School boards brainstorm ideas to close achievement gap (Sept. 18, 2008)

Sept. 18, 2008
By Tim Simard
Observer staff

The Williston School Board met for the first time since the school year began, but this time with a twist.

For the first 40 minutes of the Sept. 10 meeting, a joint gathering was held between the Williston and Shelburne school boards. The idea was to share ideas to close the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and the majority of students who don’t fall under that classification.

Williston Chairwoman Darlene Worth said she and Shelburne Chairman Grant Bush thought it would be helpful to meet two to three times during the school year to discuss a variety of subjects.

“We’re all interested in the same things,” Worth said.

Chittenden South Supervisory Union Superintendent Elaine Pinckney agreed and expressed hope that joint meetings could occur more often between CSSU districts.

“This is about building that professional learning community,” Pinckney said.

Shelburne School District Principal John Bossange told the school boards and various administrators the joint meetings would better allow him to pool ideas to address the achievement gap.

“We really want to learn from each other on this one, because this is hard work,” Bossange said.

Both school districts are looking to close the achievement gap and make Adequate Yearly Progress, also known as AYP, a federal designation to measure academic improvement through the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Vermont measures AYP through the New England Common Assessment Program tests, commonly referred to as NECAP tests.

Williston did not make AYP for the third consecutive time earlier this year, due to the low NECAP scores from economically disadvantaged students and special needs students. As a result, the school district was placed on the Vermont Department of Education’s list of schools in need of improvement.

Also, the school district must provide students from the two underperforming groups with supplemental education services. The DOE has compiled a list of approved service providers.

Shelburne did not make AYP for the first time this year, in the area of special needs students, although Bossange said he was concerned for the school district’s economically disadvantaged students as well.

At the meeting, Bossange, along with Shelburne Community School Principal Allegra Miller, talked about research the district had done about closing the achievement gap, as well as how they planned to close that gap. Allen Brook School Principal John Terko, who filled in for District Principal Walter Nardelli at the meeting, then spoke about the progress Williston hopes to make in the coming school year.

Bossange listed what he discovered from reading an article about schools across the country that had successfully closed the achievement gap. Success factors included full-day kindergarten, reduced class sizes, full-time staff development teachers, standards based curriculums, diagnostic assessments, more parent involvement and extended learning opportunities — either after school or during the summer.

Bossange and Miller said Shelburne would continue with its homework club for grades four through eight, as well as its summer school program. The district would then hope to add more after-school tutoring programs and more professional development for teachers.

Bossange also said Shelburne will be starting the Response to Instruction, or RTI program, something Williston has been doing for four years. Terko said Williston was one of the pilot schools in the state to enact the program.

RTI is a program in which teachers monitor certain students on a regular basis to see how they respond to what is being taught. It’s a way for teachers to note key areas a student needs to focus on so they can intervene before a student gets left behind, Terko said at the meeting.

“Students are screened everywhere and evaluated on a weekly basis,” Terko said.

Terko explained that Williston, like Shelburne, also has after school homework clubs and had a “very successful” summer camp for students who struggled in the NECAP exams.

To further help students in need, the district has been using the Web-based resource guide AIMSweb, and through that, programs such as Fundations and Great Leaps, Terko said. For kindergarten-aged students, Allen Brook School will be using the Bridges math program for early intervention. These are just a few of the many programs Terko discussed with the boards.

Besides using programs and educational tools, Terko said it was just as important to understand where economically disadvantaged students are coming from.

“Teachers in Chittenden South need a good, solid understanding of poverty,” he said.

Terko added with all the research and intervention programs Williston has enacted, he’s “very optimistic” the achievement gap can be shortened.

“We’re shooting for it,” he said.