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WENDELL — Two Magic Valley schools with high poverty rates and low student test scores will get extra help this school year.

Wendell Middle School and Mt. Harrison Junior/Senior High School, an alternative school in Heyburn, are voluntarily participating in a new, one-year state pilot project aimed at turning around struggling schools.

The purpose of the project — led by the Idaho State Department of Education — is to help seven schools create an improvement plan and find them the support they need to help their students.

“It’s bringing everyone together as a large group to say, ‘How are we going to fix this school?” said Tyson Carter, coordinator for school improvement/educator effectiveness for the Idaho State Department of Education.

The State Technical Assistance Team project came up Dec. 20 during an Idaho State Board of Education meeting at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls.

Each participating school — which is in the bottom 5 percent in Idaho for student achievement — has a technical assistance team, made up of state education leaders, school and school district employees.

It’s a relationship-building effort, Carter said, rather than a “gotcha” or punitive effort by the state. “We’re not the enforcer. We’re not the ones telling them they’re right or wrong.”

Wendell School District Superintendent Greg Lowe said he’s excited about the opportunity and funding that comes with it. “We do have some needs with school improvement, and we definitely always want to be getting better.”

After receiving a phone call from the state with an invitation to participate, he talked about the opportunity with Brian Jadwin, Wendell Middle School’s new principal who started this year. They decided to participate.

They went to an informational session in October in Boise. “We’re 110 percent on board,” Lowe said.

Jadwin said he’s emphasizing with this staff that the project isn’t punitive. “The state is trying to help us find ways we can help ourselves,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity for us to take a hard look at what we’re doing well and what we can improve upon.”

In addition to the two Magic Valley schools, other participating schools are Challis Elementary School, Jefferson Middle School and Washington Elementary School in Caldwell, Harrison Elementary School in northern Idaho and McCain Middle School in Payette.

A total of $500,000 will be distributed to participating schools. Wendell will receive $73,208, and Mt. Harrison will get $61,824.

“The amount of money is very helpful,” Lowe said.

Each technical assistance team is individualized to each participating school’s needs. For example, if a school is struggling with helping students who are English language learners or in math, the state will bring in specialists in those areas.

Kelly Arritt, principal at Mt. Harrison Junior/Senior High School, said the team is working to identify needs at his school. The team is looking at graduation rates, test scores and other areas such as community involvement. The plan will break down those areas into more specifics.

“We’re glad to have some help with that,” Arritt said.

The bottom line, he added, is the school is “trying hard to do the right thing for kids” and sees the opportunity to participate in the pilot project as a positive thing.

In Wendell, Jadwin said obstacles include math performance and about 24 percent of its student body having limited English proficiency.

Many math programs are available, but they’re online. With a lack of computers for students to use at school, that’s problematic.

“Teachers have been utilizing the online programs, but we’d like to use them more effectively and efficiently,” Jadwin said.

Wendell Middle School has only one computer lab open to classes on a regular basis, while the other is often tied up with Idaho Digital Learning Academy classes.

The IDLA classes are fantastic, Lowe said, but “it limits technology availability.”

To help bring more online math programs to students, “We’re looking at purchasing a set of computer devices for each grade level to ease the burden,” Jadwin said.

The seven Idaho schools participating in the state’s project were previously identified as needing improvement through the No Child Left Behind Act and Idaho’s star rating system for schools. Each of the schools already qualify for Title 1-A federal funding to provide extra academic help to students due to a large percentage of the student body living in poverty. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act — which was signed into law in 2015 — Idaho has its own plan, but it hasn't been finalized yet. It’s required to provide some sort of technical assistance to struggling schools.

As the technical assistance project moves forward, the state hopes to get feedback from schools on what’s working well and what isn’t.

“It’s been a huge learning curve for us,” Carter said. “We expect (schools) to be a partner in this.”

*Editor's note: This story was updated Jan. 8 to correct details about when schools are participating and about the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

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