Board Addresses Achievement Gap at Latest Meeting

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achievement-gapBy Nicholas von Wettberg   

Under California’s current student-weighted educational funding policy, known as the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), the Davis Joint Unified School District (DJUSD) currently lies somewhere in the middle, compared to other school districts, in the amount of funding it receives.

Nonetheless, District trustees are making the most of its subsidiarity role, granted through the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), and remain steadfast in implementing the policy’s long-term goal of closing the achievement gap for state students.

In fact, the Board feels strong enough about the topic that it has requested a monthly discussion on closing the achievement gap for Davis students.

At Thursday night’s meeting, inside the Community Chambers, interim Superintendent Kevin French took part in a presentation that focused on programs and practices at the elementary level aimed at narrowing opportunity, and providing both academic and social emotional growth.

A pair of DJUSD elementary schools was highlighted in the district presentation, Marguerite Montgomery Elementary (MME) and Birch Lane Elementary. They were selected for their progress in closing the achievement gap.

“Our focus is boots on the ground,” French said. “What’s out there, what are we doing, what’s working and how do we know it’s working?”

The intention of the presentation was to provide a template of the best practices specific to both the central office and the sites that can contribute to a successful implementation of any program put into place.

“But we know that no program, in and of itself, say if we bring in a reading program or a math program, can be successful without having certain conditions in place,” French said. “And some of those conditions are what Principals work on every day, all year to create a culture that works towards closing that gap and specific to those programs.”

French added: “Things like having staff know what evidence based instruction is. We can present on that. Knowing that a rigorous curriculum and high expectations are paramount to address the achievement gap and paramount for every student. And we have those.”

Associate Superintendent Clark Bryant said there is research that shows a number of factors influence how successful they are at implementing strategies for closing the achievement gap.

Bryant said the district’s administrative leadership team attended the recent Equity Summit, which was held at UC Davis, in March. The event featured a keynote address by Pedro Noguera, Professor at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University.

Among the elements Noguera highlighted to ensure the correct mechanization: concerted effort and focus, maintaining effort, building our capacity, checking our progress and responding accordingly, and the suggestion of systemic responses.

Feedback on student progress, according to Bryant, is provided through consistent assessment, with the district varying professional development to meet the students’ and teachers’ needs, creating opportunities for collaboration across grade levels and across school sites.

A system of consistent benchmarks and interim assessments is in the works, with help from the district’s Teachers Leading Curriculum Group, in areas of reading and math, from the SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) interim assessments, and from those already embedded.

The student achievement data program, Illuminate, is an information resource that provides feedback for teachers, “so they can make data-driven decisions while they’re involved in evaluating student progress and effectiveness of programs,” Bryant said.

In the framework of determining program and practice, the district provided six elements; identify need, determine research-based response, select implementation strategy, measure results, review results, and determine the next steps.

Among the other elementary school programs addressing the achievement gap are the State Preschool Reading Program, the Extended Day Learning Opportunities – Bridge, The Extended Day at Marguerite Montgomery, English Learner Services, Elementary Counselors, and the Family Resource Center.

Birch Lane Elementary Principal Jim Knight spoke on behalf of his school, providing details about programs implemented to address student needs in areas of Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

As a district, nearly one out of every five students, or approximately 1,600 out of a total of 8,500, are free and reduced lunch, or low SES.

Another district-wide demographic provided was the amount of English Learners, with a total enrollment of 950 students.

To better learn how Birch Lane Elementary supports underperforming students, Knight said they are focused on its response to intervention (RTI), which, in this case, would entail only the SEL side.

“I think to really look at the RTI at our school you have to look at some of the things we began with this year,” Knight said. “The first thing is our site council realized that we needed some more support in response to intervention. Our pieces were there but we didn’t have a cohesive framework, so the site council funded a .2 FTE response to intervention specialist.”

In order to solidify a better framework for the RTI process, the site council recommended implementing a system based on research, by Mike Mattos, titled, “Simplifying Response To Intervention.”

In the school’s SEL triangle, the bottom division – tier one – is made up of primary prevention services directed to all its students, such as school-wide rules; classroom community building; restorative conversations, love and logic; and classroom SEL instruction.

Early intervention services make up tier two, with a reported 15-percent of Birch Lane students affected, while tier three, intensive services, accounts for only five percent of the student population.

According to Knight, Birch Lane conducts academic conferences, three times yearly, the first with the school’s RTI team (himself, ER/RTI specialist Saskia Mills, school counselor Susan Carrell, the classroom teacher, a special education teacher, when needed, and a math coach).

“We look at every student in the school in the fall academic conference,” Knight said. “We track every support system that they have, whether it’s academic, or it’s social emotional. We use that on a Google Doc so we can use that against some longitudinal data so we can support students over years.”

School-wide structures should soon be fully in place through the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) program, whose target goals include reduction in behavior referrals to counselor or office, increase in positive responses in Climate Surveys, and increase in students who meet smart goals.

Marguerite Montgomery Elementary Principal Sally Plicka delivered the academic side of the night’s presentation to the five-member Board.

The first of three programs, highlighted by Plicka, was the school’s summer reading program, challenging what they term as “The Summer Slide,” the period of time students are most likely to experience a dramatic drop-off (anywhere from 3 to 6 months worth) in literacy skills.

Plicka said research and experience shows that once an elementary school student develops a pattern of failing to catch up during the school year, only to fall behind, once again, during the summer months, their reading level by time they reach the sixth grade could be two years behind that of their peers.

Citing a sustained emphasis on literacy and particularly on reading by the Montgomery school community, Plicka said that type of support is ensured through events, challenges, and group readings.

Library books are available to students six weeks during the summer, four hours a week.

For targeted students, says the soon-to-be-retiring leader, three reading programs are available: the research-based “Bag Full of Books,” a traditional Jumpstart (for 1st & 2nd Graders), and the combined Readers Workshop/Summer Bridge (for 3rd through 6th Graders).

Students in the “Bag Full of Books” program get to take home 10-12 books, of their choosing, at their current reading level, for the summer.

“In the meantime, we meet with parents to explain why they have been selected to be in this program, our hopes for summer reading for them,” Plicka said. “We gather summer phone numbers and we try to call home once a week and try to talk to the parent or the student. We ask them how’s it going, what have you read this week, what are you excited about, and what did you learn?”

Of the 70 students that took part in the program, the school was able to collect what they call “clean data” on 52 of the participants, from which 88 percent reported no drop off, or an improvement in their reading ability.

Another program MME held during the summer was a targeted readers’ workshop/summer Bridge program, a unique, one-of-a-kind offering with parts of it data-based. Students were selected on their reading scores and on a social-emotional piece.

“Because a key component of this is relationships,” said Plicka. “We know the students need to be ready to learn, so we took into account the relationship that we had with that student, that the teacher, our own teachers taught the program so the teacher who was going to teach that summer, what relationship did we have with that student, how would the students do together as a group, and what was our relationship with the families and the parents.”

Enrichment is another key component to the success of this particular program, according to Plicka, who says enrollees are in need of background knowledge and a variety of experiences.

With data collected from 40 students, 95 percent of them showed improvement, or maintained their reading level.

Some of the next steps for the program, down the road, are monitoring student achievement throughout the year, and continuing to offer the summer reading programs through the help of a LCAP grant that was recently submitted.

Another one of the programs at MME, academic conferences, presented with it the challenge of differentiation for students.

“We have a wide variety of needs at Montgomery,” said Plicka. “We knew from the search that some type of collaboration is key to schools that close the achievement gap.”

The staff created a rotational schedule for its three 4th Grade classes, involving Science, Library and Physical Education.

On Friday, each class has a 40-minute period for the three subjects, which provides a two-hour block of time for teachers to engage in activities like curriculum planning, common assessment, and differentiated response for learning for students.

“Every student has a period of time for 40 minutes a day, four times a week, where they are in a particular targeted intervention, or targeted instructional period that is determined by the work these teachers do together,” Plicka said.

The kinds of activities students engage in during that time are English language development, and differentiated forms of reading, writing and math.

As a result of the academic conferences, all staff members assemble three times yearly to assess data (reading scores, writing levels, math levels, previous groupings) from the entire grade level, dividing students in the appropriate groups based on their need.

Some of the types of groups are traditional ELD (English Learning Development), ELD with a writing focus, ELD with a reading focus, and writing enrichment.

“We have students who are not English language learners and who are working at or above grade level,” said Plicka. “This is a wonderful time to provide enrichment and with that writing enrichment is also usually based in literary analysis, so we really take our literacy to the next level.”

Plicka said one of their goals for next year is to improve on the assessments, particularly, in writing and math.

The final highlight, as a part of Marguerite Montgomery Elementary, and its progress in closing the achievement gap, is the school’s two-way bilingual program, which was first broached in 2012.

After the research was finished, Plicka said they found the program to be a match for the needs of the students, demographics-wise, especially to the benefit of English language learners.

The three key components that make up the two-way bilingual program are high academic achievement for all students, the gift of bilingualism for all students, and the gift of biculturalism.

“Which was something our community was extremely interested in developing at Montgomery in ways they hadn’t had a chance to do before,” Plicka said, in reference to the biculturalism piece.

In the Thomas and Collier graph, research shows that the biggest gains, and overall highest NCE scores were from students in a two-way bilingual program, which can be interpreted as a representation of not only closing the achievement gap for English language learners, but also allowing them to excel, and move forward in an academic path.

The two-way bilingual program is important to the school, Plicka said, because it represents an asset model for language development. The presence of a balance in exchanges between English and Spanish-speaking students is also critical, in terms of engagement and participation.

Following the school presentations came time for the Board to discuss ideas, make comments and ask questions, with the issue of closing the achievement guiding the conversation.

Trustee Susan Lovenburg asked if there was any type of good data, minus the SBAC testing, that showed a positive benefit to the Montgomery two-way bilingual program, which includes students from this year’s second grade class.

“I think that the data that we have, currently, is more represented in our reading numbers and the kinds of intervention work that we do,” said Plicka. “And that’s probably also more at this point qualitative, and just in terms of the social-emotional pieces, the student connectedness, the family connectedness portion of that.”

Picka brought up the data generated through the YouthTruth Survey, which aside from revealing to educators that DJUSD students are ready for greater academic challenges, it also shows that district students respond high to things like community/adult engagement and feeling safe in their school environment.

Board member Alan Fernandes began his segment with a reminder that closing the achievement gap is by no means a new concept, and that, back in 2007, a 22-member task force was set up by the same DJUSD Board to tackle the issue, coming up with an eventual list of 11 recommendations.

Topping the list, according to Fernandes, was “making hiring people of color a top priority throughout the district.”

Fernandes asked how much of that report, and its recommendations, are taken into consideration, or currently implemented.

Bryant said that, over time, particular attention had been paid to the issue of climate, and the district’s overall hiring practices.

In a staff document, available prior to the meeting, it states: “Unfortunately, DJUSD also has an achievement gap which mirrors state and national trends.”

Trustee Fernandes asked for clarification on the rationale, and if the statement had been sourced, or data-driven.

Before receiving an answer, however, Fernandes, who serves on the district’s invaluable Strategic Planning Committee, circled back to the bigger topic at hand.

“As this Board attempts to really make progress on the achievement gap, I really want to have our community define what it means, where we are, what we’ve done – how do we monitor the relative success of that?” asked Fernandes.

As far as the statement that the district’s achievement gap mirrors that of state and national trends is, according to Bryant, a result of standardized testing comparisons, through devices, like the SBAC.

The data reveled that a wider gap existed among students that came from families where a High School diploma was the highest level of education.

When pressed on the matter, Bryant admitted the difficulty in identifying any true means of progress, mainly because of the switch the state made in testing methods.

Bryant did confirm that some gains had been seen in low-income students through data, specifically, API scores from the California Standards Test.

Fernandes directed his next question to Principal Picka, who was asked what aspect, or program, at her school, best reveals to her that progress is being made in closing the achievement gap.

“I think that is a really big question, but as I think about it there are a few things that come to mind for me,” said Picka. “One is the slide that Clark had earlier about the best practices around closing the achievement gap because everything that I’ve read leads me to believe there’s no one program, there’s no one curriculum, it’s about having these best practices, the shared leadership, the school-wide focus on a student need.”

Community involvement continues to be a major strong suit for the Davis school community. In fact, the two-way bilingual program, according to Picka, was started by a group of parents, teachers and staff that all worked together, which could be viewed as a building block, or component to narrowing the achievement gap.

Board President Madhavi Sunder wrapped up the discussion, thanking the staff for the presentation, which she called, “so educational, but also so, I think, meaningful in the way that you brought in specific programs at specific sites, the principals, without none of whom it can happen.”

“I really appreciated getting the focus on elementary today and the staff report says the next time we meet a month from now, we’re going to look at the programs that we have in place at the secondary sites, so Junior Highs and High School. I think that’s a really nice way to start getting at a very big issue, a very big challenge that we’ve been tackling for a long time and continue to do so in new and innovative ways.”

Sunder noted that identifying an achievement gap, in a university town like Davis, could be a daunting task, and one of the reasons for that is there is a large population in just one elementary school, while the other reason is, that, although there are students, district-wide, struggling to achieve their potential, the actual amount of them is not enough to make them visible.

Echoing the shared leadership mantra, Sunder pointed out that closing the achievement gap is not the type of issue in which the district can come to the Board and say “fix this, or this needs to be fixed,” but, rather, the goal for each party is to say “how can we help?”

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