, 2014


On the road to full accreditation: Academic review

by Audrey Thomasson

Acting superintendent Sandy Spears recently invited the Rappahannock Record to meet with staff to discuss what improvements Lancaster County Public Schools are working on to return to full accreditation status. Part 1 of a resulting three-part series addresses the academic review process monitored by the Commonwealth. Part 2 will cover classroom discipline at the middle school. Part 3 will focus on new programs developing under the leadership of Spears and school board chairman Dr. Robert Westbrook.

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Leadership training is an earned reward for Amanda Steensma and Jason Curry. As student liaison officers, they are counting tickets earned by each homeroom class for going without referrals. Classes with the most points over a nine-week period are invited to special events like a pep rally or movie and popcorn. From left are Steensma, teachers Nicole Jackson and Kimberly Mulligan, and Curry.

LANCASTER—George Johnson started his teaching career at Lancaster Primary School mid-term last year, picking up the lessons plans of the teacher he replaced—a difficult situation for even a seasoned teacher. This year, Johnson has his own lesson plans, his own classroom of first-graders and the support and guidance of Anna Kellum, a 22-year teaching veteran and one of the district’s three instruction specialists.
Kellum’s job is to review each teacher’s lesson plans in math, English, science and history and provide support in curriculum development. In the classroom, she and fellow specialists Tara Booth and Virginia Booth observe teaching and instructional practices and assist teachers in presenting lessons on a level students can grasp. Although much of this program was in the works previously, it has become part of an academic review process sought by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE).

“Sometimes, we model teach the class,” said Kellum. “It’s a hands-on approach. The teacher observes and takes notes.”

Her biggest challenge is teaching the rigors of the new state Standards of Learning (SOL) tests which require students to look and think about problems in a different way. “For example, there are other ways to solve a problem like 5+5 =10. There’s also five 2s equal 10,” she explained.

Academic review

Last year, Lancaster schools failed to meet state standards in testing, part of the federal government’s “No Child Left Behind” mandate. The failure stemmed in part from new testing standards in math and English. High school and primary school students did not meet minimum scores in math and the middle school students failed to meet minimum scores in all four categories, including English, science and history.

The VDOE placed the district on provisional accreditation and instituted the academic review. As part of the process, VDOE assigned retired New Kent County superintendent Dr. Roy Geiger II to work with Lancaster school officials overseeing a plan to bring academics up to state standards within three years.

“It’s practical in nature...using another school leader who helps us and understands how things work,” said director of instruction John Tupponce. “It solidifies what we know and helps us understand...changing standards.”

“We must show measurable improvement each year for three years...and reach 70% to 75% on test scores by the third year,” said lead instruction specialist Tara Booth. “Our teachers are receiving professional development in the new testing methods,” something she said many schools implemented several years earlier, leaving Lancaster teachers in the position of trying to catch up. “Now we provide it all the time...under VDOE it’s done formally.”

VDOE demands that the plan include leadership teams, teacher evaluation systems, class observations by principals, a set amount of class time devoted to instruction, and intervention strategies for students who aren’t passing SOLs, including strategies to help parents raise their child’s academic performance.

New testing standards put in place in the past two years have raised the level of learning above simple memorization. It’s no longer sufficient to mark down an answer out of a multiple choice. Students are now required to use critical thinking skills and show how they got to the answer and recognize patterns and trends. Included are “drag and drop” questions which require students to sort, order, classify or label to provide an answer, according to the VDOE.

To train teachers in the new standards, the division last summer assigned lead teachers at each grade level or course in the four tested areas. They participated in a four-day summer seminar and then met with their assigned group of teachers to pass on the training. When the school year started, they began monthly group sessions for feedback and continuing professional development.

“They are the pulse for what goes on in the building in terms of instruction” and collaborating with the teaching staff each month, said Tupponce.

Family support

However, Tupponce and Booth acknowledged the challenge of improving test scores because so many children come from economically disadvantaged homes. Tupponce noted that while most parents want to help their children with homework, many may be struggling just to exist—working long hours holding down two or three jobs.

Studies outlined in Reign of Error, by Diane Ravitch, have shown that wealthy children, as a group, achieve higher test scores than poor children. Privileged children may grow up in an environment conducive to academic success. They may have books at home and parents who read to them every night and take them to places of learning like museums. Language and ideas expressed around the kitchen table also aid in their learning and their parents usually pass on the value of getting an education. The children probably live with a reasonable amount of privacy and comfort to study and do homework. Family members serve as models of educated professionals and business people influencing them on the probability of getting a good job with a good education.

In contrast, Ravitch notes that even the best instruction does little good when children are hungry, lack preparation, are worn down by miserable home circumstances, and live in poverty without running water or inside toilets. The head of the family may be an unwed mother who must ration food stamps, or there may be multiple generations living in the same house. While strong families exist in this environment and some children make it through and are successful, many others face the living reality of the disadvantaged such as having a sibling incarcerated, feeling peer pressure to join a gang, or exposure to drug dealers making fast cash.

Educators are not playing down the consequences that poverty has on over 60% of Lancaster’s public school population, but are introducing ways to help level the playing field, indicated acting school superintendent Sandy Spears.

One way is to reach 3-year-olds through an early childhood program at the primary school. Now in its second year, the program is partially funded by the Wiley Foundation and offers children from disadvantaged homes a jump start on developing skills in literacy, math, language and socialization. From tasks as simple as using a pair of scissors to the first elements of reading and math skills, each child receives a positive, nurturing environment in preparation for entering the school’s Pre-K program for 4-year-olds the following year.

Booth said children with access to technology like home computers, tablets and smart phones have brains that operate differently in terms of processing information. Even the state’s SOL tests are taken on computers, so third-graders must have a working knowledge of technology. At Lancaster Primary School, four-years-old are “playing” on iPads equipped with educational programs.

Longer school year

School board members, administrators, teachers and many parents appear to agree that a huge obstacle to improving test scores is Lancaster’s 990-hour school year which gives students the minimum number of school days allowed by law. Implemented about four years ago as a way to help trim a district budget that put Lancaster in the state’s top 20% of schools with the highest per student cost of education, it cut two weeks off the school calendar by ending classes in May and eliminating summer school for a cost savings of some $250,000. A two-week intensive study period for struggling students is held the first two weeks of June when teachers are still under contract.

The shortened school year resulted in Lancaster’s SOL test period being moved up to the first half of May, weeks earlier than most districts who remained on the 180-day calendar year which ends in mid-June. It further weakened the scores of struggling students since they don’t receive the intense study until after the testing is over and prior to a long summer vacation.

“Testing dates are up to the superintendent,” Booth said. Going to the longer school year “...gives us another month of study.”

Since the district has consistently returned funding to the county at the end of each budget year, school board chairman Dr. Robert Westbrook indicated there may be flexibility to reinstate the longer calendar year.

A new day

“It’s a new day,” said parent C.D. Hathaway after the installation January 6 of Westbrook to the school board and Spears as acting superintendent.

Both parents and teachers have expressed hope that change at the top will stop the exodus of teachers and bring stability for the betterment of their children’s education.

Booth said the addition of the apartment complex, Mercer Place, is doing what it was intended to do—attracting and keeping teachers.

As a small district, Lancaster has an advantage in attracting and keeping good teachers, indicated Tupponce. “They have better access to decision makers and can build relationships,” he said. “Where else can you sit down with the superintendent?”


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