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Summit School District finds “secret” to narrowing achievement gaps

By September 27, 2010June 14th, 201613 Comments

In the popular mind, Summit County, Colorado, in the heart of Colorado ski country, might seem worlds apart from the usual challenges many other school districts face—a place where perhaps privileged, ski sweater-clad youngsters gather ’round roaring fireplaces to sing John Denver songs.

The reality, however, is until recently, Summit School District had one of the largest achievement gaps in the state—with the English language learning children of the county’s influx of immigrant workers achieving at much lower rates than its nonminority students.

Over the past two years, McREL has worked extensively with teachers and administrators in the district to help them narrow their achievement gaps while increasing overall student performance.

So what’s the secret to these initial successes? A bold new program? A whiz bang technology? A new silver bullet?


The “secret” has simply been to focus on delivering consistent, high-quality instruction in every classroom.

Teachers across the distict have been working hard to adapt the effective instructional practices they already know to the needs of English language learners. In keeping with some of the key ideas of McREL’s Changing the Odds for Student Success: What Matters Most report, they’ve been adopting “growth mindsets” for students, delivering challenging instruction, and providing students with the support they need to meet high expectations.

In the words of Superintendent Millie Hamner, the district has been simply “focusing on keeping best instructional practices and student learning first on our minds, in our agendas, and in our hearts.”

Read the entire Summit School District story here.

Download the free Changing the Odds report here.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications & Marketing.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Esther says:

    I’m such a fan of “Changing the Odds,” and I am wondering if the district used the “less is more” philosophy?

  • Esther,
    Good question. We began working with Summit before we released the report, so they weren’t using it to guide their work. That said, the “less-is-more” idea is a cornerstone of our Success in Sight approach. We help schools and districts use data to focus on what’s most important for them.
    From the beginning, Summit’s leadership also understood the importance of being focused, so yes, it’s fair to say they took a “less-is-more,” focused, approach to improvement.
    That approach now appears to be paying off.

  • I am in a district that has a high rate of free and reduced lunch as well as a high migrant student population. What is the socioeconomic status of the majority of the students in this school?

  • Linda,
    According to the Summit website ( 26.7% of the district’s students are Hispanic, 30.7% receive free and reduced lunch, 24.3% are English language learners, and 10.6% have special needs. Those are the district-wide numbers—some schools have greater concentrations of disadvantaged students than others, of course.

  • Bryan,
    Do you think the fact that the gap is not as wide as it is in a school such as mine, it is easier to see positive results on this level? (My school is over 90% free and reduced lunch.)

  • Linda,
    Certainly, with a small percentage of disadvantaged students, it’s easier to target resources for them. However, I can tell you that the focus of Summit’s approach was really to improve instruction in every classroom for all students. In other words, they weren’t necessarily targeting their low-performing kids, but rather the overall quality of instruction across the entire district.
    If you’d like more information, feel free to contact Candy Hyatt (303.632.5616) at McREL. She’s the one who has been working with Summit and would be happy to give you more details about the approach Summit has been taking. Here’s a link to her contact info online:

  • Bryan,
    Thanks for the information. I certainly will check with Ms. Hyatt. It is always great to get ideas from others in the field that can help our students become the best they can be! Thanks again.

  • Kim Yagel says:

    I teach at a middle school in Gaithersburg, MD and we are currently experiencing similar struggles to close the achievement gap. It is exciting to see that the Summit School District has effectively increased student improvement.
    I am curious to know what type of staff development and training was offered to teachers at schools in the Summit School District. How much support and extra training did teachers receive? How were they trained? I am curious because our school has recently implemented staff development days once a week where teachers learn new teaching strategies. While this has been somewhat beneficial, much of the content seems unrealistic or too idealistic and teachers rarely have enough time to implement what they have learned in their lesson plans. How has McREL been able to successfully train teachers while still allowing them time to plan intentional, challenging, and engaging lessons?

  • Kim,
    My understanding is that while the core of the staff development focused on the nine strategies in Classroom Instruction that Works that Candy Hyatt, the McREL consultant who led the sessions, also focused on helping teachers understand the stages of language acquistion (as presented in another book, Classroom Instruction that Works with English Language Learners). She also helped teachers examine their own mindsets, drawing on the work of Carol Dweck, which is cited in the Changing the Odds report.
    As to how teachers could squeeze in the PD with everything else they need to do, I believe that Candy’s approach was to ask them to immediately apply what they were learning in their own classrooms, so that it didn’t feel like an extra add-on or something disconnected from the realities of the classrooms, but rather, support for what they need to do.
    If you want to learn more, I’d recommend you contact Candy directly. I’m sure she’d be happy to speak with you. Here’s a link to her contact info online:

  • Amanda says:

    I think the actions taken by this school district are wonderful. I work in a district with a large ELL population and we need to do more to work on increasing these student’s skills in each content area, as well as developing their English language skills. Currently enough is not being done collaboratively to accomplish these goals. The ESL teachers in my specific school are great resources, but their time is limited due to the required content they have to teach in their classes. They have a limited about of time to teach language skills while trying to make time to help these students with content area work.
    I do my best to supply resources to my ELL students during my math class, but at times I know it is not enough to guarantee understanding. And I have no idea what other teachers are doing in their classrooms to support these students. We need to come together as a school to develop strategies to incorporate in every classroom to increase the development of our ELL students. I am going to take some time to look over “Changing the Odds” to see what helpful strategies are available and that can be implemented as soon as possible.

  • Lynda Brenckle says:

    While the achievement gap is being closed, what is being done to make sure that the high achievers are not coming down to meet the lower achievers in the middle? I think it is wonderful that the bottom of the spectrum is receiving a lot of attention and well deserved resources, but fear that those at the top are being left out and are not reaching their full potential.

  • @Lynda Brenckle
    Lynda, that’s a good question and one of concern to us as well. In fact, the Colorado Department of Education, which sponsored this work, stated from the outset that they didn’t want the gaps to be closed at the expense of top performers.
    Fortunately, the data collected by the state show that is NOT occurring: scores of both top and low performers have been improving in Summit; the low performers have just been improving by more.
    A simple explanation for this is that thoughtful, intentional instruction benefits all students, raising their achievement across the board. But it’s particularly beneficial for those students who have traditionally been low perfomers. High performers often bring a lot of “learning capital”—such as background knowledge, supportive learning environments at home and a strong sense of self-efficacy to the classroom—so they may tend to learn even when instruction is inadequate (e.g., they may already understand much of what’s being taught, be willing to work through their confusion, or have someone at home to ask for an explanation of what wasn’t taught well in the classroom).
    Lower performing students, on the other hand, may not always have all those benefits. So when teachers become more intentional about articulating objectives, matching instructional strategies with those objectives, encouraging a “growth mindset” among students, checking for understanding, and re-teaching content or providing additional learning supports as needed, those strategies can help to make up for deficits low-performing students bring to the classroom.
    That said, what we’ve seen in Summit and elsewhere is that high-performers also benefit from better instruction.

  • Annette says:

    I think that it is great that the gaps are being closed. How was it done? I know in the article it states delivering consistent, high-quality instruction in every classroom, which I do understand. I recently finished ESL courses and with the district that I am in, it seems to be a struggle. So is there more to it? Are teachers working closely together with the students?

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