Closing the gap

Closing the gap

Closing the Gap
Reducing the achievement gap in high-poverty schools: Robertson County
 
Kentucky School Advocate
December 2016
 
By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff writer
 
Just a couple of years before elementary-grade students in Robertson County Schools took their 2015-16 K-PREP tests, the district’s dire financial condition had landed it in state assistance. A dozen or so employees, including teachers and instructional aides, were laid off. Scores after that, said Principal Jamey Johnson, “were in the toilet.”
Yet the district’s elementary school registered one of the top gains in the state for 2015-16 for closing the achievement gap. It boosted its gap score by more than 30 points,* while the school itself advanced from a needs improvement/progressing classification all the way to distinguished/progressing.

No “magic bullet” made this happen, Superintendent Sanford Holbrook said, “but in the end it was getting our kids to buy in. It was empowering our kids to want it. I’ve never seen anything like it. They knew what novice was – they didn’t want to be novice. They knew they were going to do better. They wanted their school to do better. They wanted something to be proud of.”

The school and the entire district’s overall turnaround to become distinguished put multiple strategies to work, many of which also lifted the gap score in all grade levels, but particularly the elementary school. In tiny Robertson County, the major gap group is poverty, as measured by its nearly 70 percent free and reduced meal rate.

The district was also part of the state education department’s novice reduction pilot last year. Johnson said there is a lot of crossover between gap and novice students, so any novice-raising strategies carried over to the gap students as well. “We can kill two birds with one stone,” he said. “It ended up being a triple because it knocked out our novice, raised our gap scores and improved our growth scores. That’s why we made so many gains this year.”

Data, data, data
The walls of a small room in the district offices are lined with student data sheets, and stacks of similar material cover a conference table. It’s called “the war room.”

“We analyze data like crazy and got the teachers to buy in and analyze the data as well,” Johnson said. “Everybody took ownership, from the administration to the teachers took ownership in the classroom and the students took ownership of their learning as well.”

Summer professional development for teachers also focused on data walls, he said. Teachers had them in their classrooms and the students were aware of their own data. “They didn’t want to see their code name in a novice category,” Johnson said.

Rigorous curriculum
The elementary school began using a new math curriculum last year that “is very, very vigorous and it’s improved our scores,” Johnson said. The program incorporates writing and critical thinking into math, third-grade teacher Treva Woods said. “I could just see such a difference in my kids’ thinking,” she added.

A supplemental computer-based reading program also was added last year that “keeps pushing” students, Johnson said. This year, the school began using a new reading program that the principal said is more rigorous and challenging.

Extra help
The elementary school last year began using its extended school services funding for school-day work with small groups of students “on the same level,” Holbrook said. Two retired teachers work with the groups.

“Then we started pulling out the higher kids to get them to the next level,” the superintendent explained. “It wasn’t just to help our kids who were falling a little bit behind academically – we used it to help make our kids stronger in subjects.”

While targeted students received extra help, so did teachers, who got some tips and ideas for instruction from the two education recovery specialists the state education department deployed to the district.

All hands on deck
When the district was at a low point after being placed in state assistance, administrators decided to call in all staff, classified and certified, for a mass meeting during a snow day in 2015. There, they played a video of a state school board meeting in which the district was painted in unflattering terms. “In that room that day they cried and they got mad and came up with a plan about how every human in this building could have an impact on what happened. I think that’s the day they turned,” said Holly Linville, the district’s instructional supervisor.

“Each little group came up with their own ideas on what they could do,” creating 30-, 60- and 90-day plans, she said.

Celebrating success
Because the district has a single K-12 school, sharing successes is contagious, Holbrook said. Younger students get excited when they hear the high school is 100 percent college and career ready, for example.

Johnson said students can make their own intercom announcements about successes, communicating the message to all grades.

“Every little success we had last year … we celebrated,” Holbrook said.
 
What is gap?
Kentucky’s accountability system gauges the performance of student groups that historically have had achievement gaps – ethnicity/race, special education, poverty and limited English proficiency. It calculates the students in these groups who score proficient or distinguished in all content tests, but counts each student only once, even if they overlap among groups. This is called the nonduplicated gap score. This year, novice reduction targets for each group in reading and math were added to the formula to come up with a total gap score. While Kentucky’s accountability system currently is being overhauled, gap is sure to continue to be measured in any new system, given the importance both federal and state education officials place on it.
 
Board View: Motivating students is key
 
The key to reaching students in gap groups, said Robertson County school board Chairman Dr. John Burns, is to get those students “believing that it’s important and them believing that somebody is really interested in the students doing well.”

Burns, who has a daughter in the second grade at the elementary and two other children at the high school there, said the district’s “war room,” where individual student data lines the walls, is symbolic of the key to closing the gap. It shows students that their teachers and staff are interested in seeing that they do well, he said.

“Every student’s name is on that board,” he said. “They know every student’s weaknesses and strengths. They know what students need to get to the next level. I think the students are aware that somebody is really keeping up with them.

“I think if there was any one key to the success, I think the development of that war room would probably be it. Every student’s name is on that board and it doesn’t take long that way to find out what any student needs.”

Burns, an eight-year veteran, said the district has improved since the board “was blindsided” several years ago when a state education department official came to its meeting to explain the extent of the system’s financial problems. Since then, he said, “It’s been a group effort with everybody, I think, from the teachers, the students, the staff, everybody really putting out a tremendous effort.”
 
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