Hard work pays off: After PSSA setbacks, Osceola Mills Elementary leads district; scores above state average

In July 2012, Osceola Mills Elementary Principal Linda Smutz stood in front of the Philipsburg-Osceola Area school board explaining numbers that projected her school to blow away the district’s other four buildings on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments standardized tests.

Two weeks later, those projections were washed away when the state issued a list, naming OME one of the bottom 15 percent of all non-charter public schools in Pennsylvania, qualifying students for scholarships to a list of specific private schools. None of Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District’s other schools were named to that list.

At the next board meeting, Smutz was being grilled about the school’s performance. The administration tried to explain, but when the evidence is a report from the state and a letter to every student’s parents informing them of the low performance and scholarship opportunities, it’s hard to refute.

Until last week.

That’s when the state issued a new list of those worst-performing scores, and no P-O schools are on it. The district was notified Jan. 28 by Carolyn Dumaresq, deputy secretary of the state Department of Education, that the school’s scores on both reading and math PSSAs had pulled them up far enough to be removed.

But for Smutz, the results are more than just not appearing on the list. They are the culmination of years of work to improve the school’s academic performance. The school did not just perform better than other poor-performing schools. They didn’t even just lead the pack of P-O schools, as projected back in July. The new numbers were even more impressive than that. According to numbers released by Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis, Osceola Mills Elementary’s math numbers are now topping the state average.

The percentage of students achieving proficient or advanced levels at the school came in at 82.5. The state average was 75.7 percent. The district average is 70.5. Numbers improved in reading, too, with 68.6 percent proficient or advanced, more than the district average (67) and just under the state average of 71.9. The numbers on the science PSSA were even more impressive, 81.5 percent, more than 20 percent above the state average of 61.4 and the district’s 59.9.

“Many people wrongly assumed that meant the school was getting worse,” said Superintendent Stephen Benson in a statement. “That was/is not true. Osceola Mills has been improving each year. Prior to last year, the community had no knowledge of the school’s statewide ranking.”

That is because the 2012-13 list was the first such list put out by the state. There’s no way, said Benson and Smutz, to judge how far the school had been climbing year to year before that.

“We were not all of a sudden awful in 2011,” said Smutz.

That is the other confusing thing. Last fall’s list was not based on the recently completed PSSA scores, but on the year before. This month’s announcement reflects the tests students took last spring.

Smutz attributes the change to her staff.

“These people have worked their hearts out to improve their instruction. I’m just blessed,” she said. “They are fantastic.”

Changes the faculty has embraced in recent years, she said, include “rounds,” like doctors sharing information about patients, where teachers observe each other in non-judgmental ways to see what is working in different classrooms to borrow for their own. They’ve also implemented other teaching changes based on research and curriculum change.

“(In the past) curriculum was much less challenging,” said Smutz. “Students perform to the level of expectation. We know more about what great instruction looks like. The extent that people are willing to change to best practice, well, you see the results.”

“Clearly, implementing best instructional practices and investing in professional development made the difference for our students,” Benson said.