••• Education •••

A focus on leadership at the center of Fort Leavenworth student achievement

At the January state board of education meeting Fort Leavenworth (USD 207) was recognized for being the highest achieving district in terms of state assessment results for the 2020-21 school year. Their districtwide scores earned them the state’s only Silver Medal in the “academically prepared for post-secondary” category of the Kansans Can initiative. Districts in this category – which is one of eight awarded categories awarded by KSDE – are judged on overall percentages of “proficiency” (Levels 3 & 4) in ELA (reading), math, and science.

Here are the four medal categories, along with cut-off scores:

  • Gold – (75% +)
  • Silver – (60% to 74.9%)
  • Bronze – (50% to 59.9%)
  • Copper – (state average to 49.9%)

Fort Leavenworth’s scores 2021 scores are: ELA – 69.5%, math – 62.4%, science – 66.7%.

Last year I published this article which likens these Kansans Can awards to participation ribbons, given the low thresholds to receive recognition in the various categories. I’m not going to revisit this here. The focus of this treatise is on Fort Leavenworth as a district and the presentation made by those representing the district to the state board regarding what they do to achieve those results. (That presentation can be viewed here (the Fort Leavenworth presentation begins at approximately the 3:52 mark.)

Fort Leavenworth is unique among the 286 Kansas school districts. First of all, it is entirely located on federal property – that being Fort Leavenworth. It serves students in K-9, with no high school. According to the superintendent, Dr. Keith Mispagel, over 90% of the students are children of active-duty members of the military. Dr. Mispagel told the state board there is student turnover of about 50% each year and about 94% over any three-year period. Also, with most students being the children of active-duty military, Fort Leavenworth has among the lowest percentage of students who qualify for free and/or reduced lunches. The district also does not have an elected seven-member school board. There are three members, all chosen by the Commanding General of the military base.

This combination of factors provides a mixture of challenges and advantages when it comes to state assessment results.

A major challenge, of course, is student turnover. High turnover is generally associated with lower test scores, but since high turnover is a “given” at Fort Leavenworth, the district is better prepared and can better deal with turnover issues. Also, Dr. Mispagel didn’t make it clear whether the turnover rate is within a school year or between school years.

An advantage is the relatively few low-income students. Even though Fort Leavenworth’s low-income students perform much lower than the non-low-income students, the fact there are so few low-income students, the overall state assessment results are not significantly affected. KPI has written here about the impact of economic status on academic achievement.

Another advantage is the structure of the school board. Since there are only three members who are not elected, but chosen by the base commander, ballot-box politics, which can certainly impact a district’s curriculum and ultimately state assessment results are avoided. In Fort Leavenworth’s case retired Colonel Myron Griswold, who has been board president for more than a decade, made it clear the board’s focus is on student success by following a very military-like success model. Specifically, Colonel Griswold said their vision, mission, and goals have a “whole emphasis on leadership which is obviously a core competency of the military.” It’s reasonable then, that state assessment scores would be higher than average based simply on that approach.

In addition to Dr. Mispagel and Colonel Griswold, the deputy superintendent gave a presentation on staff development and two teachers – one elementary and one junior high – shared their classroom methods for increasing student achievement. What is interesting about these presentations taken as a whole, is that virtually any school district in the state could have had said they are doing essentially the same things. Nothing I saw was unique, save the success model based on leadership. In fact, most of what I heard is the same general approach my school took when I was teaching a decade ago.

In my opinion, the difference between Fort Leavenworth and other districts can be summarized in one word: leadership. It is clear the Fort Leavenworth team takes state assessments quite seriously. And one could infer that their success is clearly a source of pride.

The point is, Fort Leavenworth doesn’t seem to be doing anything special when it comes to serving the students and families in the district. Their results are based in strong, focused leadership, which in Fort Leavenworth’s case translates to an emphasis on state assessment scores. The following table – the districts with the five lowest percentages of low-income students – shows that Fort Leavenworth clearly outperforms those districts.

This is a lesson the state board, Commissioner Watson, and the rest of the state’s school districts should heed. Keep in mind, the state’s committed goal is 75% of all students scoring proficient in math and ELA by 2030. In 2021, those proficient percentages are 27.9% for math and 35.1% for ELA, both of which are several percentage points lower than the baseline year of 2016.