Nah Tah Wahsh Public School Academy is a rural school located on the Potawatomi Reservation in the Upper Peninsula. Nah Tah Wahsh was founded in the 1970s to improve the high dropout rates among Potawatomi students by providing a schooling option that was closer to the reservation, and incorporating a deeper awareness and appreciation of the Potawatomi culture. Since opening its doors in 1976, the school has served a large number of Native American students, as well as non-Native students from outside of the reservation. Teachers and administrators alike describe Nah Tah Wahsh as a school that is deeply committed to fostering student academic success. Operating under this belief, the school has worked tirelessly to improve the learning opportunities for their students by offering a number of programs around early childhood education, as well as extracurricular and academic support activities. Additionally, Nah Tah Wahsh created a strong community-based school that fosters a sense of pride and belonging among students, their families and staff members.
Even with this longstanding commitment to positive student learning outcomes, Nah Tah Wahsh was designated a "Priority School" (i.e., the school was determined to be in the bottom 5% of Michigan's statewide Top-to-Bottom ranking) under the Michigan ESEA waiver. When asked to reflect on the Priority status label, William Boda, Director of Operations Management, described the response of the teachers and the administration as "upset." Superintendent Tom Miller echoed similar feelings about the Priority status. "I questioned why, how...I was defensive, very defensive about being on the [Priority] list."
Much like other Priority schools, the Nah Tah Wahsh teachers and administrators found themselves at a crossroads—either protest the designation and continue doing business as usual, or commit to instituting significant instructional changes. Teacher Heather Albanez describes learning about the school's status as "the proverbial kick-in-the-pants." The staff realized that if there isn't that change, then there isn't going to be that progress..."what we've always done isn't going to work."
Instead of fighting the designation, the teachers and administrators consciously decided to improve instructional quality by meaningfully using data to foster expanded opportunities to learn. Giving students chances to engage in academic rigor is just one example. Carol Swingle, the MSU MI Excel outreach specialist assigned to the school, describes these changes as: "There is a lot more focus on what we are doing instructionally...They use their data, and sit down with the students to do goal setting. Students are actually engaged with the data." Teachers also used student data to better understand overall achievement, and to garner further buy-in from students (around mapping individual academic growth and pursuing academic rigor). For instance, Albanez adds, "we use the data as teachers, but the kids use the data as a goal to help their achievement growth."
For Nah Tah Wahsh, using the student data allowed for the teachers to better understand the learning and the academic progression of their students. It served as a discussion point between teachers to collegially collaborate around improving instruction. Using data in these two ways aided teachers in improving the opportunities to learn within their classrooms, and across grade levels. Teachers also described the use of data as a tool to support students in developing personalized learning goals in the classroom—another key characteristic in broadening opportunities to learn and raising student aspirations for what is possible beyond high school.
The lessons that can be learned from Nah Tah Wahsh Public School Academy include:
- Embracing the Priority designation as an opportunity to improve student learning;
- Using multiple forms of data to drive instructional changes;
- Providing students with increased rigor and expanded opportunities to learn;
- Fostering a sense of community and belonging among all students and their families.