By Mike Marsee
The welcome mat is out at East Carter High School.
Teachers and administrators are happy to showcase some of the practices that helped them turn around their test scores, and they’re getting ample opportunity to do that as a Hub school.
The Carter County school was added last fall to the list of Hub schools, which are Priority schools that substantially improve on college/career readiness (CCR) measures. Hub schools are asked to capture and share their best practices, backed by data and results, and share them with other schools in their region, especially Focus schools (which are identified by how students in Gap groups are performing and/or their graduation rates).
“We’ve got systems in place in the classrooms and outside of the classrooms, plus meeting facilities,” principal Larry Kiser said. “We’re geared for other Priority schools or other schools that are looking to improve their test scores.”
That’s exactly where East Carter was not long ago. In 2010, the school was named a persistently low achieving school (now called Priority schools) based on test scores that were in the bottom 5 percent of the state. For the last two years, it has ranked in the 94th percentile with a Distinguished/High Performing rating.
The school also has a 93.8 percent college/career readiness rate and a 98.6 percent graduation rate, and it no longer has the Priority school designation.
“It’s been a pretty joyous ride. It’s been hard work, but the rewards have been pretty outstanding,” Kiser said.
Coletta Parsley, an educational recovery leader at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) who works with East Carter, said aligning the school’s systems to focus on college/career readiness has been the biggest factor in its transformation.
“In making this shift, East Carter became a school focused not only on effective teaching but on ensuring that all students learn,” Parsley said. “The journey from Priority school to Hub school required numerous changes, including a restructuring of the school schedule, to ensure that the learning needs of all students were met. Therefore, East Carter became a data-driven school as multiple sources of data were analyzed, and the results were used to guide improvement efforts.”
Now other schools are coming to Kiser and his staff to ask how they can reap similar rewards. Visits started in November, less than a month after the announcement that East Carter had joined Franklin-Simpson and Pulaski County high schools on the short list of Hub schools.
During the 2013-14 school year, 625 representatives of 89 schools and districts visited the first two Hub schools, including teams from East Carter. Now Kiser said his school has a plan for those who call on him.
“Once schools call or e-mail us with an interest in planning a visit, we have a check sheet we send out to them that explains the process. They complete it and send it back so we know exactly what their priorities are that they want to look at,” he said.
Parsley said visitors typically observe instruction, attend Professional Learning Committee meetings within departments and meet with teachers to ask questions and share ideas.
“This provides a wonderful opportunity to learn from each other,” she said.
Parsley said visitors are asked to provide feedback to help the school better plan for future visits, and they are sent an e-mail packet containing protocols and procedures relating to East Carter’s best practices so their schools can adapt those systems to their own needs.
Some of the first visitors came from Montgomery County High School, where assistant principal Robert Donaldson, the team leader for that visit, said they were looking for a school similar to their own.
“We tried to go with a top-10 school, and we also wanted to go with a school more comparable to us with regard to demographics and culture,” Donaldson said.
Kiser said one area of high interest for prospective visitors is the student data notebooks that let students break down every test they take.
“It’s kind of like a little study session, a test analysis tool,” Kiser said.
Kiser said East Carter has also been happy to showcase its move to standards-based grading.
“If a student didn’t do so well on that test, they can go back and they are assigned re-teaching activities in a student session,” he said. “That’s been huge for us. We tell teachers it’s not about the grades, it’s about student learning. They can learn from that and improve their grade, and it helps them have more success and go on.”
He said there is also interest in the school’s professional learning communities, which are using the Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycle.
He said other schools are also “very interested” in his school’s science studio lab and the dynamic teaching model used in the mathematics department.
Donaldson said the Montgomery team was particularly interested in East Carter’s schedule, which incorporates Response to Intervention classes, and in the way the school’s class offerings address achievement gap, graduation rate and college/career readiness.
“We put together a set of about 10 guided questions that we were trying to find answers to, trying to glean and take back here to Montgomery County to make sure we’re on the right path,” he said.
He also said he and his colleagues were impressed with the systems approach Kiser described.
“They prioritize their greatest needs, and they all work toward the same goals,” Donaldson said. “What’s the magic formula? It’s just organization and their system and how they prioritize what’s important.”
Parsley said those systems can change as the school sharpens its focus on meeting students’ learning needs.
“Current systems are frequently evaluated and revised based on student data to help ensure continuous improvement,” she said.
Kiser said East Carter teachers are almost always ready to welcome guests from other schools.
“There’s not a lot of days here at East Carter that are a lot different than any other day,” he said. “We tell them to be prepared as if you have visitors in the classroom. Just go on with instruction like you normally would, just another day at the office.”
“I didn’t see a dog-and-pony show,” Donaldson added.
Kiser was an assistant principal when East Carter was designated a Persistently Low Achieving school in the 2010-11 school year, meaning its test scores were in the bottom 5 percent statewide. He was promoted to principal as part of a series of operational and instructional changes, and he said the changes started after an infusion of more than $800,000 in school improvement grants. Soon after, an educational recovery leader and two education recovery specialists came on board.
“They taught me and my assistant things they don’t teach you every day when you’re working on your principalship, better ways of getting instruction across to students,” he said.
East Carter’s college/career readiness rate was 27 percent in 2010-11, but it shot up to 66 percent after one year of interventions, 81.5 percent after two years and 93.8 percent last year. Over the same period, he said, the schools’ composite ACT score rose from 17.4 to 19.1.
After one year, the school was reclassified as Proficient, and the last two years it has been designated as Distinguished.
“It’s just been a total transformation from not only the staff but also the students. They’re taking ownership of their course work,” Kiser said.
He said evidence of that can be found in students who are taking CCR classes to prepare for assessment tests, saying they often head straight for the office of counselor Sheila Porter, who coordinates those tests, as soon as they learn their results.
“We’ve had kids who come running down the hall saying, ‘I passed! I passed! I’m CCR!’ And on the other end, kids who might have missed the benchmark by one or two points are crying in Mrs. Porter’s office,” he said. “That’s the culture change over the last four years.”
Donaldson said he could see that during his visit.
“The kids have taken ownership of it. They’ve embraced it. They’ve done a miraculous job of getting the kids to buy in,” he said.
Parsley said East Carter is proud of its new status.
“The journey from Priority to Hub school required a strong commitment to improving student achievement from all stakeholders and great effort on the part of the administration, staff and students. Therefore, all members of the school community – students, staff, parents and community members – have embraced the designation with a sense of pride,” she said.
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