By Jennifer Wohlleb
What did an abscessed tooth teach officials from Erlanger-Elsmere Independent Schools about improving student academic achievement?
"We had a student who was in our alternative school for a short time, just constantly angry," said Superintendent Dr. Kathy Burkhardt. "He had an abscessed tooth and his family didn't have dental insurance. He was in pain. We finally got him in (to a dentist), and he is like a new student and has transitioned back into the high school."
PHOTO: Dr. Kathy Burkhardt, superintendent of Erlanger-Elsmere Independent Schools, makes a point during her presentation at KSBA's conference.
She said those types of problems are often at the bottom of students' academic issues, but because districts don't have that type of data or don't even think about asking those kinds of questions, the way educators approach those problems is ineffective.
Erlanger's use of non-academic data has enabled district officials to make academic strides through non-educational approaches. They shared their data-driven approach to holistic and academic interventions for students during a clinic session at KSBA's 78th annual conference in February.
"We've been focusing on the academic for a long time, as most everybody has," Burkhardt said. "We get the data, try to use the data to help students, but students aren't numbers. And our approach that we've taken in looking at students is not just, 'What do we need to do to raise test scores,' because we know that test scores are really for us. What are we doing for them? What are we doing to find out what's going on with them?
"In our district, although we look at test scores and we use them to inform what we're doing, we have some things that helped us change our focus in looking at the whole adolescent."
By collecting data from a number of sources, the district was able to start putting together a clearer picture of not only the needs of individual students, but to see patterns and issues that had been invisible barriers to academic achievement. The district uses data from Infinite Campus, the TELL (Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning) Survey, student and parent surveys and interviews and focus groups, among other sources. But its biggest source of information has come from the Gallup Student Poll, for which the district has been serving as a pilot for its enhanced survey of fifth-12th grades.
Burkhardt said basic Gallup Student Survey data is available free to all schools, but said the enhanced version allows them to drill down to the individual student, see their responses and get a goal sheet to work on with them.
"There are questions about hope, engagement and well-being," she said. "One of the questions is: imagine you are a ladder, what step are you in life right now, one or zero being the worst, 10 being the best? We had kids who put zero … those are the kids we have to find."
She said Gallup's research has shown that hope, engagement and well being are key factors in students' academic achievement.
"Hope has proven to be a better predictor of academic success than academic aptitude," Burkhardt said. "So if a student thinks they can, they are more likely to be able to do that. When we looked at this, they have a lot of data that shows if you can build hope in a student, their academics are going to go up, they're ready to learn. This is the piece we're missing. If you just look at the (academic)data and say, 'This student needs reading intervention, this student needs math intervention,' maybe they don't need either of those; they need hope."
School board Chairman David Bird said this approach aligns with the district's mission statement, which is to embrace and attend to the individual needs of its students, regardless of the obstacles.
"As we reviewed our interventions, we began to cross reference our academic and non-academic data, and we knew we had to address the changes in the needs of our students," he said. "The student population is dynamic and the needs and the barriers to success were changing, so we had to change our strategies."
Identifying barriers in students’ lives through non-academic data made it easier for district officials to reach out to others in the community to either partner with or send students to for wraparound services.
The greatest barriers they identified are: physical/dental/mental health, homelessness, substance abuse, out of school time, abuse or neglect, incarcerated parents, low self esteem, hopelessness, lack of involvement, divorce and grief.
One of the biggest changes this data has led the district to make was finding more before and after-school activities for students, who complained there was nothing for them to do when they went home. The district now offers more extracurriculars and programs based on student feedback.
"If you look at high-achieving and low-achieving schools, engagement is usually part of that," Burkhardt said.
Since beginning this approach, Erlanger's Lloyd High School has moved from the needs improvement category to distinguished. "And it was in the top 10 percent of all high schools in Kentucky, and also in the top percent of high schools that showed growth," Burkhardt said.
She said there also has been improvement at the middle school, particularly in terms of students sense of well-being and hope. In the first year of the Gallup Survey, a large number of fifth-graders at one elementary school said they did not have an adult in their life who cared about them.
"So that school started having lunch buddies. Our maintenance people helped, some of our district people helped, we had Big Brothers and Big Sisters," she said. "Two years later we had 100 percent (on that question). Now those are different kids, but 100 percent of them said they had someone who cared about them."
The different data sources allow them to find students who may not be showing up as being at-risk, but those who are in the middle and on the brink of going one way or the other.
Burkhardt mentioned one high school student who on the surface didn't seem to be struggling, but when the data indicated she might be having problems and a counselor sat down to speak with her, they found out she was close to dropping out, despite having satisfactory performance and attendance.
"What the counselor found out was that every day her mother was telling her, 'You need to drop out and go to work, we need the money. I don't know why you're going to school, there's no reason for you to go to school because our family needs for you to work.' Her brother was having similar problems," Burkhardt said.
The district worked with both the student and her mother.
"Last year she graduated and I will tell you, on Honors Night, they announced her name at least four times," she said. "She was one of the top-performing kids and she could have done that all along, but we would have missed her and she would have dropped out … her Mom was right there with her and she was beaming. We had to help them to get to that point and lot of people were involved, but now she is at Northern Kentucky University.”