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Closing the achievement gap means keeping the focus on what’s important

Liza Weidle

Using data as a basis for researching programs that target raising achievement and then measuring progress of the program makes sense. It’s one of the strengths of the Wake County Public School System (NC) and what’s behind the Raising Achievement and Closing Gaps (RACG) Advisory Committee. It’s also the reason certain staff members including David Holdzkom, Evaluation and Research Assistant Superintendent, wear a superman sticker. Wake students need more people to be superman. Wake students need people dedicated to ensuring their success. People who will study research, implement promising programs and allow time to measure results.

The RACG advisory board, established in 2003, studies data provided by Holdzkom’s department and programming ideas to recommend strategies that work. One idea that came from the group was to provide a time for teachers to meet in professional learning teams (PLT). After considerable research, it was determined that providing an hour a week on a Wednesday would work best for teachers and students. The effort implemented in 2009 required shifting bell schedules in a way that allowed for a one hour early release every Wednesday. The idea behind the effort called “Wake Wednesday” was to help all students. Once implemented, Chief Academic Officer and RACG Advisory Co-Chair Donna Hargens toured schools to see how the plan was working. What I’ve seen is very focused, directed, targeted discussion about what teachers can do tomorrow to help kids improve and they are sharing what they know about kids,” Hargens said. “They are sharing strategies. They are development SMART goals. What I see is absolutely no time wasted in doing the targeted, strategic things that will help students learn.”

Study circles were forming at high schools to use the hour early release time effectively. Positive changes that impacted low achieving students were starting to happen. The RACG advisory was encouraged to hear about the progress and were anticipating a report after the initiative had been in place for a year – a reasonable time to measure effectiveness of a program.

A new school board majority voted into office in November 2009 made the decision to halt the practice. Dubbed “Wacky Wednesday” by some parents who found it difficult to manage their child’s activities when released early on a regular basis, the school board cast a vote in December 2009 to abolish the practice suggesting that teachers could work out time on their own to keep PLTs. The school board did not want to wait until the effectiveness on raising achievement for children could be measured.

Most teachers and administrators rallied and kept the momentum going this school year, albeit on their own time and in a creative ways. One elementary teacher stated that the Wake Wednesday felt like such a validation of efforts and a refreshing time to focus efforts. Time stolen before school, after school, and at lunch are used to piece together efforts to share ideas and practices that work. “It’s more difficult now, but we are trying.”

A report released earlier in January shows that the teachers are doing more than trying to close gaps, they are doing it. “PLTs, when implemented over time with consistency at a school level, can positively impact EOG/EOC results and other student outcomes such as attendance rates and student school survey ratings.”

                                         

With the measured success of providing a dedicated time for PLTs, it would make sense for the school board to revisit establishing a schedule that permits PLTs to meet regularly. It may mean providing more creative solutions for parents who have challenging schedules. The YMCAs and other local day care providers rose to the challenge by providing coverage for children, some at no extra cost for parents.

Creativity is what is now leading to establishment of Academic Achievement Academies: Supporting Schools and Students. This effort set to launch next month will provide after-school tutoring in reading and mathematics to students identified at 26 elementary and middle schools as ones who are performing at Level 1 or Level 2 on End of Grade tests or who are not currently meeting benchmarks. Transportation and snacks are provided at no cost to parents. According to Darryl Fisher, Sr. Director of Elementary Programs, this effort is “going beyond words to action.”

Other ideas from the RACG advisory board include reviewing benchmark assessments mid-term. This will help determine if strategies are working and help target areas to improve before a child is at-risk of failing.

Holding summits to share best practices and encourage staff is another effort of the RACG advisory board. A summit highlighting 12 schools was held in August. On February 5, another is planned to empower parents, students, and community members.

It is my hope that the summit that includes greetings from our new superintendent, Anthony J. Tata, will stir our community to rally behind positive efforts to raise achievement and get the focus back on learning and teaching.

Closing the achievement gap is one of the breakout sessions for the 2011 Mom Congress. What strategies are working in your schools? Please share ideas below.

Learn more on how you can be a part of 2011 Mom Congress by clicking here. Don't delay, deadline to apply is January 31.

Liza Weidle , a founding member of Wake's RACG advisory board is the NC Mom Congress delegate and author of "Truth about Parenting: Navigating the Elementary Years."

 

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