When Reva Vangates was brought in as principal of Dr. Henry W. Mack/West Little River Elementary in Miami three years ago, the school had received F grades from the state three years in a row.
"It was eight days before school started and nothing was in place — no curriculum, no scope and sequence, and eight teacher slots were vacant. There were no books, supplies, or furniture, and the grounds were unkempt, with rodents and other pests. My team and I didn't know schools like this existed," says Vangates, who'd been assigned the new post as part of superintendent Rudy Crew's school recovery movement.
Miami-Dade is just one of the72 percent of Florida school districts labeled "failing" under the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires schools to prove students displayed Adequate Yearly Progress in math and reading for two years running. Nationwide, the figure is a startling 27 percent.
As states bump up against the first deadline under the legislation, an increasingly charged atmosphere of public debate is raising a host of issues, from fears that schools' curricula is being dangerously narrowed to accusations of test score manipulation (see The Politics of AYP").
Despite the many criticisms, proponents say NCLB's tough stance is forcing states and districts to take the action necessary to ensure all students achieve. Technology & Learning spoke with districts across the country taking on the AYP challenge. Their common thread: strong leadership and a commitment to technology-driven reform.
Progress in Miami
Back at Dr. Henry W. Mack/West Little River Elementary, Vangates hit the ground running with a small crew of teachers and clerical staff she'd brought with her from her former school, plus a group of slightly disgruntled substitutes pressed into service from the district office.
Located in a low-income area, Dr. Henry W. Mack had recently been designated as one of 39 schools in the newly formed School Improvement Zone. Ninety-six percent of students were on the free lunch program, with a large minority population comprising 70 percent African Americans and 29 percent Hispanics.
First on the list: a paint job, new playground equipment, and a clean schoolyard. A major infusion of technology was a second high priority. Working with her head teacher and a reading coach, Vangates wrote and won enough grants to buy $400,000 worth of Dell computers, including laptops for all 26 teachers, a computer lab with 60 desktops, and 12 computers for every classroom. Interactive whiteboards from SMART Technology were also purchased for classrooms, and Knowledge Adventure's Classworks management system was put in place to align curriculum to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, state standards, benchmarks, and strands. Other grants have come from CitiBank and the Federal Voluntary Public School Choice Program.
Third, fourth, and fifth grade students were the first targeted group for AYP improvement, with lab time every day spent working with Pearson's SuccessMaker curriculum and assessment software. The site is also using LeapFrog SchoolHouse products — Vangates discovered 300 unopened LeapPads in a storeroom. Now the school is becoming a full-fledged LeapFrog center, with $225,000 worth of products and older pads checked out to parents so they can work at home with their children. Also implemented at the school is the Waterford early literacy reading program, the Achieve's KidBiz 3000 reading software, and Cognitive Concepts' Earobics phonics program.
Professional development was another high priority. Vangates organized teacher leadership team meetings by grade level to get staff up to speed on using data to drive instruction. Teams meet weekly with data coaches for step-by-step training in how to determine where students are deficient so teachers can customize instruction, and electronic grade books reduce staff grunt work.
The school is also changing the face of the surrounding community. District workshops are being conducted in the new lab, and a parent training program is getting families up to speed, already having given away 45 computers, a year's worth of Internet access, and printing supplies.
Vangates' multiple efforts have paid off in a steady, significant way as evidenced by the progress of third graders on the state's FCAT test. In both reading and math, yearly growth has averaged about 10 percent, bringing the school's state grade from an F to a D, and this past year, to a C.
Tech Tie In
Eyes on the Prize: It's About Student Learning
One-third of students drop out of school before graduating. Equal numbers, including some of the brightest students, attend school but simply go through the motions, feeling disengaged. We offer concrete strategies, an innovative planning process, and technology tools and trends that have the potential to transform teaching and learning.
Visit www.techlearning.com/events and click on Chicago 2006 to access conference presentation materials on this topic.
Closing The Gap in Charleston
When Nancy McGinley took up the post of chief academic officer of Charleston County School District in South Carolina, she came armed with the expertise to tackle an alarmingly high dropout rate. Her intervention experience was garnered from years in Philadelphia's Middle Grades Matter program.
With a history of placing in the bottom quartile of state tests, Charleston was seeing a 40 percent dropout rate as early as the 9th grade. The middle schools were bottlenecks for low-performing students, with 17 percent of 8th graders two or more years overage, many as old as 17 or 18.
McGinley knew from her own research that many kids who are labeled "special ed" early on make minimal progress. "If a child goes to 9th grade reading and computing two or more years below grade level, they have only a 50 percent chance of graduating from high school," she says.
Enter McGinley's Middle Grades Acceleration Program (mGap), an initiative she terms "academic intravenous." With a first-year pilot specifically focusing on 50 percent of the 8th graders retained for one or more years, the mGap program includes a high dose of math and reading literacy combined with a health and self-esteem component.
To make this happen, McGinley got creative with funding. Recognizing that the newly reauthorized IDEA now permits use of as much as 15 percent of Title I funds for intervention, she funded dedicated mGap teachers rather than just reducing class size across all grades. Six classrooms throughout the district were designated as mGap classrooms, and educators began the process of data mining to diagnose and customize instruction as needed.
mGap classrooms were set up with a variety of software programs from Scholastic, AutoSkill, PLATO Learning, Renaissance Learning, and others to catch up students on fundamentals they missed years ago. To measure student individual growth and gauge the success of the program, McGinley worked with the Northwest Evaluation Association to develop a county-wide MAP (Measures of Academic Progress).
Among the challenges faced by the district in this pilot year of the program were logistics and staff development issues. With only six mGap classrooms across the 100-mile district, transporting kids to the locations has been a busing headache. Plans for next year include classrooms in each of the five geographic zones comprising the district, with a focus on North Charleston, the area most in need of intervention.
Like Miami-Dade's Vangates, McGinley made highly qualified staff a priority. She budgeted time to "refine and define" the profile of what a highly qualified teacher looks like, including a willingness to get up to speed on technology and 21st century skills. Some teachers, she says, were "not a good match." The result was shifts in personnel and some contracts not being renewed.
With its emphasis on mental health support, smaller class sizes, technology, and the chance to work alongside same-age peers, the mGap program is already proving the successful intervention McGinley intended it to be. McGinley also says the examples of mid-year promotions to high school and opportunities to complete high school credits in electives such as keyboarding are making kids excited about learning for the first time. So far, a comprehensive survey of the mGap program reveals a two-thirds decrease in suspensions, and a third of 8th graders are earning high school credits.
East Allegheny: Galvanizing Community
At East Allegheny High School in western Pennsylvania, getting parents and community buy-in has been crucial to meeting AYP requirements. The predominantly lower- and middle-class 1,000-student district is located in an area transforming from a steel town to a center for technology and medical services. With a large transient population and only 7 percent of parents with an education beyond high school, establishing the vital importance of preparation for higher education has been a considerable challenge.
In 2005 only about one-third of East Allegheny's high school students scored "proficient or above" on the PSSA (the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment). To meet the mandate of increasing 11th grade performance, principal Gary Pfeiffer enlisted math and reading coaches and the school counselor to craft a pull-out program in which underperforming students build up basic skills.
The school's tool of choice was Apangea Learning's SmartHelp, a one-to-one intelligent tutoring solution that provides a mix of scalable software resources and interaction with human tutors. Although designed for use as an e-learning tool, SmartHelp is used primarily on the school site because only about half of student homes have Internet access.
As in Charleston, formative assessment is a core part of the program, with students testing three times a year to determine growth and areas of need. Using Scantron's Performance Series, the school customizes tests with a combination of elements from the standards-aligned PSSA and district assessment instru-ments.
Teachers are trained in data mining and effective instructional design. Reading and math coaches walk educators through test questions in reading, math, and social studies, helping with analysis of areas and specific questions where students are underperforming. They also assist staff in realigning curriculum with standards.
Challenges, says Pfeiffer, include staff and student weariness with the ongoing testing and frustration with the time needed to focus on basic skills, despite his efforts to avoid "drill-and-kill." Once students have raised their scores adequately, however, the opportunity to enroll in Web design and other technology courses is a motivating reality.
Results from the district assessment tool show early gains of a modest 3 percent, with returns on the statewide test still not yet in.
Big Island Leadership
In West Hawaii, Superintendent Art Souza has chosen to address AYP issues through fostering a culture of leadership and vision.
With the second highest number of failing schools — 66 percent — Hawaii is faced with a unique set of challenges. The big island of Hawaii is home to 20 exclusively rural schools with just under 14,000 students representing an ethnically diverse mixture of Hawaiian, Asian, and Caucasian populations. According to Souza, most schools fall in the Title I category, and a large percentage of students receive free or reduced lunch.
Exacerbating the high-poverty level is the state's inability to retain teachers because of the exorbitant cost of living. In addition, the once plantation-based area has undergone a transition to a resort economy. "Many kids aren't interested in this type of work, and so there's a high rate of migration as they seek jobs elsewhere," says Souza.
Souza, who came to the position 14 months ago after years as a high school teacher and principal, presides over 3 of the state's 50 schools currently undergoing restructuring. His approach to improvement begins with seeding an institutionalized philosophy among administrators on how to identify rigor in the classroom. "We need to develop a laser focus on what's important," he says.
Souza's answer was to craft four initiatives focusing on leadership and a shared vision across schools and throughout the community.
The first initiative targets principals. Using Polycom videoconferencing combined with in-person visits, the district is working in partnership with the Harvard Change Leadership Group to train South Kona administrators in new models for education leadership that include increased collaboration in the field.
Souza's second initiative is to develop a K-12 construct for increased curriculum articulation among teachers to help create "a long view." A third focus is community building. To that end, Souza opens schools from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. at night so students, parents, and community members can receive after-hours instruction. "My vision is to have school become the business of the community, not just a standalone element," he says.
Infusing technology into schools and beyond into the community is Souza's final initiative. He has tapped into the expertise of the state-level education administration to set up tech training classes for laid-off hotel workers in the area. Also offered is a credit recovery program through NovaNet, which allows working adults to receive high school diplomas. Other projects include an elementary school pilot with LearningSoft's Indigo mobile response systems and a partnership with Dell's TechKnow program, which targets middle school students for computer donations and technology skills training.
Funding dreams for Souza's initiatives means prioritizing the budget and taking advantage of grants, such as the 21st Century grants created during the Clinton administration. New assistance is also forthcoming from the state. Unlike its counterparts, the state of Hawaii comprises a single school district, and historically every student in the island chain had been allocated the same amount of money. But a new formula basing money on financial and educational need means West Hawaii stands to benefit. Sixteen months after Souza's plans went into effect, the number of failing schools has gone from six to four.
Susan McLester is editor in chief of Technology & Learning.
The Politics of AYP
Some critics cry foul.
There has been no shortage of controversy surrounding Adequate Yearly Progress.
Narrowing the curriculum is one tactic that's made headlines. Schools across the nation are cutting back on subjects such as social studies, music, and art to make more time for reading and math, and in some cases even tripling the class time that low-proficiency students spend on these subjects. At Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High School in Sacramento, California, for instance, 150 of the 885 students spend five out of six class periods on math, reading, and the required P.E. Critics of this approach say we're boring kids and killing their appetites for learning, while proponents point to increased scores.
Another point of dispute is whether results are being calculated in a fair way, because NCLB allows states to adjust both their tests and the formulas by which they compute adequate yearly progress. Accusations of manipulation have been leveled against Oklahoma, where the percentage of failing schools went from 25 percent to a suspicious 3 percent in a single year.
High-stakes sanctions without precedent are also accelerating political involvement. Last winter, the Maryland legislature blocked a bid for a state takeover of low performing Baltimore schools, and in August, upheaval over the firing of a progressive superintendent in the floundering St. Louis School District has generated newfound calls for a state takeover there.
School choice has proved another sticky issue. Last May, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings came under attack for allowing some Virginia schools to provide supplemental educational services to students in lieu of facilitating their transfer to a higher-performing school, as stipulated in NCLB. In Los Angeles, parents are threatening the state and district with lawsuits for failing to adequately educate parents about transfer policies. And in July, the state of California was served six weeks notice to craft a clear transfer plan or risk losing part of the $700 million federal Title I funds earmarked for high-poverty schools.
The ripple effects of the current scrutiny of our nation's public schools are not likely to subside any time soon. The precedents being set by legislative responses to underperformance, sanctions against educators, districts, and states, and what some are terming the "drastic" manipulation of traditional curriculum, add up to a revolution in education not seen before in this country. How it will shake out remains to be seen.
Meet Me in St. Louis
In Missouri, videoconferencing is bringing opportunities to students across the state.
To address AYP mandates, keep the dropout rate under control, and provide all students with equal opportunities to go on to higher education, the Cooperating Schools Districts of Greater St. Louis, a consortium of 61 districts serving 320,000 public school students, has turned to one technology in particular: videoconferencing.
The cornerstone of the CSD's videoconferencing efforts is a 20-hour ACT review program. Polycom videoconferencing equipment is used to connect students from five districts across the state as a professional teacher from the Princeton Review conducts review sessions. Students take exact simulations of real ACT tests at in-person sites three times during the course to increase their skills and confidence.
Normally priced from $700 to $900, the program is made affordable through the Missouri school improvement program, which picks up extra costs and awards need-based scholarships. Junior students typically pay $125 for the course.
Ruth Litman Block, director of the Virtual Learning Center, says other offerings include an anatomy course taught in partnership with St. Louis University Hospital; a mock trial program conducted in collaboration with the St. Louis County library; and an "author visits" program that pairs up students with professional writers.
Following are just some of the vendors being used by the districts featured in this article.
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Northwest Evaluation Association
Pearson Digital Learning
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Tom Snyder Productions (Scholastic)