“A principal must create an environment in which teachers can teach and students can learn.”

—Von Sheppard, former principal

  • St. Paul, Minnesota
  • St. Paul Public School District
  • Grades PK-6
  • Urban
  • DTM awarded in 2005

School Overview

Recognized as a Dispelling the Myth school in 2005, Dayton’s Bluff Achievement Plus Elementary School went from being one of the lowest achieving and most chaotic schools in St. Paul to being a normal Minnesota school.

In 2000, Dayton’s Bluff was known as the worst school in St. Paul. Located in a tough part of the city where crack houses were easily spotted, 9 out of 10 children could not read on grade level. Although many resources had been provided through a local nonprofit organization — resources such as a medical clinic, housing counseling, and other community services — achievement hadn’t budged.

One teacher recalled, years later, that in the mornings little was taught or learned, but in the afternoons — after children came in from the melee of lunch and recess — nothing was taught. Teacher turnover more than matched the high mobility of the children — most years half the teachers left, and many never even finished a full year.

To address such a high level of dysfunction, the school district negotiated an agreement with the teachers union to repost the jobs with new requirements for additional professional development, meaning that existing staff had to reapply for their jobs. The district hired back about one-third of the teachers, found jobs elsewhere in the district for the rest, and assigned a new principal, Von Sheppard.

Years later, Sheppard said that he walked into “the wild, wild West” at Dayton’s Bluff. Students and their parents wandered the halls and teachers didn’t feel safe. After spending time establishing an orderly climate, Sheppard focused most of his time on improving instruction, determined that his students — most of whom lived in poverty and most of whom were students of color — would, at the very minimum, be able to meet state standards.

“It is so important to dispel the myth that these children can’t learn to high standards. There’s a belief system out there that they’re not as smart as white kids. We’re on a mission to conquer every myth and every test.”

With training and materials from America’s Choice — a whole-school reform model — teachers began the slow process of improving instruction, and by 2005 the school’s student achievement was similar to many middle-class white schools in Minnesota.

After Sheppard left in 2005, the school went through some difficult transitions. It was combined with a nearby school and then suffered through a number of severe budget cuts. But through all those difficulties, it has never fallen to the level that it was in 2000.

Today Sheppard is an assistant superintendent of Boulder Valley Public Schools and writes and speaks frequently about school improvement, including at the 2013 Ed Trust national conference.

Updated 2013

It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2007) profiles Dayton’s Bluff Achievement Plus Elementary School.

Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2011) features Von Sheppard, former principal of Dayton’s Bluff.

Ed Trust 2013 webinar series, “Building a Profession,” featured Von Sheppard.

Kappan Magazine published an article by Von Sheppard about his experience as principal of Dayton’s Bluff.

School website

Great Schools profile

District website

More information about academic achievement inMinnesota