SIOUX FALLS | It only takes five minutes in a Laura B. Anderson Elementary School classroom to see students there like learning.
When teacher Fred Jackson asked his fifth-grade students to solve a multiplication problem on the board, their pencils popped up almost in unison.
Down the hall of the northeast Sioux Falls school, Kim Runia's classroom of second-graders raised their hands excitedly, practically fighting for a chance to demonstrate appropriate behavior for "independent reading time."
"This is one of the happiest groups of children I've ever encountered," Principal Jayne Zielenski told the Argus Leader . "They are smiling, and they have every reason to not be smiling."
More than 8 in 10 of the kids come from low-income families or other groups that traditionally fall into achievement gaps. They're smiling, but they're not all excelling academically. In fact, about three-quarters of them are testing below proficiency on state reading and math tests.
But that doesn't mean they're not learning.
This fall, Laura B. Anderson students saw enough improvement in standardized test scores to move the school up a level in state rankings after two years of classification as a "focus school," meaning kids in those achievement gaps were doing particularly poorly on standardized tests.
It's an impressive achievement, especially because the school moved in and out of the "focus" category in two years, the shortest possible time-frame within the South Dakota Department of Education's classification system.
"It's difficult to move the needle, especially when you're talking about large numbers of students," said Mary Stadick Smith, spokeswoman for the department.
But now that the ranking has changed, Zielenski faces tough choices to keep the momentum going, especially as "focus"-specific grant funding runs dry for the school.
"We definitely will have to back down a bit on something because there just won't be the funds there," she said.
Zielenski doesn't want to downplay the hard work of Laura B. Anderson teachers and support staff in favor of a funding discussion, but she recognizes giving teachers time to provide thoughtful, data-driven instruction costs money.
Laura B. Anderson first received its designation as a "focus" school in 2015.
Focus schools differ from other school classifications because the designation places less emphasis on the overall school performance score — a compilation of data including test scores, student growth and attendance rates — and more emphasis on the performance of what the state calls the "gap group."
The most recent definition of the gap group for the state includes students from low-income families, black, Native American and Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and students with limited English.
Zielenski doesn't know exactly how many LBA students fall into that gap group, and, frankly, it's not important, she said. When she learned LBA had dipped into the "focus" category, she wasn't looking at subdividing students.
"We needed to raise our expectations for every single one of them," Zielenski said.
Improving student performance started with getting a very clear picture of where they were starting out. And that meant using student data to set goals.
Second-grade teacher Nicole Larson talks about goal-setting with her students as a way to "grow our brains."
In the last two years, Larson and other teachers at the school have worked more intentionally with tracking the progress of each individual student and differentiating instruction so all kids are working at their level.
In practice, this might mean instead of having all kids reading the same book, Larson might break the class into three groups, with each group reading at a different level.
Fourth- and fifth-graders in Katie Ellwein's classroom work on math on their Chromebooks, using a program that adapts as students answer questions correctly or incorrectly, again, helping students learn regardless of the starting point.
"When they're working at their level, they're more engaged," Larson said.
Amanda Parker has seen the effects of differentiating instruction firsthand in her own child's progress.
Her daughter, Gabrielle Parker, was a third-grade student at Laura B. Anderson last year and was learning beyond her grade level.
"They put her in an advanced class at LBA," Parker said. "She was learning the cells in the body and plant organisms. She was teaching me things by the end of the school year."
Parker also appreciated the attention teachers gave to setting long-term goals. Her daughter was among several students who took a field trip to the University of Sioux Falls to see what college is like and what they're working toward.
In a conference room near the principal's office at Laura B. Anderson, an entire wall is dedicated to visualizing student performance.
Multicolored index cards span various categories of student achievement. Each card has a student's name, photo and description of their performance on the most recent assessment.
"This is what made the difference," Zielenski said.
Of course, a wall full of index cards isn't responsible for the academic growth of 320 students, but shifting to a data-driven teaching model played a major role.
Teachers met regularly in teams that bring together special education teachers, reading specialists, English language learner teachers and any other support staff who interact with kids.
Everyone has a seat at the table, and they create consistent assessments to see how kids are doing in math and reading at any point in time.
For example, third graders may all answer the same three questions about a reading assignment. Their performance on that small assessment then helps teachers get immediate feedback as to how kids are doing so they can pace their lessons accordingly.
"There's no wasted learning time in a classroom for a student," said Instructional Coach Stephanie Muchow.
The level of teacher collaboration is aided by the consistent professional development Zielenski has provided her staff.
When Laura B. Anderson became a focus school, it received additional federal grant funding to the tune of about $26,000 annually.
A portion of that extra money paid to send teachers to conferences with professional learning communities. Zielenski said getting all her teachers to these training opportunities helped create buy-in for the data-driven instruction model.
Part of the grant funds also went to cover the costs of Summer Climb, a two-year-old summer learning program the Sioux Falls School District started to improve reading and math scores in schools with high rates of poverty.
Zielenski hopes to continue offering Summer Climb and professional development opportunities for her teachers, but she recognizes the school's belt will tighten.
The federal grant continues one more year, but then Zielenski knows her budget will need to get more "creative."
Laura B. Anderson teachers will continue to use data-driven instruction, and the index card wall in the office isn't going anywhere.
Where the changes likely will come is in the amount of time teachers have to collaborate. Last year, teachers took a full day each quarter to meet and go over student progress.
In future years, the funds may not be there to hire substitutes for these full-day meetings or send teachers to conferences as frequently.
Zielenski's not worried about the quality of instruction, though. Teachers already have a commitment to meeting students where they are and helping set goals.
Larson, for one, said the move to focus school gave her more drive to help students succeed. Now that the school is in the "progressing" category, she's going to keep making sure her students keep moving forward.
"When students have clear goals," Larson said. "They come to school with a purpose."