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A Perry Township principal led her school to its first A grade 40 years after being a student there

Before she became principal, Whitney Wilkowski attended Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in the mid-1970s. Pictured here is her third-grade class portrait, which hangs in her office.
Before she became principal, Whitney Wilkowski attended Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in the mid-1970s. Pictured here is her third-grade class portrait, which hangs in her office.
Shaina Cavazos

Chalkbeat is talking with principals across the city at schools that made some of the biggest ISTEP gains in 2017 to explore what was behind their school’s progress and possible lessons for other schools. Find other Q&As here.

In 1975, Whitney Wilkowski was a third-grader at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Perry Township, and she adored her teacher.

“Miss Giltner,” Wilkowski said fondly, pointing at her class photo. “I loved her, and I just knew that I wanted to emulate her, so I wanted this job that she had.”

And she got it. More than 40 years later, Wilkowski is not only an educator, but she is in her 11th year as principal at Abraham Lincoln, her elementary school alma mater. Her third-grade class picture hangs on the wall of her office.

“It really was serendipity,” Wilkowski said. “There have been a lot of changes in the community since the time I was a student, but it is … just beyond my expectations to be here. My school, after all these years and all these changes, is an A school.”

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

Lincoln, which has more than 1,000 students in preschool through fifth grade, moved from a C grade from the state in 2016 to an A for the first time in 2017. The school’s scores jumped 11.8 percentage points to 51.1 percent of students passing both English and math exams, just about the state average. Both figures — passing rates and growth — factor into a school’s letter grade. Last year, Lincoln had especially high growth, which helped offset lower passing rates.

More than three-quarters of Lincoln students qualify for subsidized meals, and about one-quarter are learning English as a new language. Many of those English-learners are also refugees from Burma, a trend across the district.

Lincoln is also home to a special education program that serves students who live near Lincoln as well as those from across the west side of Perry who might need more support than their neighborhood school can provide.

Wilkowski said the district as a whole last year was focused on tracking student progress on English and math skills though a new system called Evaluate. Students and teachers both track results from tests together each month, using a stoplight model — red, yellow, green — to indicate in their records when a student has mastered, say, dividing fractions, and when they need more practice.

Of the Marion County township elementary schools with the highest ISTEP gains, four were from Perry Township. Every Perry principal who spoke to Chalkbeat this fall mentioned the new data tracking system.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Wilkowski to talk about her school’s progress. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you had made this year?

We were all elated. Those testing environments are unpredictable. They’ve been very unpredictable, and you know, I think my teachers were very confident going in. But even afterward, you still don’t know.

When a large percent of your population is learning English in the first place, and when there’s a lot going on in some homes … we don’t all start at the same starting point, so it meant a lot.

What do you think made the difference?

To be honest, for a long time an A has been our goal.

We have a school plan that we follow every year, and I’m a real data geek. I feel like the difference this year was we took all that information we had, and we made a real concerted effort as a team, all the way from the district to the students themselves, to figure out what it’s going to take to grow. This year we pulled together as a team, and we were very good at communicating all the way through those layers so that the students understood exactly what they needed to do.

And I had a hunch — we felt good.

When I say “we,” it’s not just staff. Parents know, and kids know, from month to month that what they need to do to improve. And really our focus was on improving 10 percent each month. What is it going to take?

It was a rare time when a child wouldn’t be able to answer that question: “What are you working on? What does that look like in the data? What are you doing to get there?”

Our students actually keep a data sheet. They can see in colors their progress from month to month. Red is “I don’t have it mastered yet.” Yellow is “I’m getting there,” and green is “I’ve got it.” That’s a very quick visual that communicates a lot.

Students know what the expectation is, and they are communicating with their classroom teacher to explain what is the missing piece there. It gives them a heightened sense of responsibility, but also awareness so they know where to focus.

What is your school community and culture like?

I have the west side of the district special needs students … that’s one piece of diversity. Another piece of diversity is just the number of students speaking other languages, which has really been expanding on the south side (of the city) in general. Lots of Chin dialects and families and students that are really getting their feet on the ground and getting settled.

They are very interested in being high-achievers and very excited about having the opportunity to go to school, and that’s just very exciting.

We also have over 30 percent student mobility. That’s another reason why that data piece, from year to year knowing what each individual student needs in a classroom, is so critical.

Teachers are very involved. We have churches that are very involved in school life. All these pieces that come together so you have better background together on each other is very big and has helped us be successful with our families.

What is your approach to leadership?

I feel like it’s very important to grow everyone. If everyone understands that there’s always something more to learn and some way to be better, then our kids understand that. Everyone has a goal, and just reaching your goal doesn’t mean that you’re done. So my vision is that everyone would continue to set those new goals, and that we would continue towards growth, and that everyone continues to not just feel successful, but be successful.

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