grade from the state in 2011 and was featured in an Indianapolis Star story as one of just five in the state to receive a top grade despite high percentages of students who are poor, learning English as a second language or in special education.

But for the past two years, the school has received a “D,” which the district blames on a revolving door of leadership and staff, as well as problems with discipline and math. The district submitted an application Tuesday for a federal school improvement grant that administrators hope will help, but the chances of getting it are slim — only two to eight schools in the state receive it every year.

“To receive a school improvement grant, the district really has to be committed to making some dramatic improvements to a school,” said Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, Warren’s assistant superintendent of school improvement who recently joined the Indiana State Board of Education.

The grant stems from federal poverty aid that is administered by the Indiana Department of Education. The school should learn if its application is approved at the start of the school year.

Sunny Heights qualifies because it is one of about 300 “priority” or “focus” schools, designated for extra state scrutiny for low test scores and poor state A to F grades. If it wins the grant, Sunny Heights would be eligible to receive up to $2 million per year for five years. But the district only asked for a little more than $2 million total.

“We really tried to look at what was absolutely necessary,” Kwiatkowski said. “We also had to look at sustainability. You don’t want to hire a bunch of people and then at the end of the grant, not be able to keep them.”

She said the biggest problem at Sunny Heights is a lack of consistency.

“We’ve had staff turnover at that school,” she said. “We’ve had a couple of different principals at that school. So I would point to the lack of stability that we’ve had with the leaders and with the staff.”

In the last few years, one principal retired and another was a rookie.

“Often when you have schools that have some challenges, like the discipline issues that we have at Sunny Heights, we have staggered achievement,” Kwiatkowski said. “If you have an experienced principal, they can address the fluctuation better.”

So Warren looked to one of its top principals — Steve Foster — for help.

Foster spent the last four years at Creston Intermediate Academy. When he took over in 2010, it was rated the equivalent of a “D.” But last year, it received an “A” from the state. Nearly 90 percent of its students passed the math section of the ISTEP and 85 percent passed the English/language arts portion, above state averages.

Foster said his main focus, regardless of whether Sunny Heights receives the grant or not, will be on student behavior.

“I’m really about changing behaviors as opposed to just being punitive,” Foster said. “This is just an observation, but I think we’ve been focusing here at Sunny Heights on some of the wrong things — we’ve been working hard, but we’ve been focusing on the wrong things. How do we help students?”

If he does receive the grant, though, he has some ideas in mind.

He wants to build a STEM lab using a Project Lead the Way curriculum that would allow the school to add that to the students’ arts rotation every week. He also wants to add some new technology to the classrooms, such as interactive projectors and white boards.

Because the school’s math scores are low, he would also like to hire a full-time math coach — an expert mathematician that would co-plan with teachers to help improve instruction — and a life skills coach — a counselor who would work with students to improve their behavioral problems, he said.

Stonybrook Middle School, also in Warren, received the same grant last year, so the district has seen the kind of impact it can have on a school. Stonybrook’s state letter grade jumped from a “D” to a “C” last year, said Pam Griffin, Stonybrook’s principal.

Griffin said the grant helped provide extra support in reading and math.

“It would have taken us longer to get to where we are,” Griffin said.

Griffin said she was also able to add intervention classes to students’ schedules. So now, instead of someone stepping in to help students who are falling behind from time to time, they have 50 minute classes every day that are focused entirely on giving them an extra boost.

Stonybrook faces a lot of the same problems Sunny Heights does — low math and reading performance, discipline problems and high poverty. And not every student is on the same page.

The grant money helped the school pay for the technology and training required for a blended learning environment — a strategy that splits student time between independent work on a computer and teacher-led lessons.

Kwiatkowski said Sunny Heights will try the blended learning model, too. The district wants to expand it to all of its elementary and middle schools within the next three years.