Part of the process: working our improvement plan

LCPS principals and the district’s senior staff spent two days in virtual seclusion this summer talking about teaching and learning. What other kind of shop talk would a bunch of educators engage in, you may ask. Actually, there’s a lot more to the typical school day than teaching. There’s scheduling, maintaining discipline, getting kids on and off the bus, feeding them, solving the latest adolescent crisis, answering parents’ questions and dealing with more surprises than you could pack into a case of Crackerjacks. Still, you’re right: instruction is the work of schools. The question is — and the conversation among administrators was — what do teachers need to do that work more efficiently and more effectively, given all else they have to do and all else they have to deal with.

One of the things they need is students who are ready to learn — that is, students who are not already behind academically when they come into the classroom. Another is clear direction on what students need to know and guidance in fitting lessons plans to those needs. And, as much as anything, teachers need more time as students; professional development can’t be emphasized enough in an age of rapid-fire change.

So here’s some of what LCPS is doing to give teachers a boost and to bring students along as learners from wherever they start. First, the students:

Jumpstart kindergarten. WLCPS_Jumpstart2e’re piloting this program in four classes in three Kinston schools (Northwest, Northeast and Southeast) with hopes of expanding it into all elementary schools in the future. Students who showed during mandatory kindergarten assessments they could use some extra help are getting it in Jumpstart, which focuses on basic skills with the goal of catching these children up to their peers. Northeast Elementary pioneered the Jumpstart concept this summer http://tinyurl.com/odhtv5q successfully enough that it warranted a more extended test drive, with a couple of new options. Among them is greater involvement of parents; this school year’s Jumpstart will feature individual sessions with students’ parents each month to update them on their child’s progress. Another is more teacher supporter — more planning time, more professional development, more help analyzing data from assessments and making the indicated adjustments in lessons. We’ll update you on Jumpstart in greater detail soon, when it’s more than a couple of weeks old.

Emphasis on reading. LCPS has, for the past two summers, operated a summer reading camp. It’s a state requirement under the Read to Achieve law, but it’s not an unwelcome one. A lot of our elementary students need some extra help in reading, and LCPS’s goal for young students is even more ambitious than the state’s — that they be proficient readers by the end of the second grade. We think a couple of new programs instituted this year will help get us there. One is iRead, a digital foundational reading program for K-2 students designed to close achievement gaps. It’s heavy on assessments and use of data to tailor lessons to address gaps in learning. We’re using iRead in all Exceptional Children’s classes and in Jumpstart classes. The other is ReadyGEN, a rigorous, literacy-based program that helps teachers monitor student progress in reading comprehension, vocabulary and writing. It’s been adopted schoolwide at four schools (Moss Hill, Northwest, Northeast and Southeast) and will be evaluated for wider use.

Now, the teachers:

Instructional Guides. A goal coming out of the summer planning retreat was a complete rewrite/update of instructional guides for K-8 in math and language arts. Instructional guides ensure that subject skills are taught in the correct order and according to specified standards. This is particularly important with subjects like math, where skills are cumulative and build on each other. Naturally, instructional guides have to be revised periodically as standards change. Unfortunately, it takes a while. Teacher teams have been working on the rewrites since summer, have finished some grades in some subjects, but still need time to complete them all, polish them and roll them out to teachers. The goal for introduction is this spring.

MDC and LDC. Educators talk a lot in code like this. These alphabet abbreviations stand for Math Design Collaborative and Literacy Design Collaborative. In a nutshell, it’s a new way for teachers to frame lesson plans that uses frequent assessments to identify what a student knows or does not know and provides materials for ensuring each child is where he or she needs to be before moving on in the lesson. The system has already gotten a test run at North Lenoir High School with impressive results. A grant from the Southern Regional Education Board will provide six days of coaching in this system this year, the first coming in the next few weeks for our teachers and others from Onslow and Sampson counties. With the instructional guides, the design collaboratives will help build a consistent instructional framework, with everyone moving in the same direction, at a specified pace, and speaking the same language.

improvement_blog2More math. LCPS is doubling down on math instruction. For the second consecutive summer, 30 elementary and middle school math teachers worked with professors from East Carolina University in the eight-day Lenoir STEM Math Symposium. (See this previous post http://tinyurl.com/o9bb4mw) That brings to 60 the number of teachers who’ve gone through the program, with another 30 scheduled to attend next summer. Essentially, the instruction helps teachers make the distinction between doing math and understanding math, which is the difference between working a formula and deciphering a word problem, which is itself the schoolroom equivalent of using math in the real world. An extra benefit of this summer program, which is funded by a grant from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, has been the establishment of a math leadership team, a group of 10 elementary and middle school teachers chosen from the symposium’s original class. They’ve taken the lead in revising the math instructional guides and will lead our corps of math teachers in keeping lessons relevant, inventive and creative.

iPads instruction.
We’ve saved this for last because our digital learning initiative, while our most ambitious and expensive project, will also take the longest to fully develop. Passing out iPads to students, which we will have done with all K-12 students in a matter of weeks, is only the beginning. Making the shift to digital learning in our classrooms will take longer. Helping students and teachers — particularly teachers — make that shift is the real focus of what we call iLCPS and is the impetus for an on-going program of professional development. Professional development sessions are held weekly at all schools to help teachers craft lessons for – and tailor their teaching style to – the iPads all students will be using this year and the Apple laptops classrooms can access. These Tech Tuesday sessions build on the more focused training done this summer during the district’s two-day Summer Institute, where Apple experts and the district’s most tech-savvy teachers shared tips for successfully using technology in the classroom in more than 50 topic areas.

Improvement is a process. It’s a process LCPS has been pursuing in a systematic way for more than two years, beginning with the formation of the community-based School System Improvement Task Force. That group laid the groundwork for programs taking shape now — digital learning and Jumpstart kindergarten among them. No one here doubts there’s much more work to be done. No one here doubts the resolve to do it.