It was early 2020 and school administrators in Waverly's District 145 had just tied the bow on a new strategic plan that focused on improving student achievement outcomes and addressing behavior in the classroom.
Two weeks later, those classrooms were empty.
"We completed that process two weeks before we recognized that we had to go remote for COVID," said Director of Learning Angie Plugge.
In the moment, it seemed like a case of bad timing.
But more than two years later, it appears that strategic plan — with its emphasis on literacy and student behavior supports — allowed Waverly to cushion the blows dealt by COVID on student learning.
Waverly was one of the few districts in Nebraska that saw improvements in math and reading scores according to state assessment results released in November.
The number of students in grades 3-8 proficient in both subjects climbed by five percentage points to 56% in reading and 61% in math when compared to 2019, well above the state average.
"There are so many specific reasons why I think we've seen that growth. The last couple of years, we hunkered down and did the work," Superintendent Cory Worrell said.
The Waverly Board of Education approved a new strategic plan in 2020 that outlined a number of goals for the district, which is home to roughly 2,150 students.
The No. 1 priority of the plan was to improve student achievement.
To do so, Waverly implemented a new K-12 English language arts curriculum — an area with the biggest student need — as well as social-emotional learning curriculum to support student behavior, Plugge said. A new instructional model was instituted as well so teachers had an understood way of talking about effective instruction and assessment practices.
All of it was done against the backdrop of the virus.
"That's a lot even in non-pandemic times," Plugge said.
When COVID-19 forced schools to close in March 2020, Waverly officials had to scramble.
The district did not yet have a one-to-one technology program, meaning it had to supply laptops to students who did not have a computer at home so they could learn remotely.
Yet students only missed five days of instruction between school closing and remote learning beginning, Plugge said.
"I think we were really fortunate to have a community come together so quickly and continue to have that daily instruction even when we went remote," she said.
Waverly received $1.4 million in federal coronavirus relief aid — roughly $670 per student — that has gone to academic and behavioral supports, including expanded summer school, professional learning and a one-to-one Chromebook program.
The district's success on state assessments makes Waverly somewhat of an outlier. Other districts, like Ainsworth Community Schools, also saw improvement, but for the most part schools saw declines, in some cases significant ones.
Omaha Public Schools, for example, saw its math proficiency among elementary and middle school students drop from 30% in 2019 to 20% last spring.
At Lincoln Public Schools, scores also took a hit. Lincoln students in grades 3-8 were 50% proficient in reading and 48% proficient in math, down from 56% of students proficient in both subjects in 2019.
LPS officials, however, have raised the alarm about the validity of the Nebraska Student-Centered Assessment System, the state's assessment framework, citing changes to the test and that the same proficiency threshold is being used to measure progress in the latest results.
Waverly did see some declines on the ACT, which is administered to high school juniors as part of the state assessment framework. Scores are reported in terms of the percentage of students on track for college.
New school performance classifications — which are largely determined by the assessment scores — were also released Nov. 24. As a district, Waverly remained classified as great, the second-highest ranking, while LPS dropped from great to good.
Out of Nebraska's 244 school districts, 15% were rated excellent — the top classification — up from 12% in 2019. But 14% of districts were in the bottom needs improvement category, up from 10%.
Last week, Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matthew Blomstedt and state lawmakers outlined a number of areas to help districts where student performance declined to turn the tide, including early literacy, student mental health supports and high-quality instructional materials.
All are areas that Waverly has focused on over the past three years.
"We talk a lot about what we're doing is not shiny. It's not fancy. It's the work that you have to do," Worrell said. "We're a district that I think can really try to be one of those showcase districts."