Louisburg School Exceeds Expectations

Louisburg School District Exceeds Expectations

 Posted Date: 01/27/2023

Louisburg School District Exceeds Expectations

Graduating seniors at one of the state's top-performing school districts had high praise for their school experience and the support they received. They stressed the benefits of what they learned in clubs, activities and service. They value career exploration but worry about pushing students to decide too quickly and wish there was more flexibility in the structure of high school. They think teachers are underpaid and underappreciated for the demanding job they have.  

I got these insights from a dozen Louisburg High School's senior student advisory group members. I also met with the district superintendent Brian Biermann, school principals and other district leaders. Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson recently highlighted Louisburg USD 416 at the January State Board of Education meeting for high performance on three outcomes: academic achievement measured by state assessments, high school graduation rates, and postsecondary success.  

Like other schools I have been visiting, I wanted to explore what Louisburg is doing to get those high and improving outcomes. I wanted to talk about how the district addresses the other outcomes in the State Board's Kansans Can vision: kindergarten readiness, individual plans for study and social and emotional learning. What is not going well, what concerns do school leaders have and what needs to be changed?  

Academic and postsecondary success is clear in Louisburg, located in Miami County, bordering the state line with Missouri and on the southern edge of the Kansas City metropolitan area. A 4A school with about 1,700 students, Louisburg sees itself as "small" by standards of its location, even though it is larger than 230 of 286 districts in Kansas.  

Over the past seven years, the district's average percentage of low-income students (who qualify for free or reduced-price meals) plus students with disabilities (special education excluding gifted) is slightly over 33%, which would be the tenth lowest among public school districts. Because low-income and disabled students have lower educational outcomes on average, a district like Louisburg would be expected to have higher results than the state average, as its leadership readily admits.  

However, last year, Louisburg's combined results on state reading and math tests exceeded the average of public school districts with a lower percentage of low-income plus disabled students (all under 33%). Louisburg's scores also exceed the average of the state's five private school systems, each of which has less than 33% of low-income and disabled students. While test scores for both these public and private school systems have declined since 2017, especially after the COVID pandemic, Louisburg has reduced the percentage of students at Level 1 (limited) and increased the percentage of at Levels 3 and 4 (“effective” for postsecondary education).  

Louisburg had a graduation rate of 96.5% last year, topping the state average of 89.3, and a five-year postsecondary effective rate of 62.4%, 10 points above the state average of over 52%.  

I asked both students and adult leaders what is working well in Louisburg.  

When asked what the best part of their school experience was, the students stressed the feeling of being part of a community. Some had lived in Louisburg their whole lives, and new arrivals received a warm welcome to the community. Several spoke highly about how the school addresses mental health issues like stress and depression, which they say is an enormous challenge for students. They praised “Wildcat Assistance," a high school schedule change to give students more time to get help on academic and other issues, and how the administration regularly asked for student input when making decisions.  

Students also praised the school's handling of COVID, including getting students back in school as soon as possible. One student, Dalton Whildin, said, "Even though some people might not like school as much as others, it's still going to be the place where some people have the best part of their day." Overall, the sense is that Louisburg students want to be at school and want to learn.  

They overwhelmingly praised opportunities to be involved in a wide range of clubs, sports, music and other activities. Everyone talked about how these activities taught them about setting goals, making plans and solving problems, connecting with the community through fundraising and service projects, and exploring what they want to do with their future. A strong theme I heard throughout the day was a commitment from the older students to support younger students, from introducing young high schoolers into organizations to volunteering to tutor and mentor grade schoolers and working the district's childcare program.  

They acknowledged that not all students can participate in these activities; for example, if jobs or family circumstances limited options and agreed it would be better if everyone had more opportunities during the school day. "I think it'd be really enriching for every kid to get that experience in certain clubs that we're talking about, so they can put themselves out there to build themselves as a person and be more prepared for the work environment," said Brayton Brueggen.  

These students were clearly focused on life after graduation. Each had already completed some college courses while in high school. Still, they also expressed some concern about too much emphasis on "career planning” instead of “exploration" during a time when young people frequently change their minds based on new experiences. “I think we're asking the wrong questions,” said Dannah Knipp. “It's not what do you want your career path to be. It's what inspires you to come to school? What makes you wake up in the mornings? Because once you find that passion, once you find that thing that makes your heartbeat, makes you cry because you love it so much – that's what keeps you in the job."  

Students had some suggestions, including more flexibility in how courses can count for high school graduation. Several students said the school should emphasize alternatives to four-year colleges for students without these interests. Those topics have been a part of the State Board's Kansas Can efforts.  

Finally, the students were asked why more young people are not going into teaching as a profession. The consensus: the pay needs to be higher for a job that has become much harder. “I think times are a lot different than they were 20 or even ten years ago," said Kaitlyn Vest. "I think you guys (the adult educators in the room) probably have one of the hardest jobs because the things children deal with now are much harder. I think you guys are almost brave to do what you do." 

After the students left for the rest of their day, I talked with school officials – superintendent, assistant superintendent, building principals and assistant principals – about how they were improving academic and postsecondary results while meeting students' social and emotional needs. They echoed the students' concern about the increasing challenges students face, from economic pressures on students and families to technology and social media distractions. But they stressed that those could not be an excuse.  

First, like other successful districts I've visited, Louisburg has embraced the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) and credits support from the MTSS program and Technical Assistance System Network. Essentially, the MTSS concept is to monitor how students are doing, identify when a child is having difficulty, provide targeted intervention, assess whether it is working, and take further action if it is not. The "tiers” refer to distinct levels of support based on individual student needs.  

Second, Louisburg's leaders say they support strong professional learning communities (PLCs), which means giving teachers the time to work together to address student needs identified through the MTSS process and frequent opportunities to continue to develop their skills through professional development. Teachers work together to address the needs of all students rather than focusing only on their classroom.  

Cindy Apple, principal of the grades 3-5 Broadmoor Elementary School, explains. "At the beginning of the year, we assess everyone with our universal screeners. We see where students are falling behind. With the MTSS system, students are placed into those tiers based on their achievements. They all get an intervention wherever they may land, whether the top or bottom tier." Each day, the students receive an hour of intervention monitored every two to three to measure their progress. Teachers meet every single week in their professional learning communities to look at that data and decide the next steps and adjustments for each student. 

Third, they stressed the need to continually seek and act on input from teachers, students, parents and the community. For example, dealing with chronic absenteeism. "Much like the state of Kansas, we were going in the wrong direction (on chronic absenteeism)," said assistant superintendent Dave Tappan. "What can we do to make a positive change?" Louisburg took several measures to combat the problem of chronic absenteeism. School administrators worked with their PLCs to make some adjustments to their policies. They also clearly communicated these changes to parents and families. They also found ways to celebrate when kids attend school regularly, get better grades, and learn more.  

Michael Pickman, assistant high school principal, agreed. “We started with data. Our policy was allowing for chronic absenteeism. We started with a small change in policy. Our data changed a little but not where we wanted it to be. So, we took it back to the Student Council and the attendance PLC. They asked the question: where are the incentives? Where's the reason to be in school? We then got ideas from other groups and refined a proposal." Louisburg plans to offer small rewards and allow students with high attendance to skip finals if their grades are high enough. "Now we'll continue to look at data and see if the incentives worked. And we'll continue to make changes," said Pickman 

Working with parents is another key. "The Louisburg district reached out to the Kansas Parent Information Resource Center (KPIRC) for help in family engagement," said KPIRC director Jane Groff. "I was impressed with the focus on engaging families in their children's education in the Louisburg district. The center shared resources for families, such as the Kindergarten Readiness booklet and the Individual Plan of Study and provided assistance for the inclusion of families in MTSS. Louisburg has shared how they communicate with families on their children’s academic and social-emotional learning and goals for continued growth in engaging families.”  

The district also addressed another Kansas Can goal, kindergarten readiness. According to preschool and K-2 elementary school principal Emily Fleming, the district's highest achieving students come through the half-day preschool program. However, many families could not attend the program because they couldn't find childcare for the other half of the day. As a result, the district opened its daycare program to complement the preschool program this year. Parent fees fund the program but at a lower cost than other alternatives.  

These were just my biggest impressions from a day in Louisburg. I heard about many other ideas for improving outcomes: expanding dual and concurrent enrollment options with colleges; an afterschool enrichment program for elementary students with high school volunteers; a community mentor program called Teammates, like Big Brothers/Big Sisters but exclusively on school grounds and more. But I kept trying to get at the question of how Louisburg is getting better results than many other districts, even those using similar programs.  

"I think the difference is that we actually do it (with these programs)," said assistant principal Michael Pickman. “We don't just say we do it. And I think the best thing is that we use data to respond.”  

High school principal Any Van Rheen said, “We continue to bring student leadership to that table, like the students you talked to today. I think that truly is different. I don't think every district listens to the kids; kids are changing. They've got great ideas.”  

Finally, I heard from superintendent Biermann, who said, "I have been an educator in other communities and school districts. I believe what sets Louisburg apart is that we not only have the systems, support and resources in place to help each student succeed but it is engrained into our culture, both inside of our schools and from the support of our community and school board. I am very proud of our success and know we have great educators and students in our community." 

Article Link:  https://www.kasb.org/45132?art...