Nationwide, educators are grappling with one of the biggest challenges to hit schools in decades. Since the 1960s, the difference in test scores between economically privileged and underprivileged students has grown 40 percent. Increasingly, income determines a student’s likelihood of success , more so even than factors such as race.
It’s a problem everyone recognizes but few know how to address. Which makes the case of Montgomery Elementary School , a small, rural prekindergarten-through-eighth-grade school near the Canadian border, all the more compelling.
“We have a persistent achievement gap in this state,” explains Michael Hock, the director of educational assessment for the Vermont Agency of Education. “It ranges from school to school — interestingly enough, except for Montgomery. Montgomery stands out as having no achievement gap.”
Fifty-one percent of Montgomery’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the measure the state uses to track students living in poverty. (Statewide, nearly 41 percent of students  qualify for the benefit.) Yet across the board, yearly test scores at the school , which this year enrolled 130 students, are staggeringly high. Last year, 94 percent of Montgomery students were judged “proficient” or “proficient with distinction” in reading skills according to the New England Common Assessment Program, compared with 73 percent statewide. Ninety-nine percent achieved those levels in math, versus 65 percent statewide.
The numbers are equally startling when one breaks out the statistics for students living in poverty. In Vermont, 17 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch scored the lowest possible score — “substantially below proficient” — on the reading portion of the NECAP. At Montgomery, not one socioeconomically disadvantaged student fell into that category. In math, 28 percent of disadvantaged students scored at the lowest level statewide, versus a mere 4 percent at Montgomery.
Montgomery students’ success stretches beyond test scores. The number of special education students on individualized education programs, or IEPs, has dropped in recent years from 25 percent to 14 percent — and special education teacher Lara Morales says that’s not because of shifting demographics. Rather, Montgomery students who are held to high standards and helped along with additional instruction often end up “graduating” from the special education program. “It’s like we’re adding tools to their toolbox,” Morales says.
The school does all this while spending roughly $10,700 to educate each student — less than the statewide average of roughly $12,300.
These stats make Montgomery a leader not just in Vermont but nationally: The school is one of four profiled in the forthcoming book Growing Into Equity: Professional Learning and Personalization in High-Achieving Schools, due out in June. Coauthor Sonia Caus-Gleason calls Montgomery “extraordinary,” and “one of the schools that is really in the advance team for schools across the country.”
The big question, of course, is how do they do it?
“Everyone’s always looking for the silver bullets,” says Susan Hayes, who worked until 2010 at the Vermont Agency of Education as state coordinator for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. There, she helped author a report called Roots of Success : Effective Practices in Vermont Schools, which identified strategies of some of Vermont’s most successful schools.
But there is no silver bullet, says Montgomery Elementary School principal Beth O’Brien. After years of success, the friendly 45-year-old, who has been at the helm since 1999, periodically fields calls from other schools looking for her “secret.”
“They want me to tell them in two minutes what’s taken us 10 years to do,” O’Brien says. “It’s not a magic wand.”
Ask Montgomery teachers what makes their school successful, and the techniques they cite come off as remarkably commonsensical. The teachers say they believe every student can and should succeed, and set high expectations for students and themselves. They credit a strong principal with leading the charge.
Theirs is a vibrant professional community that meets weekly in small groups to plan lessons and talk over classroom problems and general expectations. O’Brien touts a data-driven approach to teaching that isn’t so much about teaching to standardized tests as it is about using test results to examine which concepts students understand and which need more work.
“I thought I knew what I was doing,” says middle school math teacher Steve Moran, speaking of six years ago, when he joined the staff. After a few months at Montgomery, where teachers routinely study and discuss recent literature on education, Moran confided in O’Brien that he felt like “a junior college student at an Ivy League school.”
What does Montgomery education look like in practice?
On a Friday morning, math, social studies and physical education teacher Jeff Ward — a 36-year Montgomery veteran — is teaching fifth graders about fractions and decimals. Students take turns heading up to an overhead projector. When their classmates toss out numbers — “Nine-eighths!” or “Zero-point-five!” — they mark the appropriate spot on a line stretching from zero to two.
Ward doesn’t single out students for the task. Instead, he asks, “Who else is having trouble?” and the students unself-consciously nominate themselves for extra practice in front of their classmates. When one fifth-grade girl starts to squirm at her desk, her neighbor whispers — firmly but not maliciously — “Pay attention.”
A particularly tricky question from Ward stumps a student, who responds with a brief “I don’t know.”
Ward replies patiently, “Yes, you do.”
Classroom doors hang open throughout the middle school wing, a big change from the days 20 years ago of “shut the door and don’t come in,” Ward says. Students don’t bat an eye when a visitor pops in to observe from the back of the class. They’re used to visits, particularly from their principal. O’Brien says that even second graders whose classrooms she visits will turn to her to explain, “The goal of our learning today is…”
A little farther down the hall, Moran is leading a lesson in the “scaling effect on prisms.” His math class is typically heavy on algebra, but today the seventh graders are shaping heavy paper into three-dimensional geometric models. “This is Fantastic Friday. Go. You have a half hour to build,” Moran tells the students, as they scatter to collect rulers, protractors and scissors.
In the next classroom over, Sara Caldwell’s eighth-grade students are sharing the results of a two-week project on energy efficiency. Each student, outfitted with an imaginary budget of $150,000, has constructed a three-dimensional model of an energy-efficient home. The cardboard models are dotted with aluminum-foil solar panels and wind turbines that resemble pinwheels. Fourteen-year-old Anna Smith points out the composting toilet and passive solar windows in her design, before launching into a discussion of the finer points of “energy transfer,” as illustrated by woodstoves and hydro-turbines.
Her classmates are attentive and alert. Later, when one asks a budding architect about the feasibility of a rooftop greenhouse, a peer murmurs, “Good question.” It’s not snide or sarcastic — merely admiring.
“We’re like families,” says 14-year-old Misha Hubacek, a Montgomery eighth grader. She and her classmates say they learn a lot. A few are chafing against the bounds of Montgomery’s small classes and are eagerly looking forward to high school. But, aside from the usual eighth-grader complaints about algebra homework and teachers’ rules, they seem remarkably appreciative.
“The education is much better,” confides Steven Rosploch, an eighth grader who moved to Montgomery from New Hampshire in 2012. “I’m actually learning stuff this year.”
“We care about [doing well],” Hubacek says.
Anica Koontz-Miller agrees: “You want to make your teachers proud.”
O’Brien, whom teachers and onlookers credit with much of Montgomery’s success, says she and her staff feel equally committed to making themselves, their peers and their students proud. “We’re never going to be perfect,” she says.
But as test scores go up year by year, O’Brien and her teachers are setting the bar higher and higher. “Everyone holds themselves to that high standard,” she says. “There’s a culture of shared accountability.”
If the techniques to which O’Brien and others attribute Montgomery’s success are common sense, they’re not necessarily easy. O’Brien says she sympathizes with teachers and principals at other schools who spend more time putting out the small fires of disciplinary problems and day-to-day stresses than envisioning school-wide, systemic changes. It’s not easy, or quickly achievable, to overhaul the culture of a school.
And yet O’Brien accomplished just that. When she took the lead as principal at Montgomery, the school’s test scores were roughly average when judged against the rest of the state. As the culture changed, test scores followed.
Hock and other educational professionals say that Montgomery should be an inspiration to other schools. There, he says, teachers are proving that demographics are not destiny. Crucial to their efforts appears to be the conviction that every student is capable of success, and that teachers should not view themselves as having been dealt a “bad hand” because their school serves a high population of low-income students.
“There are things that work, that do make a difference,” Hock says. “Just because a student comes from a poor family, or they’re in a town where there isn’t much money, doesn’t meant they aren’t going to succeed. We see that in a place like Montgomery.”
The original print article was headlined “Making the Grade: In
Montgomery, one school beats the odds on student