If you asked around, you would be hard-pressed to find a teacher unfamiliar with the work of Dr. Robert Marzano. Although parents may not be as familiar, his work greatly influences the lives of students throughout the country, which now includes those in Dickinson.

Marzano is an internationally recognized leader in educational research who compiled 40 years of research into High Reliability Schools, a framework for making schools the best they can be. In the beginning of the school year, Dickinson Public Schools decided to aim for certification in the first level of HRS, and this spring, each one of the district's schools has achieved it.

"Those are best practices in education that we've always been doing, but it kind of helps, that framework, to align all of our initiatives that we had and put us on one path forward," said Prairie Rose Elementary Principal Nicole Weiler.

To achieve level one certification, schools must prove that they have a safe, supportive and collaborative school culture. Level one is comprised of eight leading indicators:

  • 1.1: The faculty and staff perceive the school environment as safe and orderly.
  • 1.2: Students, parents and the community perceive the school environment as safe and orderly.
  • 1.3: Teachers have formal roles in the decision-making process regarding school initiatives.
  • 1.4: Teacher teams and collaborative groups regularly interact to address common issues regarding curriculum, assessment, instruction and the achievement of all students.
  • 1.5: Teachers and staff have formal ways to provide input regarding the optimal functioning of the school.
  • 1.6: Students, parents and the community have formal ways to provide input regarding the optimal functioning of the school.
  • 1.7: The success of the whole school, as well as individuals within the school, is appropriately acknowledged.
  • 1.8: The fiscal, operational and technological resources of the school are managed in a way that directly supports teachers.

"Those eight measures really focus on creating collaboration, encouraging input and feedback from various stakeholder groups including students and parents and everybody else," said Superintendent Shon Hocker. " ... The grounding foundation is creating ... a safe environment ... We're always talking about literal physical safety, making sure that schools are places that people feel are great safe places, but it also goes a little further than that to create a safe environment where you are encouraged to participate."

While the entire district must follow the HRS guidelines, every school has autonomy for how to implement them.

"Those eight indicators are non-negotiables. They have to be met, and every single building has to meet those, but the beauty is you can meet those in multiple different ways," Hocker said. " ... If you're goal for a kindergarten student was to count to 50 by Christmas ... that's a goal that might be expected amongst every kindergarten kid in the whole district, but every PLC (professional learning community) team, every school, could choose to go about that goal ... however they feel works the best, what works for them."

Dickinson Middle School Principal Marcus Lewton said the indicators were mostly things his school was already doing but that this provides a framework.

"For us, we took those eight leading indicators last year in school improvement camp," he said. "... We essentially laid them out on a whiteboard ... and we went through and we said, 'What do we already have in place? We already have all of these things covered. Where do we not do well?' We identified those and then we built policies or protocols or initiatives around those items and then that drove our whole school improvement plan."

Lewton likened the process to working on an old car.

"It's kind of like old cars need a tune up every once in awhile ... You're constantly taking the barometer of these different indicators — not all of them, but on the ones you've seen data prior and you notice that you might need improvement," he said.

In Prairie Rose Elementary, they worked on their faculty collaboration by focusing on their professional learning communities. They worked on discipline by implementing a school within a school.

"Kids get more of that SEL (social emotional learning). We have zones of regulation and support groups like that and different things our counselors and school social workers do, but this was more of an intensive program for some of our more intensive students that needed more of that social emotional piece that doesn't seem to be there," said Weiler.

The process doesn't end with certification. As schools move up through the five levels, they will continue to uphold the framework.

The school district received a U.S. Department of Education's School Climate Transformation Grant of nearly $1.1 million, which it will receive in installments of over $200,000 a year for five years, to implement the program. The school will continue to work through the framework, which contains five levels.