By Susan Riddell
The Ballard County school district has three schools and fewer than 1,500 students combined. Located west of Paducah, the tiny district was struggling several years ago to make sure students were reaching proficiency and their fullest potential.
Administrators met to decide on the best way to improve not only test scores but also the school climate each student experienced. In the end, the district went through several small changes in hopes of a big turnaround.
Ballard County has made steady improvement in test scores thanks to new curriculum alignment. Principals at all three schools said that alignment was the single biggest factor in getting things turned around.
“When I got here, the biggest concern was getting people focused on (Kentucky’s) Core Content and instruction,” said Ballard County Elementary School Principal Phillip Harned, who is in his fourth year. “Curriculum needed to be aligned. We set up content area meetings to make sure that all content was covered to mastery. Curriculum maps were created as well.”
Casey Allen previously served as the Ballard County Middle School principal but is now an instructional supervisor for the district.
“We also started focusing on creating a positive culture in our building that made our school a place where students wanted to be,” Allen said. “We started looking at the relationships we had or didn’t have with students and how that was affecting our instruction.”
At Ballard Memorial High School, staff created learning checks for the end of each nine-week period to make sure content was mastered. “Teachers collaborated in departments to analyze the learning check results to determine what was mastered, what needed to be reviewed and what needed to be taught again,” said Principal Donald Shively.
All three schools have made significant progress in raising their percentage of proficient and distinguished students on the Kentucky Core Content Test. In 2008, Ballard County Elementary raised its percentage of proficient and distinguished students by 21 points in science and 23 in on-demand writing. Harned said a writing coordinator who models lessons for teachers has really paid off at his school.
In 2008, Ballard County Middle made steady gains in all core content subjects with the exception of on-demand writing (which dropped by less than half a percentage point) in regard to proficient and distinguished students.
“Implementation of professional learning communities (PLCs) to focus on research-based strategies and diverse student learning styles helped us,” Shively said of the high school. “PLCs have changed the conversations in our school from talk about specific curriculum to the variety of strategies that all teachers are using in their classrooms. PLCs also allow us to focus on analyzing student work and making adjustments to teaching delivery.
“Implementing inquiry-based units in math and science where students have to analyze their projects and predict outcomes using the writing process have not only helped math and science, but also writing scores,” Shively added.
“We also implemented intense Response to Intervention strategies two years ago,” Harned said. “We focused on specific interventions for specific students. We identified them, worked to meet their needs with interventions, then monitored their progress to make sure it was working.”
While the effort to revamp teaching and learning in Ballard County was a collective concept, the administration at each school was allowed to make individual changes as well. Among those small changes schools made to better their students’ educational experience were:
- Ballard County Elementary – “Once teachers had their curriculum aligned and the instructional strategies in their toolkits, they were given the freedom to run their classrooms as they saw fit,” Harned said. “Teachers were asked to find their weaknesses and then were given opportunities to attend professional development that met their needs.”
- Ballard County Middle – “I don’t know that our cultural change was radical because everyone saw the need for it,” Allen said. “One thing that really seemed to work was getting all of the teachers on the same page with high expectations for our students. Students and parents needed to hear it from the educators that we wanted them to be high performers, and that we knew they could do it.”
- Ballard Memorial High – Shively said the high school instituted Success Lab, which enforces a zero-tolerance policy on students who don’t complete and turn in their homework. “We tied attendance to participation in graduation and prom to reinforce our belief that students have to be at school to learn,” he said.
While lacking resources, opportunities for more advanced classes and other grade-level schools with which to collaborate held the district back at times, administrators and faculty stayed focused on student needs to get by.
“Our school has always approached each issue that comes up with the idea we can solve any problems that come to us if we work together,” Allen said.
Casey Allen, firstname.lastname@example.org, (270) 665-8400
Phillip Harned, email@example.com, (270) 665-8400
Donald Shively, firstname.lastname@example.org, (270) 665-8400