By Nicholas von Wettberg
At its regular meeting on Thursday, the Davis Joint Unified School District (DJUSD) Board of Education heard the third in a series of presentations from district schools about closing the achievement gap.
The multifaceted educational approach has been addressed on a consistent basis, under the guidance of Board President Madhavi Sunder, and the most recent report highlighted numerous programs and practices that are being offered to students in need at Davis Senior High School (DHS).
Interim Superintendent Kevin French prefaced the presentation, noting that with a school the size of DHS (enrollment for the 2014-15 school year was 1,715), the examples from the report were only some of the programs students had access to with a positive impact on narrowing the achievement gap.
French also mentioned the school had been going through a “Self Study” accreditation process, this spring, and that, according to a preliminary report filed by an assessment team, he was “pleased that tonight’s presentation is so tightly aligned with the findings and what I saw in here, and we didn’t have that discussion beforehand to see what Davis High was bringing forward.”
DHS Principal William Brown, who led the presentation, was accompanied by a number of the school’s staff, including Vice Principal Tom McHale, Academic Center Coordinator Marie Michel, Head Counselor Courtenay Tessler, and teachers Widgen Naegley and Kelly McInturf.
The first page of the report, presented through PowerPoint, drew on the overall profile of the site, listing its demographics (55% White, 18.5% Asian, 17% Hispanic/Latino, 4% two or more races, 3% Black/African American, 2% Filipino) and some of the students’ academic accomplishments.
“You know, left off that [accomplishments] list are National Journalism Journalist of the Year, a perfect score on AP Calculus exam, the Robotics champions, all-state musicians, national rated debaters, graduation rate, and college going rate…all the things that we’re really proud about and that stuff, that’s not hype,” Brown said. “It’s easily researchable, its really what happens here at Davis and it’s a big part of why there’s a lot of pride in our young people and it makes Davis a really special place to go each day.”
Brown backed the collective belief when he said that the achievement data pointed to a curriculum-wide achievement gap at DHS, and that it crossed all sections of student makeup.
Connecting with students on a social and emotional level continues to be a target area for DHS staff, according to Brown.
He added that, with such busy schedules, there are students left to cope with stress factors impacting their performance, and that the practices are some of the school’s approaches to meeting those challenges.
After that, Brown rattled off a list of the things, or approaches, put into place at DHS.
“We’re talking about Common Pace and Common Assessment, Later Start schedule, collaborative CARES, our counseling team, ACES, AVID,” said Brown. “We want to ignite a fire where there is none for the High School, starting with their 9th Grade transition in to the 10th Grade. We have a number of programs to help kids successfully transition from that Junior High life to a successful High School experience and then beyond.”
The CARES (Collaborative and Restorative Empowerment of Students) Committee, says Vice Principal Tom McHale, is a group of 25 classified and certificated members from the different academic departments, along with representatives from special programs, that meet monthly.
A leadership team consisting of an additional nine classified and certificated members from various academic departments meets weekly to talk about the topics of discussion for the committee.
“We are a very forward-looking committee dedicated to reducing the achievement gap and our efforts are focused on all of our students examining the programs that we have currently, finding better ways to assist our students,” McHale said. “During our meetings we also spend quite a bit of time at data, so we get regular reports, DNF lists, the different quarters, we look at SBAC test results, Youth Truth and California Healthy Kid results, and the student use of the Academic Center.”
One aspect the committee has looked at throughout the year, according to McHale, are certain intervention focus areas, nine of them, in particular.
A few of them are credit recovery (Academic Center), student outreach (Link Crew, AVID, Blue Devil Spirit Awards), and enhancing parent outreach to better serve the needs of low SES families, which is being done through an LCAP proposal via the committee sponsorship.
A mentor tutor program for English Learner (EL) students is also in the works, through a LCAP proposal.
Interaction among peers outside the classroom setting is crucial in the development of students representing underperforming groups, and the DHS counseling services not only offers students opportunities, like an all day workshop at UC Davis on writing literacy and poetry, it also provides them with culturally-relevant learning platforms.
Head counselor Courtenay Tessler said they have been very fortunate to have the backing of the PTA and the Davis Schools Foundation, which has allowed students in various programs to take four separate field trips throughout the year.
The trips have become such a success that the students are now more engaged than ever, and in charge of choosing the destinations for next school year.
“What’s so important is when the students are on the trip and they go to these conferences, for the very first time they’re with at least seventy-percent of people who look like them, are like them,” Tessler said. “They don’t have that experience in Davis and they’re doing activities and programs with people they can relate to. And the SAYS conference is coming up tomorrow where we take kids to work on the writing and the poetry and they hear each other and their voices.”
Tessler added: “That’s something we can’t provide for them at Davis High but what we can provide is programs out there that offer opportunity for all of these students. And it is amazing to see them light up, when we went in to the California Academy of Science, the students who went with us had never been there and you can imagine when we walked into the Aquarium and saw all the fish…It’s just amazing to have that experience with them.”
Programs, such as these, explained Tessler, trigger self-belief in students to the attainability, and value, in attending college.
Teacher Widgen Naegley leads two ACES (Academic Coaching and Empowering Success) support classes for 11th and 12th Graders at DHS.
Naegley said that she is a big fan of the program model, and is very familiar with it, having taught something similar – she called it “basic skills” – as a teacher close to three decades ago. The downside was that it was not considered a college prep course.
“It’s really a wonderful opportunity for them to have a support class and yet be in college prep classes,” Naegley said about the ACES program. “This model says you can go to college, you are taking all but you’re going to get some help. And it’s primarily going to be offered, literacy help reading and writing.”
Instruction is offered, in the form of helping with students struggling to write, or even submit their papers. Naegley said there is an even divide between the time students are given instruction, and allowed to write on their own.
She called the Academic Center “the most phenomenal program that we have going at the High School,” and called the tutors there as “the very best role models that you could ask for.”
Naegley believes that ACES plays in to the school’s high graduation rates.
In fact, three-fourths of her seniors are already signed up for college classes.
AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) coordinator and DHS elective teacher Kelly McInturf spoke on behalf of the school’s program, which was chosen for Davis as a research-supported intervention for typically underrepresented students.
Intended as a means to close the achievement gap, AVID (as discussed in a previous presentation to the Board on Junior High School) is a nationally recognized program for students who meet a certain set of criteria, and for those whose experiences include a special circumstance, or hardship, that has made the likelihood of attending college uncertain at best.
With an emphasis on writing inquiry, collaboration, organization, and critical reading skills that, according to McInturf, “they might not otherwise access as much in their classes without that little bit of extra support.”
Students enrolled in AVID are encouraged to take honors and AP classes, “to challenge themselves,” and “with the expectation is that they complete the requirements to be eligible to apply to a four-year college at the end of their High School career.”
Forty-two percent of the current AVID class at DHS is comprised of students who are classified as EL, which dwarfs the school’s overall rate at 5 percent, while 47 percent of the class identifies as Hispanic/Latino, compared to the school’s overall rate at 17 percent.
McInturf said that letting students at the Junior High level (8th & 9th Grades) know the program will continue once they reach 10th Grade is an important reminder, for its intentions are to build off learned skills, until a point is reached where college seems like the logical next step in educational pursuit.
Junior High students have shadowed the DHS AVID program, and even had a chance to visit UC Davis, creating yet further mental pathways.
Academic Center Coordinator Marie Michel gave her program’s part of the report, in which she explained the center’s “doors are open for everyone.”
Meeting students’ academic, social and emotional needs are all goals of the center, according to Michel.
High School juniors and seniors make up a group of peer tutors, who get to help out classmates in their classes.
The amount of peer tutors has increased from 13 in 2014-15 to 20 for the current school year.
Michel reported an increase in sessions with UC Davis student tutors by over 2,000, with access Monday through Thursday beginning at 7:30 am and running until 4:30 pm, and on Friday from 7:30 am to 3:30 pm.
A DHS World Civilization class asks for students to write a research paper, and, as a result, a pilot program was implemented this year to help tutor those sophomores in the writing process.
Michel said graduation rates for students classified Hispanic/Latino have increased close to 10 percent (from 82.5% in 2009-10 to 91.7%).
“So we’re really helping our students, especially our English Language learners who have more walls between them, that are thicker to really close that gap.”
At that point, Board members were given the chance to discuss, comment or ask questions about the report.
Trustee Barbara Archer asked for further elaboration on what is meant by the term “first kids” and asked, who qualifies as a kid?
Principal Brown responded that they were really “high priority kids” or, in effect, one out of the every five DHS students who are not meeting the requirements.
Archer followed that up with a question about the amount of students falling under the “first kids” category.
Brown said the number was brought to his attention earlier in the day, and that is was at 11 percent of the enrollment.
“Could we be bringing more students into the fold?” Archer asked Brown.
“Absolutely yes,” he said. “You know, the information will reveal that you do have some predictable groups who will struggle but there are some privileged kids who come from well-represented groups who are struggling, who are on that D or F list, who have social-emotional issues, be it stress, or whatever.”
Brown added: “You know, they come in, we have to deal with what comes in, what meets us at the door, and so regardless of what group you come in if there’s a need that needs to be met we try to connect you with the resources that will meet those.”
Archer asked about the program being offered to everyone in need, even to those second-tier students who end up falling somewhere “in the middle.”
“As a Board member, I’d like to hear more about resources and how we can catch more kids,” she said.
Half of the tutoring sessions at the Academic Center, in the fall, were given to the general student population, according to Michel, who said “the scope is there you see, and every time I hire tutors I say ‘we have the whole spectrum here, we have students for all AP classes, A’s and they do not want to see that B come in here to get help with Trigonometry or Calculus.’”
Michel said they have students that come in who are still in Common Core 2, “who need that extra support.”
“And then we have everyone in the middle in Algebra 2 and Geometry, just as an example for math, so we see the whole spectrum and we provide support for all those students and with the tutors that I hire, their backgrounds are as well. We also provide support in different languages: English, Spanish, Farsi, Chinese Cantonese.”
Trustee Alan Fernandes asked what the Board could do to advance the efforts of programs, such as ACES, and the Academic Center, in particular, and what the chances were for extending the center’s hours.
“I think it’s a great possibility for our tutors to help our students for a longer period of time,” Michel said. “Funding is one concern, especially throughout the year, currently we’re at the same funding that we started with, and are potentially seeing cutbacks.”
“It sounds like the work there is great and as you mentioned it’s open to all students,” Fernandes said. “We offer college prep courses and we have a college prep mindset in this district and when you go to college you will learn that there are libraries open in some instances at some Universities at certain times of the year are 24 hour, and computer labs.”
Tessler said that there is a definite need for an increase in counselors, and they know when they are effective – when they had AB 1802 for two years and extra money had been brought in by the state.
At that point, caseloads were down to 280 students, and Tessler said Counseling was able to connect with each family, work more with our at-risk, bring them in, but when caseloads went up to 350, their efficiency went down.
Trustee Susan Lovenburg asked Widgen Naegley about a “fairly recently” written letter that had been written by her colleagues in the English Department to the Board, regarding class sizes in 10th Grade English.
“We used to, similar to counselors to where we had additional categorical funding, we used to be able to maintain class sizes of 20 to 1 at 9th Grade and 10th Grade,” Lovenburg said. “That went away with the state funding reductions and then categorical funding went away, but your colleagues were making a case for going back to 20 to 1 possibly through the LCAP process.”
Naegley said she had taught classes sized in the 30s and those at 20 to 1, and there is a big difference, in particular, connecting with more students in the classroom.
“When there’s a small enough ratio, she quipped “you can connect with everybody everyday and there’s something wrong with you if you can’t.”
Responding to a question asked by Board President Sunder about the current size of the class, Naegley answered that it was 35 or 36 to 1, although with additional counselors for next year, the numbers will go down to 28 to 1.