At the last Highland School Board meeting, Asst. Superintendent Sarah Dudley-Lemek gave a presentation on a School Comprehensive Education Plan [SCEP] aimed at improving the district’s Elementary and Middle Schools.
Dudley-Lemek said New York State targeted Highland, “as needing improvement basically, in both our Elementary and in our Middle School, specifically, last year it was for our African-American and Black students.” She said this is a smaller percentage of the district’s overall student population, “but this means that our target group did not perform as well as they should in the 2018-19 state assessments.”
Dudley-Lemek said the two building teams spent time, “talking, working and listening to put together these plans. We heard from students, parents and teachers and we did this through some surveys, through our focus groups that Dr. LeBlanc led, and I did a lot of interviews of teachers, both individually and in groups, to get a feel of where they felt the work needed to get done.”
Dudley-Lemek categorized the process as “intense,” starting with building TSI [Targeted Support Improvement] teams at the building level that collect and review data. From this, five goals were created: an English Language Arts goal, a Math goal, a Survey goal and two School-Specified goals. The end result is to create an action plan and timeline, which will be ongoing over multiple years.
Middle School Principal Ryan Judge said at his school they compiled a diverse group of educators to assist in developing a Math Goal action plan, with a focus on how to move the entire school community forward. Last fall the school administered the STAR math assessments at each grade level to set a baseline. At the end of the 2020-21 school year the goal is for students to achieve a 10% score growth above their fall baseline.
Dudley-Lemek said 7 years ago the district decided to follow the Common Core model but now, after much turnover in the math department, the aim is to provide consistency through the students Middle School years.
Middle School’s ELA data showed that on the 2019-20 STAR Assessment just 44.9% of the students were reading at grade level. Judge said although these initial numbers, “might not look wonderful...and is absolutely where we do not want to be,” he pointed out that nationally it’s worse; only 34% of Middle School students were reading at their grade level. He said by the end of this school year we’re hoping to “push that level to 52%,” but he conceded that some students are multiple years below their grade level and bringing them up to their grade level may take a few years.
Judge said consultants will provide instructional coaching for students and also peer coaching for teachers. He said the district will be resurrecting the “Just Read” program and add an independent writing component known as “Scribble Scrabble” that is focused on evidence-based writing.
Judge said the district needs to hold events, starting virtually, to make Middle School parents partners in their child’s education. He said a monthly newsletter and a bi-monthly coffee hour have been started as a way to improve communication with parents and students.
Judge said a school-wide Positivity Project will be initiated, “where the students and various community members share what they love about Highland because overall if people feel great about their community they will want to be more involved.
Judge said the district will be addressing issues of racism, “which is very important to not only the whole community but to the subgroup of African-American and Black students.” He said in 2020, 67 percent of survey respondents stated that that the district, is addressing this but Jude is hoping to raise this to 80 percent in 2021. The district plans a complete curricular review using New York University’s Culturally Responsive Report Card, with Dr. LeBlanc assisting with professional coaching.
“We will soon be establishing a building-level equity committee to look deeper at these topics, specifically to the Middle School and one of the things that will definitely help guide that work is our school climate survey that will be conducted very soon.”
Elementary School Principal Joel Freer said his school committee has been working on these issues and compiling surveys for years. Starting with English Language Arts, Freer said in 2018-19 there were 22 African-American students across grades 3 through 5. Eighteen students took the NYS ELA test and 16 of those scored at level 1 and most at 2. He is hoping by the end of this year to have all 22 students take the state test and to reduce the percentage of students scoring 1 or 2 by 20 percent.
The ELA Action plan includes reading specialists monitoring progress by using Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Learning Skills [DIBELS], a series of tests that are used to assess K-8 literacy. An Instructional Support Team and counselor, is streamlining data recording forms and Teaching Assistants are providing reading and writing instruction in small groups.
A content specialist from BOCES is continuing professional development and the district has purchased a Teacher’s College Digital Resource Library as part of the ELA action plan.
Principal Freer touched upon math goals at the elementary level. He said in 2018-19, 17 African American/Black students out of 23 took the state math assessment test. He said 13 of these students scored at level 1 or 2, an indicator that this is an area that needs attention. He would like to see 100% of the students in this group take the test and reduce the percentage of students scoring 1 or 2 also by at least 20%.
The district will also be piloting a math fact fluency program, known as Reflex, a computer-based program targeting grades 2 through 5. It will first be used in the Academic Intervention Services department to see if it will be effective building-wide.
Freer noted that an elementary level survey sought to determine if the curriculum exposes students to diverse cultures, beliefs and backgrounds. He said six percent of the faculty and staff thought this was not in place this year and Freer hopes this will drop to one percent by June. He said it is important to expose students to diversity early on as it can have a positive affect for years to come.
The survey goal also calls for purchasing representative titles for the classroom and school library; using the BOCES content specialist to provide teachers with professional development on trauma-informed instruction and culturally responsive teaching strategies.
Freer said they have also focused on social and emotional learning, with 20 percent of the faculty saying there should be monitoring of large group settings, such as during recess and in the cafeteria, to recognize bullying.
Freer said chronic absenteeism has been another issue at the elementary level, noting that this is slightly higher at 16.2 percent in the district’s African American/Black population. By the end of the year Freer hopes to bring this more in line with the buildings typical absenteeism rate of 15% and perhaps even lower. The school will be carefully scrutinizing patterns of attendance and will clearly communicate with teachers, parents, counselors and administrators on ways to prevent a student from becoming chronically absent. The goal would be to reinforce positive changes in attendance patterns on the in-person days when that is identified.
Asst. Superintendent Sarah Dudley Lemek acknowledged that this Plan is late and should have been ready in September of 2020.
“But truthfully we had so many other things that we were working on at that point in time that it just did not become the priority. However, we knew that this was work that needed to be done, so much of what is being shared in the plan is work that we already have been working on, we just didn’t get it written into the plan,” she said. “It’s not that we’re just going to be starting this work in February, it’s ongoing work across the school year.”