Katie Harshman's School Highlighted in Chalkbeat CO

May 5, 2023

Katie Harshman

Principal, Minnequa Elementary School, Pueblo CO

This piece originally appeared in Chalkbeat, CO on May 5, 2023.

In 2019, Minnequa Elementary in Pueblo was on the brink of closing because of low test scores and declining enrollment. Today, the school is off the state’s “watch list,” has the state’s top “green” school rating, and recently won a $50,000 award for exceptional growth in math.

So, how did a school where only 8% of students scored proficient on state math tests in 2019 change course?

Principal Katie Harshman says it was a combination of factors, including a good math curriculum, regular coaching for teachers, constant data analysis, and a shift to having some upper elementary teachers focus only on math, while others teach reading and writing. Using state grants and federal money the school receives because it serves many students from low-income families, Minnequa also tapped outside experts, including the Relay Graduate School of Education and a math consulting group called 2Partner.

Harshman and her team say the years long math push has given students a better understanding of key concepts, pushed them daily to articulate how they solve problems, and pumped up their math confidence.

Minnequa students now post some of the highest rates of academic growth in the state, showing more year-over-year progress on standardized tests than the vast majority of their Colorado peers. Those gains are what earned Minnequa and 11 other Colorado schools state “Bright Spot” awards this spring — each coming with $50,000 in leftover COVID relief funds.

Educators and policymakers statewide are pushing to improve math instruction after sharp declines in scores on state and national tests during the pandemic. This spring, lawmakers passed legislation to offer after-school tutoring in math, expand teacher training, and encourage schools to choose high-quality math curriculum. State leaders also paid to provide a digital learning tool called Zearn Math to Colorado schools.

The work that has unfolded at Minnequa over the last five years illustrates how effective instruction can translate into student achievement.

Harshman and her colleagues say there’s more to do. While the share of students who are proficient on state math tests has more than tripled to 26% in four years, It’s still below the state average.

“We’re not done. We’re still going to keep going,” said Leslie Ortega, a fourth grade math teacher at Minnequa.

Still, after the threat of closure, the school’s progress is gratifying. “It’s been like the light at the end of the tunnel,” Ortega said. “It just shows us what we as a whole school can accomplish.”

Coaches Step In

A few weeks before state tests were given this spring, Harshman stood in the back of a fifth grade classroom watching carefully as the teacher reviewed fractions. She noticed that students weren’t answering in full sentences as they should, and as they would be expected to on parts of the upcoming test. Harshman caught the teacher’s eye, brought her hands together and pulled them apart — a reminder that students needed to stretch out their responses into complete thoughts.

“It’s a very silent signal. It’s nothing dramatic,” she said.

This kind of real-time coaching — by Harshman, the school’s math coach Christy Vasquez, and outside consultants — has become the norm at Minnequa over the last several years.

The idea is to provide on-the-spot feedback through a whispered suggestion, a quick side conversation, or a few minutes of co-teaching so teachers can practice immediately.

“I’m not there to be like, ‘Ah-ha! Gotcha!’ I’m just there for support,” said Vasquez, who started as a teacher at Minnequa six years ago and took the math coach job last year.

Jeanette Valdez, a fifth grade teacher who grew up in Pueblo and lives just two blocks from Minnequa, said it’s been nerve-wracking at times to have so many people stop into her classroom to observe and coach — sometimes even top district administrators.

“I told myself that all they’re there for is to make me better and that’s my whole reason for being a teacher,” she said.

All the feedback — a coach was in her classroom practically every day last year — has helped her improve, she said.

These days, when students work on math problems independently, she’s in “aggressive monitoring” mode. That means she’s walking through the classroom to watch how students are solving problems and exactly where they’re getting stuck. Previously, she’d watch students work, but wasn’t checking for anything specific.

“I had to learn to be all up in their business …. and to really hone in on what it is I’m looking for,” she said.

For the rest of this article, navigate to Chalkbeat Colorado

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