By small steps and one giant leap, Newport Elementary School has been closing the achievement gap, that disparity in test scores between themselves and the more affluent schools in District 833.

In November, an analysis by the Minneapolis Star Tribune listed Newport on their "Beating the Odds" list. The annual report identifies "high poverty" schools who did better than expected on reading, math or the combined scores on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA).

Newport made the list by bettering their predicted score of 49 percent in math with an actual proficiency of 59 percent.

"They tend to expect a certain level based on your poverty and what your past scores have been," Newport principal Rich Romano said. "If you exceeded it by 10 points you beat the odds."

Less dramatic is their overall reading score. It improved less than three percent over 2016, which wasn't enough to make the list. But the statistics don't tell the whole story.

Over the past four years, Newport has raised its MCA reading scores nearly 18 points - from 40 percent proficiency in 2014 to 57.9 percent in 2017.

"The last three or four years we're on the right track," Romano said. "It's because of a hardworking caring staff and great kids and families."

He also credits changes in reading and math instruction, a system known as the Flex Program. It was started prior to his arrival at Newport in 2013.

"All students get an hour of literacy at their grade level," Romano said. "They all get an hour of math instruction at their grade level."

In addition, "all students get an extra half hour of literacy and math at their specific ability level."

The goal was to move students up to the next MCA math or reading bracket, from, say, from low to partial proficiency or from meeting the standards to exceeding the standards.

"If they're low (proficiency) readers there's a reason that they're low," he said. "We try to see what skill they're missing."

As an example, Romano cited inference, or the ability to read between the lines.

"You read an article and inference what the author means. That's a specific skill. Kids need to be taught how to do that and practice."

Their progress has not gone unnoticed - Romano received the Educator of the Year award Jan. 26 at the Woodbury Chamber Community Awards Celebration.

"We're obviously very proud of the work that Newport Elementary has done, the teachers and the leadership there," said Brian Boothe, director of professional development and accountability for South Washington County Schools. "From a district perspective there are a myriad of factors we could point to, but I think it comes down to a school knowing their students and building off of what our students know and do."

Low test scores are correlated with poverty. And a school's poverty level has been traditionally measured by the percentage of its students who are enrolled in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program.

"We have the highest amount (60 percent) of free and reduced lunch students," Romano said. "Unfortunately, the statistic proves that they're further behind and need extra support. We've got to find a way to meet their needs."

He added, "I was a free and reduced lunch student growing up. I know that world and I speak from that place."