The Ottumwa Courier

April 21, 2014

Happier students, higher scores

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — It's nearly a cliche in the business world: "Happy workers are productive workers." Schools are testing whether "Happier students are higher achieving students."

"That sense of belonging [drives people] to achievement," said Davis Eidahl, superintendent of Ottumwa schools. "Graduation rate has gone up. Our high school has seen three years of increased standardized test scores. And for the first time, our high school hit an average daily attendance rate above 95 percent last year."

The Iowa Safe and Supportive Schools survey was funded by the state for four years. It's graded, educators said, like the ACTs, with 36 as the highest score. When the district first handed out the survey, the composite score came back as 17. Ottumwa High School Principal Mark Hanson called it "the danger category." It showed many students did not feel comfortable at school.

Three years ago, after some in-school changes, the score went up to 19. The third year the score went up, teachers started to believe in what the score, 21, seemed to be telling them: The atmosphere in Ottumwa was improving.

Now, the most recent result is in: another increase, this time to 24.

The district says they and the Iowa Department of Education are happy with the improvement.

"Over a thousand students, plus teachers and parents, completed surveys," said Eidahl. "That score of 24 is based on students' perceptions of their school."

Hanson said an improved culture paid off in attendance, test scores and graduation rate. Yet fostering a sense of belonging meant more than hanging a sign telling everyone to be nice.

"Our staff and students made culture a priority. We spent many hours on it in professional development. That list of 10 standards, showing how successful people behave? That started out as a list of 100."

The lessons — mainly respect for self and others — had to be taught repeatedly and in a consistent way. Parent involvement had to increase, too. Parents know they have an equal part in their child's education.

After No Child Left Behind laws were established by the feds, many Iowa districts decided raising test scores would require that kids study harder, that teachers teach better and if parents were asked to be involved, it was to push children to ace standardized tests.

"There was tremendous pressure on all stakeholders to improve test scores," recalled Eidahl. "Their focus became very narrow. Perhaps … to our detriment. Later, we discovered through research and practices of our own … was that culture was even more important.

An opinion by a Harvard University business professor was published in the New York Times in September, 2011: "When people don’t care about their jobs, they don’t show up consistently, they produce less or their work quality suffers."

"We want kids to come to school and be productive; productivity will look difference than in a work environment," said Eidahl. "Students learning and growing, students thinking creatively and critically. That's productivity in school."

News reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark