By Madelynn Coldiron
Laurel County Schools closes the achievement gap early and often – early, as in grades K-3, and often, as in two to three hours of reading for those youngest students every morning.
PHOTO: Sublimity Elementary (Laurel County) third-graders review their vocabulary words.
It’s among the districts that have gotten better at closing the gap at every grade level – elementary, middle and high school – in each of the past three years of the state’s Unbridled Learning accountability system. Several of its elementary schools are now near the top of the state for gap score. That score is a measure of the percentage of proficient and distinguished students who are in traditionally underperforming groups – ethnic minorities, special education, poverty and English language learners – against the goal of 100 percent proficiency in all five subject areas. School and district gap scores are part of their overall score in the state’s accountability formula.
The main factor in Laurel County’s steady progress in closing the gap has been the district’s K-3 reading initiative, said Elementary Education Director Jane Gabbard.
“Districtwide, it’s a two-hour reading block first thing in the morning,” she said.
Using the same material and curriculum, K-3 graders in each of the 11 elementaries spend their first hour at school on reading. For the second hour of reading, they break into small groups. Through formative assessments three times a year, teachers are able to identify students scoring below the 50th percentile on reading and design strategies to help them during this, and other, times.
The very lowest performers are given a third hour of reading aimed at getting them to grade level.
“It’s the most important piece,” said Todd Cox, principal of Sublimity Elementary School, which raised its gap score from 42.6 in 2011-12 to 70.3 most recently.
The reading program and professional development for it were funded through a five-year grant from the Elgin Foundation, which also sent coaches and trainers to the district. Now in its fifth year of the grant, Laurel County is producing teacher leaders to carry on the work.
The entire staff of each elementary has been trained in this reading program, said Deputy Superintendent Denise Griebel, and they all band together during those reading hours. “Whoever is loose in the building,” she said. “It’s all hands on deck.”
The initiative was not easy to carry out, Cox said. “It’s hard, it’s a challenge to implement. But the training part and continuing support with training is what really made it successful,” he said.
The idea behind the reading concentration, said Griebel, is, “If they can’t read, that’s going to impact every subject.”
Those other subjects are not short-changed, Gabbard said. Science and social studies are integrated into the reading materials, and students at the primary level get an hour of math each day.
“Our math progress has basically improved alongside our reading,” Griebel said, while Cox pointed out his school ranked second in science among elementaries statewide in the most recent K-PREP tests.
In closing the gap for special education students, the district’s approach is to provide those students with access to core programs that are for all students, said Special Education Director Jackie Risden-Smith, and creating time in the schedule to reteach what they not have mastered.
“If your core is strong, if your general ed program is strong, if you’ve got the reading program we’ve got in the district here, and you can add to that individualized education program so they can access that, then you’ll close your gaps. It’s that simple,” she said.
Special education teachers co-teach with regular teachers in core classes, which helps with the reteaching they do later. About 12 percent of the district’s students have Individual Education Plans.
Cox cited these other gap-closing, achievement-boosting strategies, some of which are used in other schools in the district, or used districtwide.
• In-school and/or after-school extended school services provide tutoring at all schools. Cox said tutors focus on “middle kids, some of our apprentice, high apprentice and low proficient.” The tutors include retired teachers and newly certified teachers in search of a job.
• Workers from AmeriCorps, the national community service program, work in several schools. In Sublimity’s case, they focus on literacy. “I’m able to keep the small groups small and (AmeriCorps workers) get that experience,” Cox said. “I’m able to use them to tutor as well as do some pullouts and interventions.”
• Implementation of a math approach called automaticity at elementary schools. Sublimity uses a computer program that is an extension of that for grades K-5, with students gathering for math lab for 45 minutes or so every morning before the first bell rings. Districtwide, teachers also use “conceptual” math, which focuses on concepts behind the math rather than rote memorization.
• Science enrichment is provided to Sublimity third, fourth and fifth grades through Somerset Community College and from students at South Laurel High School.
Barbourville Independent: It’s all about the individual
A district’s accountability score encompasses all students in a district, but when it comes to closing the gap, it’s all about the individual, Barbourville Independent Superintendent Larry Warren said.
“The last couple of years, we have striven to really break it down. When we get those assessments back from the state each fall, we look at every student – who they are, what did they do last year, what their needs are,” he said.
Barbourville has made steady progress in closing the gap over the past three years of testing. From 2011-12 to 2013-14, the elementary grades gap score went from 29.6 to 41.3; the middle grades increased from 35.8 to 52.2, while the high school’s score increased by 13 points, to 38.6.
The district also does formative assessments three times a year, using the data to identify which students need help and developing a plan for them, Warren said, “whether it’s utilizing the response to intervention program or our after-school extended school services. And we’ve also created some special classes in the high school and middle school that are inserted into the schedule.”
The district has hired a teacher and two instructional assistants to work with response to intervention, which is basically developing strategies and supports to meet student learning needs. But the superintendent worries that the district won’t be able to afford these employees next year, primarily because of the state-mandated 2 percent salary increase for all personnel.
For special needs students, Warren said, one key is “the tremendous amount of collaboration” between regular and special education teachers.
The low-income subgroup is significant for Barbourville, which has a 65 percent free and reduced lunch rate. But he said it still boils down to individual focus.
“Every child has different issues, different problems,” he said. “About 55 percent of my kids here are from diverse homes – either they’re living three days a week or five days a week with their mother and two with their father, or with aunts, uncles or grandparents 100 percent of the time. So lots of times when they come in here, you just don’t get that good follow-up at home. So you’ve got to know each child in the end, the individual.”