Chalkbeat is talking with principals across the city at schools that made some of the biggest ISTEP gains in 2017 to explore what was behind their school’s progress and identify possible lessons for other schools.

As Principal Star Hardimon hurried down the hallway of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, she had her sights set on Tom Stahlhut’s fourth grade classroom, where in just minutes students would be packing up for an assembly.

She carried a gold trophy, which is awarded to the classroom that saw the most improvement on math or English practice tests for that month, part of a new program called Evaluate. Kids were already lining up to leave, but she stepped quickly into the room. One student was already on to her surprise.

“Oh, I know what we win!” he said as he and his classmates gathered closely around Hardimon.

“I actually came to your room today because I brought something along for math Evaluate,” Hardimon said. “Mr. Stahlhut’s class went from a 35 percent to a 49 percent. You are the fourth grade winners!”

The students erupted in cheers, waving their arms and jumping up and down as she presented their trophy. These kinds of celebrations aren’t unusual at MacArthur, Hardimon said, and they were especially significant this year given the gains from last year.

MacArthur, which has 805 students in preschool through fifth grade, moved from a B grade from the state in 2016 to an A in 2017. The school’s test passing rates jumped 10.8 percentage points to 63.3 percent of students passing both English and math exams, higher than the state average. Both figures — passing rates and growth — factor into a school’s letter grade.

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

Almost three-quarters of MacArthur students qualify for subsidized meals, and a little more than one-quarter are learning English as a new language. Many of those English-learners are also refugees from Burma, a trend across the district.

The district as a whole last year was focused on tracking student progress on English and math skills though Evaluate. Students and teachers both track results from tests together each month, using a stoplight model — red, yellow, green — to indicate in their records when a student has mastered, say, dividing fractions, and when they need more practice.

Of the Marion County township elementary schools with the highest ISTEP gains, four were from Perry Township. Every Perry principal who spoke to Chalkbeat this fall mentioned the new data tracking system as key to their improvement.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Hardimon to talk about her school’s progress. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you had made this year?

We fully celebrated. We made a banner and every person, from the custodian, cafeteria — every person that supports kids in our building in any way signed the banner, and every person got a cookie, and we did a cookie with the letter “A” on it. We cheered and had some fun in the lunchroom.

Us earning this A wasn’t about the days we took the test. It was about the work we did every single day in our classrooms, at home, during homework, reading on the weekends — it was everything.

What do you think made the difference?

Well, when we initially got our scores back from the previous year, we were bummed. So we really tried to think about what do we need to do, how do we need to look at this test compared to what we’re doing everyday. And I know it’s a new test and there are some different things, and I don’t want to make excuses, so we just needed to figure out what to do.

Every month I met with grade levels to just talk about the data, talk about what we’re doing, talk about what we look like. And teachers would fill out their data tracking sheets, and everybody was really in tune.

The other thing that we really did is in January, we did an all-hands-on-deck, and for third, fourth and fifth grade we pulled our special education, our E.L., our intervention, and our master teachers to pull groups of students out of classrooms so we could work on specific skills during that intervention time. And we also looked at some of the content area time to really home in so kids could get a real 20 minutes of direct instruction on a particular skill. And that’s something that we had not done in that way. And we’re pretty pleased with it.

I really honestly feel that that effort by everyone to really focus in on that bottom 25 percent (of students) regardless of E.L., special education — whatever their needs are — and our general education kids fell into that as well. I think that’s where we earned those points, was with that group.

What is your school community and culture like?

Douglas MacArthur is a very a community-driven school. I have teachers in the building right now who were students here. I have grandparents who always come in and say, “Oh, my kids and now my grandkids go here.” That comes with a lot of pluses and minuses, but the good thing is the people, they believe in this school. They want the best for kids and they’re really willing — they stay for after school activities and they get involved in all our programs.

Our demographic has been changing. Free and reduced lunch numbers since I’ve been here have increased significantly, and this is my fifth year. Just under half of our kids are English-learners, some coming from as part of our refugee community. We have a very small population of African-Americans, however we have more than when I first came, and then the rest are Caucasian. We do have a small population of Hispanic students, and we have the most number of Hispanic students than we did even five years ago. So our community is definitely changing. It used to be Caucasian, mostly.

What is your approach to leadership?

I feel like i’m a very instructional leader. I try and model behavior in almost everything because if I’m not doing it, then I certainly don’t expect a staff member to do it, or a student to do it. So really modeling and holding myself accountable at a very high level. I’m pretty hard on myself. I think that reflection piece needs to be transparent.

I feel like I try really hard to model a professionalism, a pride in something, working hard everyday. That work ethic is important — it’s important for students to see, it’s important for parents to see. They’re trusting us with their babies, and that’s a pretty big deal, so they have to trust me. I think about my own children, and the thoughts I’ve had about administrators that have led their schools, and that has helped me.