Holt schools meeting state standards, facing achievement gap

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By Kelsey Block
The Holt Journal

At the October Board of Education meeting, Holt Curriculum Director Ruth Riddle reported that six schools in the district have a significant achievement gap.

Earlier this year, the Michigan Department of Education released a top-to-bottom ranking of schools in the state. The list is based on data collected through the 2013-2014 MEAP tests.

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Six schools in the Holt District were designated as focus schools this year in the Michigan Department of Education’s top-to-bottom ranking. Focus schools are highlighted in blue.

Within that list, schools can receive one of three designations: reward, focus or priority. Reward schools are the top 5 percent of schools in the ranking, priority schools are the bottom 5 percent of schools, and focus schools are the 10 percent of schools that have a significant gap in achievement between the highest and lowest scoring students.

Out of Ingham County’s 72 schools, 23 are focus schools. Six of those are in the Holt School District. Dimondale Elementary, Elliott Elementary, Holt Junior High, Hope Middle School, Sycamore Elementary School and Wilcox Elementary were all designated as focus schools.

A school can be labeled a focus school even if it’s meeting all state requirements. For example, all six of Holt’s focus schools met most state standards last year.

Laura Colligan is the school improvement and leadership consultant with the Ingham County Intermediate School District. Before moving to the ISD, Colligan was the principal at Dimondale Elementary. She said the purpose of the designation is to encourage schools to look deeper at the data, even if they’re doing well on state tests.

“When you become dedicated as a focus school, you need to do a district-level systems check to make sure you’re servicing all kids,” Colligan said. “Meaning, they want you to be aware you have issues in your system.”

According to its website, the Michigan Department of Education developed the designations as part of the approved No Child Left Behind Act flexibility waiver, which gave states the option to request flexibility from accountability metrics set in place by the act.

“You give it a ranking, so there’s always got to be one at the top and one at bottom,” Colligan said. She added that a variety of factors can contribute to achievement gaps in the classroom, like teachers not having enough time or training to be able to properly identify and work with students who aren’t scoring at the top.

Colligan also noted that Holt has one of the largest student populations in the county, with approximately 7,000 students. “Sometimes, in smaller districts, it’s easier to fix,” she said.

This year, several Ingham County schools were named focus schools because of their math scores, Colligan said.

“Holt has done a really good job if you look at their reading scores, and a majority of their gap is in math,” Colligan said.

Ruth Riddle, curriculum director, said Holt School District recently adopted new standards for reading and behavioral instruction at the elementary level and has seen gains. Now, the district’s goal is to transfer those same strategies to math.

“We’re closing the gap in the area where we concentrated our efforts, resources and priorities, and now that that’s working, we’re moving to other areas. That work focused on reading and behavior. And now we’re saying, ‘This really works, let’s replicate it in math, social studies and science,” Riddle said.

One way Holt is addressing the achievement gap is through implementing a strategy called Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). The instructional method breaks students up into groups based on their individual needs. All students receive 90 minutes of core instruction, with lower performing students (Tier 2) receiving an additional 30 minutes, and the lowest performing students (Tier 3) receiving yet another 30 minutes of additional instruction.

Schools receive support for this additional instruction from interventionists like Kristin Kring, a reading interventionist at Dimondale Elementary. Kring works with students in kindergarten through second grade.  She said she usually works with about ten groups of students a day.

“There’s always that piece of wanting to see them make growth as quickly as we can. We do our best to keep them moving forward,” Kring said.

Kring often spends her time with students who need help the most reviewing lessons and testing them to see if they’ve made gains. First and 2nd-graders graph their progress from week to week in simple bar charts, which Kring says she is careful to go over with them.

“We try to make the data really apparent to them so they know what goal they’re working on,” she said.

Traci Steere teaches second grade at Sycamore Elementary. She said she sits down with parents and students at the beginning of the year to identify student achievement levels and goals. Then, the students are tested weekly or biweekly.

“It becomes something they take ownership of as well,” Steere said. While there is a heavy emphasis on assessments and data, Steere said the school tries not to make it a high-pressure situation for the students.

“We want the kids to know this data doesn’t give you the whole picture of who you are, but it’s just a piece of what you’re achieving right now,” she said. “But it’s what the state is judging us on. The bottom line is we are responsible for the kids’ education and that’s the only way we have to report that … However, we also look at the whole child and care about the whole child.”

Even with support systems in place, closing the achievement gap is no easy feat, Riddle said.

“Kids that are already performing are going to naturally increase, but it takes more work to get those students who have skill deficits to close them,” she said. “What we see is pretty consistent: we’re able to close the gap sooner with younger students, but the higher they go the harder it is.”

Denise Schaffer, a third grade teacher at Sycamore Elementary, said she thinks the achievement gap is due to economics and a lack of resources, both for students and teachers.

“I don’t think teachers have ever not been aware (of the achievement gap) and I don’t think teachers have ever not tried to close that gap,” she said. “We have had lots of successes and we have a long way to go, and we know that. But, we’re doing everything we possibly can, given the resources that we have.”

Right now, Schaffer has one computer in her classroom. She said her dream is to have more technology for her students, as well as more staff on hand to help students who may be struggling.

“We haven’t really seen a huge change in an allocation of resources, and that to me is going to make the difference,” Schaffer said. “I think it’s both a frightening time in public education, but also immensely exciting time because we’re using data so much more and able to really pinpoint where kids need support. I think we’re meeting the needs of kids better than we ever have before and will make us a better educated population all around.”

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