In tiny rural Kansas district, students out-performing global competition

In the rural Waconda Lake area of North Central Kansas, the nearest Wal-Mart is 60 miles away and the best-known local landmark is an enormous ball of twine that locals claim is the largest in the world. (Darwin, Minnesota begs to differ.)

But don't be fooled. The students in this sleepy agricultural community are not only out-performing American kids in other, much wealthier schools; they're also out-performing most students in developed nations around the world, according to a new analysis.

The average student at the Waconda school district of 385 kids scores better than 90 percent of students in 20 developed countries on math and reading tests, according to The Global Report Card, published in the journal Education Next. In fact, Waconda is the second highest performing school district in math in the country, after Pelham, Massachusetts, an affluent community near Amherst College.

At most of the country's 13,636 school districts, the average student scores worse in math than most students in other developed countries. That even includes ritzy districts like Beverly Hills, where the average household income is more than $100,000.

So why are Waconda kids--65 percent of whom live in poverty--doing so well? And can other schools follow their lead?

The Waconda district comprises four small towns--Cawker City, Downs, Glen Elder and Tipton--and seven schools spread over 411 square miles. Most people in the area work in agriculture or in manufacturing.

The district's superintendent of seven years, Jeff Travis, told Yahoo News that after years of high test scores, the community expects its students to excel. Most years, he added, no one drops out of high school. The district won 14 state Governor Achievement Awards and one national "Blue Ribbon Award School" over the past four years.

"It's a tradition now, and they expect themselves to do well," Travis said. "Like a ball team that continues to win because of a tradition, we have an academic tradition."

Still, the community doesn't quite seem to get how exceptional they are. "Everybody's pretty happy [but] nobody understands how big a deal it is," he said.

Travis says the students' high level of achievement is even more extraordinary given that 65 percent of them qualify for free or reduced federal lunches, an indication that they live in poverty. High poverty schools are often dogged by low test scores and high dropout rates. Many educational observers indeed blame the nation's sky-high child poverty level for the country's comparatively low performance in math.

One theory Travis has is that Waconda school kids have no sense that they're materially deprived. "North Central Kansas is rural, and urban poverty is kind of different [from] rural poverty," he said. "A lot of our people don't even understand that they're living in poverty." According to state data, most of the students are white, and no kids need English language learning classes.

About 10 percent of the students in the school district are foster kids, Travis says. "We just [have] a lot of adults that care about kids, so it's been a popular thing for parents to take in foster children."

Travis says that high parental involvement is one of three main factors in the district's success. Almost every parent shows up for parent-teacher conferences at the elementary school level, he says, and participation stays high in the older grades as well.

The second factor, he says, is the district's commitment to keeping its pre-kindergarten to third grade classes very small. Only 12 to 15 kids are placed in each class, so that "we get to a lot of problems quickly and early in child development," he says.

Finally, the district created an assessment card for each student that follows him or her from grade to grade. The card lists skills the state expects each child to master in each subject--and teachers update them continuously, to provide them with a good idea of what each child needs to work on to be able to pass state standardized tests.

The national education reform movement has focused on tying students' standardized test scores to teacher pay and opening up independent charter schools as a way to lift student achievement. But Travis says the district doesn't follow education trends.

"We don't believe in the next biggest thing or the next biggest theory. We've not made any major changes," he said.

Waconda faces big funding challenges, though. Travis cut about 10 percent of staff positions over the past several years to tackle budget cuts. The average teacher salary in the district is $40,000, among the lowest of any district in the state. "It's going to get tougher as we go," he says.

Another problem is that the school's high-achieving kids often leave and don't come back. Many end up in Kansas City, Travis says.

"It's where the services and the goods and fun are," he said. The high school tries to encourage kids to come back to the community after college by asking them to design a small business plan for the area.

A quick note on the research: One of the Global Report Card's authors, Josh McGee, says the small size of Waconda schools may have skewed the results slightly, since randomness has a greater impact on a smaller sample size. Most of the best-performing school districts in his ranking were small, and many of them were also made up of charter schools. You can read more about his methodology here.

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