‘Leftover’ school enjoys success

Kevin Ramos Martinez, 10, answers a question from his teacher at Rawhide Elementary School north of Gillette as his classmates look on. Once a school that placed near the bottom of the state in testing, Rawhide now regularly places near the top. (Photo by August Frank, Gillette News Record)

GILLETTE — Bertine Bahige keeps a framed copy of Rawhide Elementary School’s red-shaded failing state report card from 2015-16 on the wall of his principal’s office.

Seven miles north of Gillette, Rawhide was known then as a leftover school. Many of its students were there because there wasn’t enough room for them in their boundary schools.

They were the leftovers.

That state report card had given the Wranglers the equivalent of an F, as in doesn’t meet expectations. But those “leftover” days have dramatically changed for the better, as have the school’s grades.

The school built in 1979 is now one of the most successful in the Campbell County School District. Now enclosed in the picture frame along with the 2015-16 school performance report, is one from 2018-19 in which the school came within a percentage point of being deemed exceeding expectations, the equivalent of an A-plus.

Bahige keeps the report cards on the wall to remind him where Rawhide was when he became principal. On the opposite wall across from his desk, framed photos of every grade and class line the wall.

From failure to improvement on one side and on the other the students that he, teachers and staff are working so hard for.

“Those show me where we were and what we’re here for,” he said. ”If we want to change the world around us, we have to raise the bar.”

It’s the teachers, working on the ground level, who are sparking that.

For three straight years, Rawhide’s scores on the annual WY-TOPP standardized tests, which those school report cards are based on, have risen dramatically and continue to do so.

A school for leftovers? That’s a reputation the school of 288 students is leaving far behind.

Kamron Hatzenbihler, a sixth grader who has been at Rawhide for the past four years, said he’s made “huge” improvements in his grades at Rawhide. He credits his teachers.

“I think it’s an amazing school,” he said. “I know about every teacher. They all care for you.”

The Wranglers are a family, he and other students said.

Randa Duncan has a son in the school’s kindergarten dual language immersion class this year. She was sitting in Rawhide’s front foyer on a cold, windy day to wait to drive her son the 20 miles to their home.

It’s worth the long drive because of the “ability to be comfortable, feel safe and having fun,” she said of her son. “I’ve been impressed,” she added.

“We were kind of last minute and didn’t know if we’d be able to get in,” Duncan said. “We did and it’s a real blessing from the Lord.”

Some observers credit the dual language immersion addition three years ago to Rawhide’s turnaround and reputation. But actually, those students have had nothing to do with it, except perhaps in adding to the school’s warm, welcoming atmosphere.

The state annually tests students from grades 3-8. The oldest DLI students at Rawhide are in second grade this year. While they will have a say in Rawhide’s test scores in coming years, they haven’t had the opportunity to do so yet.

It’s not as if teachers and administrators in every public school in the county aren’t working as hard or with as much passion as those at Rawhide, where on the average, the teachers have just five years of experience in the classroom.

And it’s not as if you can go wrong with any school in the county, the parents said.

But Rawhide? Well, that’s different.

“I highly recommend this school district and this school here,” said parent Kerri Becker. “My kids are on the bus one hour in the morning and one hour at night. I don’t regret that. ... it’s like a big family here.”

She has three kids in the school.

“They absolutely love it,” Becker said. “When they’re sick and I tell them they can’t come to school, my girls cry.”

According to the state report card, the school was failing in 2015-16, which was based on the 2014-15 PAWS test results from students.

Just three years later, Rawhide has earned the equivalent of a B or “meeting expectations” from an even more rigorous test, WY-TOPP. The school has done so in two consecutive years, 2017-18 and 2018-19. In the more than 10 years of state testing for accountability, the school had never met expectations until the past two school years.

The Wranglers have even higher aims.

Bahige credits the improvement to his teachers and the entire school. They have all bought in and are “rolling in the same direction,” he said.

Teachers like Jennifer Farnes, who teaches sixth graders and is the Campbell County School District’s Teacher of the Year in 2019-20, point to more collaboration.

Parents and students point to the community feel of the small school.

It is what’s going on beyond the classroom that has led to this achievement.

Understanding what the school grades are based on helps observers reach conclusions. But many factors contributing to better results are elusive for many schools.

At Rawhide, they’ve found the needle in the haystack and hope it doesn’t slip through their fingers.

The Title 1 school ranks in the top five in Campbell County for student at-risk factors including mobility (the number of students coming in or leaving school); families who qualify for free and reduced lunches based on their income; and new English language learners, said Troy Zickefoose, the district’s director of curriculum, assessments and professional development.

Historically, students with those risk factors tend to do more poorly in school. The odds are stacked against them. But that is no excuse at Rawhide, which has 49% of its students on free and reduced lunches, 16.6% mobility and 15% English language learners this year.

The disappointing results of another consultant’s report sparked the school’s turnaround, Bahige said. That’s why he keeps the report’s findings in his office, another visible reminder of how far his school has come.

Title 1 schools qualify for grants to support improvement measures. Three years ago, Bahige sought a grant to focus on Rawhide and look at how it was using its professional learning communities to determine the best way to help individual students.

He was devastated by the results.

The consultants told Bahige that they were so good at “doing the fluff” that they were failing their students.

“I went home and cried about it,” he said. “But that was part of being awakened. There were so many things we were not doing good. It really got me thinking. It’s about looking in a mirror.”

That mirror showed the school wasn’t taking advantage of its teachers and their PLCs, or professional learning communities. They weren’t diving into the test results deep enough and they weren’t establishing high expectations for teachers and students alike.

The school began to give teachers more time to spend collaborating on things such as delving deeply into a single student’s scores and looking at ways to improve results, even through interventions if necessary. Those weekly grade level and schoolwide meetings are sometimes tense and uncomfortable, with teachers confronting other “family members” they work with for not doing enough in their classrooms and the entire school to establish a culture of high expectations.

The teachers demand commitment from each other.

“At Rawhide, they have weekly data talks to try to make good decisions to be successful,” said Deputy Superintendent Kirby Eisenhauer. “It’s like an individual learning plan for all students.”

The decisions are determined by data, and both Zickefoose and Eisenhauer said that’s made the difference at the school.

“One size fits all, I don’t think it’s a good approach,” Eisenhauer added. With Wyoming’s testing, it’s all about student improvement all of the time. “If you’re successful one year, it’s harder to be successful another year.”

But Rawhide has defied that trend despite its young teaching staff.

“It says they have an accurate realization on the needs of the school,” Eisenhauer said.

Or, as Bahige puts it, “once you take a bite of success, you want to have more success. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a challenge.”

The proof, as they say, is in the data.

In 2017-18, Rawhide met expectations in growth and exceeded the target in equity, one of the most difficult measures for schools to achieve.

The following school year, Rawhide improved even more, exceeding targets in growth and equity.

Every school’s needs are different, Eisenhauer said. What works at Rawhide might not work at another school.

“It feels good,” said teaching facilitator Michele Sturdevant, who often has sat in on those testy meetings in her office, where the names of students and efforts to improve their results paper the walls with sticky notes.

This is where success breeds success, said sixth grade teacher Devan Jones.

“The kids from the beginning to the end of the school year are taking more pride in themselves,” she said.

They, too, are beginning to believe.

More important than anything, Farnes said, is the teachers’ relationship with their kids and the rapport they develop. It’s also the culture of the school and that “family” vibe.

Unique combination

That isn’t what Kael Thomas, 11, expected when he moved to Gillette with his family. But it is what he found.

The sixth grader was nervous the first day at his new school. He was a second grader then.

“But everyone here was so nice and welcoming, it felt a little overwhelming,” he said. “I like every class because all the teachers are very nice. All the teachers care about you.”

“I think it (Rawhide) is a little inspiring. I’m motivated,” said fifth grader Chandler Nobach, 10.

Elias Gonzalez, 11, had attended school in Washington state for many years before going to Rawhide this year.

“Basically, whenever you have a problem, there’s people and teachers that can help and take care of you. There are people that care,” he said.

Their sentiments are echoed by parents.

“I really do believe this school makes all the difference,” said Katrina Means. “The environment here fosters that. ... I’ve never seen people like here. When there’s an activity (such as cultural night), the whole school shows up.”

Perhaps it’s the combination of a family feeling and the rural leanings of a small school that helps put the pieces into place at Rawhide. It’s hard to say for sure.

But whatever it is, it is no longer a school for leftovers. It’s where students and their parents want to be.

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