Jim Smith is data and assessment coordinator at Twin Cities International Elementary School in Minnesota. Previously, he served as a middle school history teacher for 15 years.

Facing Challenges – Student Investment, a Culture of Learning, and Setting 4

I have been visiting Rum River South, a small, pleasant school in rural Minnesota. Along with their partner school, Rum River North, they are staffed with a cheerful and dedicated group of educators determined to center their teaching on learning. In our work together, we prioritize standards and talk assessment practices to help their students become engaged, successful learners and move on to their next steps in learning. When we talk about the three important questions kids have in regards to learning (Where am I now? Where am I going? How do I get there?), it takes on a whole new perspective for these students and teachers. You see, the teachers provide Setting 4 services for these K-8 students. Seven neighboring school districts send students to these two schools, where they will spend between 50 percent to all of their time in these alternative educational facilities. While there is an intensive focus on behavior, these fine educators are determined to find ways of helping their students become successful and invested learners.

It takes a student/teacher partnership to build student investment. In Nicole Dimich’s words, students must “clearly see and understand the connections among learning, homework, tests, instructions, grades and improvement. With this information, students plan how to move their own learning forward,” Design in Five (2015). In a traditional mainstream school, a culture of learning includes standards-based instruction, a visible student-friendly learning target, assessment practices based on formative and self-assessing practices, and student/teacher feedback built on a foundation of strong relationships. Difficult enough to accomplish in a traditional school but, at first glance, impossible to achieve at a Setting 4 school where the common trait shared by the students is that their behavior has placed them in an alternative educational setting.

Glance again!

This unique place, staffed by special education teachers, does focus on behavior, but not to the exclusion of learning. The goal of these educators in our work together is to identify critical-learning standards across all the grades, develop clear indicators of success, and build an assessment practice that looks at multiple ways of assessing progress. This assists students who have little success in school in beginning to see academic growth and understand next steps. For many years, there has been much talk about building school cultures addressing “the whole child.” This school has to look at the needs of the whole child to move forward, but they want to be sure that a standards-based learning system is a part of this culture. It is these practices that can help all students progress in their learning no matter who they are, or what label our educational system has attached to them.

If there is truly a vision in education for our schools to find ways for “all” students to succeed, then we must find a way for “our” Setting 4 students to succeed. If there is a way (and do not tell the folks at this school that there is not – they won’t believe you), they will find it and make it work. Teachers at these schools do not make excuses for students not learning, but find ways to make it happen. If a no-excuse culture of learning can happen here, and it does, there is no excuse for mainstream schools not to build a learning culture for all student where confidence soars and gaps shrink. It is the goal of the Rum River schools to return their students to the mainstream schools with the behavioral and academic tools to succeed.



Dimich, Nicole. (2015). Design in five: essential phases to create engaging assessment practice. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.


  1. Gillian Judson

    This is inspiring Jim. I celebrate the work these teachers are doing for students.


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