By Matthew Tungate
North Middle School (Henderson County) doesn’t allow students to fall through the cracks.
The school’s team structure and use of data identify each student’s areas of need, and each child receives individualized interventions – including teachers using their planning time to mentor students.
For these and numerous other reasons, North Middle was one of five Kentucky middle schools recently named Schools to Watch (STW) as part of a recognition program developed by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform.
The other recognized schools include Belfry Middle School (Pike County), Benton Middle School (Marshall County), Monroe County Middle School and Olmstead School (Logan County).
The schools were chosen based on their academic excellence, responsiveness to the needs and interests of young adolescents, and commitment to helping all students achieve at high levels.
Selection involved a two-step review process that first required each school to submit an application articulating how they met criteria developed by the forum. Schools that appeared to meet the criteria were then visited by state teams who observed classrooms, interviewed administrators, teachers, students and parents, and looked at achievement data, suspension rates, quality of lessons and student work.
Schools are recognized for a three-year period. At the end of three years they must repeat the process to be redesignated. Monroe and North middle schools are new honorees. Belfry and Benton middle schools are redesignated for the first time, and Olmstead School is redesignated for a second time.
Each of the schools and the review teams’ observations of them are profiled below:
North Middle School
North Middle School’s use of teams – which divide students in each grade between two groups of teachers – played a major role in its selection as a School to Watch.
Principal Margaret Ubelhor said students take all of their core classes from one of the two teams. Each teacher has two planning periods – one individual and one team – which allows for professional development and targeting students for behavioral and academic issues.
“It is important to establish a relationship with students the day they walk into the school, and the team structure allows for ease of recognition between staff and students,” she said. “The schedule is very conducive to catching those students who may otherwise fall through the cracks, and our staff is dedicated to making sure everyone receives the help they need to succeed. We also have an advisory period that allows personal relationships between teachers and students, and focuses on literacy and math skills.”
Ubelhor said teachers use Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) MAP scores to identify students who need mentoring or tutoring and to place the students in computer-based Response to Intervention (RtI) classes.
The school visit team recognized North Middle for numerous positive attributes, including:
- All students complete and use their Individual Learning Plans (ILPs). Students feel that the results have impacted their future goals and college/career choices. “The ILP is an important tool in keeping students focused on their individual goals,” Ubelhor said. “It is hard to ignore a student who not only knows what his or her test score goals are, but who is willing to speak up and remind the teacher of those goals.”
- Grade-level content teachers meet regularly to plan lessons and assessments, analyze student work, and discuss curriculum. “The staff uses their time very wisely. They meet to discuss lessons, student work and curriculum,” Ubelhor said. “They generally come up with some really great ideas for new kinds of instruction/lessons during this time.”
- The Rosetta Stone Language Lab offers students a means to learn their choice of 22 foreign languages. “Rosetta Stone is a super tool to provide foreign language instruction in almost any language a student may want to learn,” Ubelhor said.
- The administration and district office perform regular walk-throughs, with teachers receiving immediate feedback through e-mail. “Walk-throughs are a vital part of teacher coaching,” Ubelhor said. “We are working harder this year to provide face-to-face feedback as well as written in our quest to help our teachers improve.”
- Failure is not an option in this school. Most teachers allow and encourage students to redo their work to demonstrate mastery. “We always consider that working toward mastery is simply what you do in school. Good is not good enough, and the students, for the most part, meet this challenge,” Ubelhor said. “We also encourage staff to build in re-teaching time into their plans.”
“It is a great honor to have our faculty and students recognized for all their hard work,” Ubelhor said of the school’s STW designation. “The staff is so focused on instruction and student achievement that they deserve this recognition. It is a testament to their dedication.”
Monroe County Middle School
Mastery was at the heart of Monroe County Middle School’s recognition as a School to Watch.
“A unique feature of this school is its mastery lab,” according to Fran Salyers, the other co-director of Kentucky’s Schools to Watch program. “There are standards charts posted in the classroom on which students note their progress. When standards are assessed for mastery, students who need extra direction stay with the content teacher and those who have mastered the standards spend time in the mastery lab. In the lab they work in groups on extensions for the standards.”
Instructional Coach Debbie Crowe said the school’s mastery lab has been moved to a larger room, double in size from the previous room, with more defined learning centers. (Monroe Middle’s mastery lab was profiled in Kentucky Teacher in April 2010.) While students who have achieved mastery are in the lab, those who haven’t are re-taught.
“Those students then have the opportunity to re-take the portions of the test that they did not master,” Crowe said.
Approximately 60 percent of students master content the first time it is taught, and 90 percent will master the content after a second time, she said.
Salyers said she also was impressed by the community involvement at the school, which she said “is a real two-way partnership. I was blown away at the school’s STW celebration. The parking lot was full because of the parents and community members that were attending and participating in the program.”
Besides supportive parents, who turn out in force each fall and spring for “Lunch with Your Child,” the business community also supports the school, Crowe said.
“Their support allowed 15 teachers and administrators to go to Washington, D.C., in June to receive the Schools to Watch award,” she said. “Our school also presented a session about our mastery lab while there.”
Among other traits for which the school visit team recognized Monroe County Middle are:
- A schoolwide Response to Intervention (RtI) program focusing on reading and math is utilized to help students meet high academic expectations. “Every student in our school goes to RtI either for intervention or enrichment. We rotate every three weeks between math and reading. At the beginning of the year, we have a four-week rotation for the EXPLORE test. The students rotate each week between the four content areas to be tested. The students take a pre- and a post-test in each content area, and data is kept on each rotation. They work on test-taking strategies and practice timed tests,” Crowe said. “Both the 7th and 8th grade participate in this RtI. Sixth graders also work on test-taking strategies, but this time is also used to explain our behavior plan, give a learning style inventory and to get to know the ins and outs of the school.”
- Double math classes in the 6th grade have reduced numbers in those classes, allowing teachers to provide students with more personal attention. “Previous test scores have shown us that when we had two 6th-grade math classes, scores went up. We were able to do that again last year,” Crowe said. “The two math classes make it possible for class sizes to remain small, thus improving mastery of the content.”
- The principal works with teachers to help them in observing other teachers and in visiting other schools as a means of improving their instruction. “We have five trained teachers in adolescent literacy. These teachers conduct lab lessons. Teachers observe these lab lessons during their planning in order to learn the techniques to use in their own classroom. Also, the math teachers, along with the instructional coach, were able to visit another middle school to get ideas to take back into their own classrooms,” Crowe said. “Another strategy that our staff uses is instructional rounds. We will develop a problem of practice that the teachers will be looking for during their observations. The teachers will then come back and analyze what was seen and decide the next steps for the school to pursue.
Schools see benefit to being redesignated
Belfry Middle Principal Mathew Mercer said school staff learned a lot about their school each time they went through the STW process.
“STW is an excellent way to assess your school, to see where you are educationally and where you are going,” he said. “It really brought to light what we were doing extremely well and also areas that we needed to have more of a concentrated focus.”
Receiving the recognition isn’t the end of the process, Mercer said. “Once the STW team leaves, schools are provided with genuine feedback that’s invaluable if you truly want to get better,” he said.
Benton Middle Principal Jill Darnall said having an outside entity assess her school had several positive effects.
“The redesignation process was very beneficial in allowing us to see if and how we had progressed since the initial designation,” she said. “The redesignation also encouraged us to look at what needed to be changed in the future. Most importantly, the redesignation gave the students more voice in the school. It also gives them something to be proud of as they leave and the incoming students something to aspire to.”
Olmstead School Principal Ben Kemplin said redesignating a second time helped staff refocus on areas that need improvement and to remember to celebrate their successes.
“The process encouraged our staff to work together and to ‘toot your own horn’” for a change,” he said. “It provides you an opportunity to show all the great things that are going on in your school.”