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With improved test scores, Newport Elementary defying expectations for a ‘high poverty school’

Newport Elementary School teacher Anita Perkins talks with District 833 Superintendent Keith Jacobus, who stopped by to congratulate the staff on the students' improved MCA reading and math scores. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia

Newport Elementary School is overcoming one of the biggest obstacles to learning: poverty.

The school's improved scores on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test earned them a spot on the annual "Beating the Odds" report that was published in September by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

It was the school's second consecutive year on the list.

"Newport has historically been one of the lowest performing schools," Principal Rich Romano said. "That's not the case anymore."

Newport is one of only 19 "high poverty" schools in the Twin Cities Metro that made the list, by exceeding its predicted proficiency scores in math, reading or both.

Based on their poverty level, Newport students in third through fifth grade were expected to score 49 percent proficiency in math, according to the report. Instead, they scored 67 percent.

"If we're not moving forward we're moving backwards," Romano said. "Our kids, for the most part, are behind, so we need to do more than a year's worth of growth. A year of growth will only keep us at status quo."

Newport's staff and administration take the long view, Superintendent Keith Jacobus said during a recent visit to the school. Test scores are important, but they're only a snapshot in time.

"I'm very impressed with the entire focus and dedication to moving kids in a growth direction," Jacobus said.

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.

This year, it scored 61 percent, exceeding its predicted score of 53 percent.

A school's predicted score was calculated based on its respective poverty level. At least 61 percent of students at Newport Elementary are enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program.

The exact causes are under debate, but generally, low-income students tend to do worse academically than their more affluent counterparts.

"Many of our families are struggling to make ends meet," Romano said. "And all of the efforts are on putting food on the table and paying rent....Sometimes we have a family with trauma or crisis. That hurts learning."

Newport has a flex model in place that allows a teacher to give a student an extra half hour in reading or math.

"It's a way to target the holes in their learning," Romano said. "If you don't know your multiplication facts, you have a very difficult time reducing fractions."

Children are more receptive to learning when they know their teachers care, he said.

"They don't care what you know until they know you care."

Special education teacher Sara Arthur-Noble joined the Newport staff in 2014.

"While we address academic needs, the child as a whole is something which (we) take very seriously," she said in an email. "Some days we check to be sure someone has had breakfast. Some days it's making sure they have a pair of warm mittens or a jacket when the weather turns. Some days it's noticing that they're wearing their favorite purple shirt."

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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