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.

Two years ago, the students at Glenns Valley Elementary School saw three principals in a single year.

So when Dave Rohl arrived in 2016 with a brand new leadership team alongside him, he knew consistency was key to helping the school make gains on state tests — consistency and a lot of patience.

So far, it seems to be working: Glenns Valley, which has almost 800 students in preschool through fifth grade, moved from a C grade from the state in 2016 to an A in 2017.

The school’s scores jumped 10.4 percentage points to 60.9 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. Last year, Glenns Valley had especially high growth, particularly for struggling students, which helped offset lower passing rates.

“We did better last year, we did better this year, and we’re going to be a lot better in three or four years,” said Rohl, who has spent more than 20 years as an educator in Perry Township. “It takes a while to get things going exactly the way you want them. These are cruise ships, not speed boats.”

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

About two-thirds of Glenns Valley students qualify for subsidized meals, and about 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 a new system called Evaluate. Students and teachers track results from tests together each month, using a stoplight model — red, yellow, green — to indicate and record what lessons or skills a child is mastering and where he or she is struggling.

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 a large factor in their ability to raise their scores.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Rohl to talk about his 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 mostly saw that we achieved what we thought we were going to achieve based on the data that we had. One of the difficult things that has been facing schools lately is trying to get data that is, even if it’s not predictive, it’s at least leading in the right direction of how your kids are going to do on ISTEP. So a tool that we had access to last year was this test called Evaluate. That test is able to more closely provide students with the experience of ISTEP.

We didn’t think we were going to do quite as well as we did. Some of our kids that weren’t predicted to do well passed ISTEP and did pretty well on ISTEP. That was kind of a great surprise.

What do you think made the difference?

Evaluate — we do it every month in English language arts and math. That was allowing our teachers not only to watch our students progress throughout the year, but also see how they were attacking these kinds of questions while they were on the computer, while they were doing it.

Our teachers did a very nice job embracing (Evaluate) even though it was new and they were giving up class time, and great teachers hate giving up class time. They quickly decided we are going to use that to our advantage, we’re not going to see this as a hindrance that’s just taking up my kids’ time. I was very proud of the way they quickly went from, “This could hurt us because I’m giving away teaching time,” to “We’re going to figure out a way to squeeze some great information from this that in the long run is going to help our kids.”

The next phase of what we’re trying to do, you start to quickly realize you have to individualize instruction as much as you can. It’s impossible for any teacher, no matter what school you’re in, to individualize seven hours of each student’s day perfectly to exactly what they’re needing that day. So we’re figuring out ways to do that more and more.

What is your school community and culture like?

Glenns Valley’s English-learner population has shifted dramatically. So this school went from pretty high-income, middle-income, very stable English-speaking, to all of a sudden we had 200 students in our building that were new to the U.S. As it would with any community, that rocked this community a little bit.

Now we’re kind of settled in. My background has been with students who need those extra supports, families that need those extra supports.

I couldn’t be more proud of the families that exist at Glenns Valley from a neighborhood standpoint. They have been embracing, they have been welcoming. I like to tell people that families pay big bucks for their kids to go to international schools, and they get it for free through public education that we have here at Glenns Valley. (Diversity) really is an asset, and it’s the way we all live our lives now, especially in central Indiana.

What is your approach to leadership?

My leadership style is servant leadership. So I believe that the most important person in this school is the child. I want parents to understand that, I want teachers to understand that, I want students to understand that.

I want them to know I love them, but I have high expectations for them. Parents need to know that that’s our focus. Mentally, academically, socially, all those things are important. But we play the role in their life of academic success.

That’s what my vision is. We’re all going to be asking each other questions, we’re all going to be holding each other accountable for growing our children academically with those high expectations. The best thing that ever happened to assessment was growth. When you start comparing schools and comparing classroom effectiveness, growth is really where it is. If we’re not growing, we’re not doing our job.