Students important element in turning around Leslie County school
By Madelynn Coldiron
When you hear about school turnaround, you think of leadership changes, intensive teacher training, new strategies – all steps taken by adults aimed at helping students learn and achieve.
At Leslie County High School, all those things happened – but students are more than receptacles for these changes: they are players.
PHOTO: Tenth-grader Cheyenne King works on a project involving the periodic table of elements in herphysical science class. Each student contributed by researching a different element.
“We use a lot of data,” said Principal Kevin Gay. “Students take ownership of their own data – that has been part of it.”
Leslie County High is among the 10 schools in the first batch of persistently low-achieving schools singled out for improvement by the state education department in 2010. Two additional cohorts have been added since then.
The vehicle for the student data is a notebook maintained and analyzed by each student – at this point, one for math and the other for English. Science will be added next year. The notebooks contain daily tests, unit tests, worksheets, attendance records, goals, benchmarks, syllabuses and even graphs to chart their progress.
“It gives ownership to the people who need ownership of the data,” Gay said. “The kids know what their data is. They know every assessment they take is important for their education. Our students before were just blowing that off.”
Every quarter, the school has “Data Days,” several days set aside for teachers and administrators to meet with the 500 students individually or in small groups to review their data, look at their goal setting and find ways to help those who need it, Gay said.
“This has been a ‘together’ effort,” said Ruth Ann Collett, leader of the science professional learning community. “The kids have worked very, very hard. If they hadn’t bought into it, it wouldn’t have worked.”
Keeping the notebooks is not that much work, said junior Donovan Roberts. “We just review what we missed and you know what you can do to improve.”
Teachers maintain similarly voluminous notebooks to keep tabs on students and their progress, along with curriculum materials.
Now heading into its third year as a PLA school, Leslie County High saw a nearly 14 percent increase in students scoring proficient or higher in reading and math between 2010 and 2011. The composite ACT score increased from 17 to 17.3 during that period and the school met all 10 No Child Left Behind targets in 2011. Further, in-school suspensions have plunged from 124 during the first quarter of 2010 to 33 in the same period last year.
“We really have changed over two years. The gains we’ve made and the changes we have made have really been phenomenal,” Gay said. “We’re still not a model school in every area, but we have some pockets of excellence.”
Students also were instrumental in the first step of the turnaround process: developing the school’s official vision, mission and beliefs.
“We talked to our kids about what they think a good education looks like. Our kids were right on track,” Gay said. “I thought we would have to tweak it a lot but we really didn’t have to, because they want to be engaged, they want to be challenged.”
The school’s beliefs have become a touchstone of sorts that are used in making tough decisions, he said.
“It has helped over the years. People can have different interpretations of them but they understand the intent, and that helps when you have issues. It takes the personal out of it, too,” he said.
Many other changes
In another early step, the school took a “systems” approach in retooling staffing and job descriptions, aligning them with district, school and student goals, all “working toward the same vision,” Gay said.
With the School Improvement Grant that funded the turnaround, the school added math and language arts teachers, a director whose function is similar to a school administrative manager and a student intervention manager who studies data and assessments. The person who filled a new central office position, director of academic performance, is also assigned to the high school. Gay said the district has tried to build sustainability into the SIG, and hopes to retain many of these positions later.
The school is using a timetable approach to systematic school improvement planning, complete with color coding to track progress in elements of school culture, academic performance and data analysis.
“We look at it weekly and revise it monthly,” Gay said. “It’s been a living document.”
Major changes for the teaching staff include formation of professional learning communities that meet weekly, classroom walk-throughs by a multi-person team and teacher growth plans, which are reviewed at least twice a year.
Students are getting extra time for studies via an extended school day. A 35-40 minute block is set aside each day for Response To Intervention, intense intervention for the bottom 20 percent of students, tailored to their weaknesses. The other students use the time to improve their skills.
Collett said teachers have worked hard to turn around the school. In her 24 years of teaching, she said, this is the first effort that has worked, “because it’s not just been one of those frivolous p.d. things you go through and never look at again. The follow through has been so thorough.”
Two years ago, the drafting of the school’s vision and mission, along with a general cleanup of the inside and outside of the building itself provided what Gay called “a quick win.”
But the turnaround process gets harder after a school has some success, he said, “because the issues get more intense. The issues get more complex as you start becoming a better school.”