BY COLIN MAGNESUN
Radio Keokuk News Director
KEOKUK – Mike Marsden arrived in Keokuk just under four years ago. The upstate New York native had been hired as the Assistant Principal at Hawthorne Elementary school to serve under then-Head Principal Jeremy Negus. Marsden felt that two of the biggest challenges he faced were curbing the number of behavioral issues among students and improving the reading scores of the children at the school.
One year later, Marsden moved even closer to front and center in that directive as he was named Head Principal at the Kindergarten through 3rd grade school after Negus accepted a position in Iowa City.
One of the first obstacles that Marsden identified in improving reading levels throughout the school was finding a way for teachers to spend more time with students that were struggling without sacrificing classroom time set for other learning disciplines.
Along came the concept of “Chief Time”. In 2017 the Keokuk School Board adopted a district-wide policy that called for 20 minutes per day to be set aside for interventions in areas where students were struggling. This can include small group learning or one-on-one training with the teachers.
The district defines an intervention as any time above and beyond what is mandated daily by the state to be spent on a specific classroom subject. The Early Literacy Intervention (ELI) Law that was passed by the Iowa Department of Education requires that 90 minutes per day are spent on reading instruction.
Chief Time has allowed the administration teams throughout the district to properly implement interventions beyond what the ELI Law mandates but also doesn’t force instructors to interrupt normal learning time set aside for classes such as math and science. Under Marsden, Hawthorne has become a model for the district in proving the growth that can come with the proper time being set aside for these interventions.
“We wanted to be more purposeful and targeted with our interventions that we were providing to kids. That has been helpful in making sure we are getting the kids the right things because not all kids are the same in the way they learn.”
Those targeted interventions have paid off as Hawthorne saw its students’ scores rise significantly in the 2017-18 school year. The Iowa state assessment tests are taken three times yearly at the school and Marsden explained that the data that was compiled from those tests and it showed Hawthorne sat in the top echelon of schools in the state in terms of reading proficiency growth.
“The state puts out benchmarks that we want to try to attain for the kids…We use those to assess how they’re doing three times a year. Last year we had right around 13% more of our students buildingwide who were proficient in reading during the spring as compared to the previous fall. That led to us having the 7th highest reading growth in the state.”
The delay in results of the assessment tests are due to the fact that those results are sent off to the state to be compiled and historically it has taken until well into the following school year to receive them back. The schools can see the immediate results of the proficiency tests but as far as using them as a benchmark against growth statewide, it has taken time. went on to state that he feels those numbers justify the current plan that includes the “targeted, purposeful interventions.
“That was a huge accomplishment that led us know that what we’re doing is working. We continue to target those foundational skills to continue that growth”
One of the challenges that is specific to Hawthorne is that students coming into the school as kindergartners, they have differing levels of reading abilities before they even walk in the door.
“We’ve got our work cut out with some of those younger grades and that’s a big portion of it. Learning those foundational skills that some of those students may not come in with them in place. Some of those kindergartners may not have had much exposure to letters and numbers but by winter and spring they’ve grown tremendously”
The Head Principal is heading into his fourth year as the lead administrator at Hawthorne and he closed out by saying that there is still plenty of room for growth as the school has had higher reading numbers decades ago but he felt they’re trending in the right direction.