By Brenna R. Kelly
For years, each of Estill County’s five schools had its own mascot, its own colors and its own identity. But this school year that changed.
Today, all of the schools are Estill County Engineers – signified with a blue, white and black E.
“We are undergoing a culture shift and trying to create a culture in which we’re all working together,” said Jeff Saylor, who made the change when he became superintendent in the summer of 2015. “We’re one district, one school with one goal, and that’s college- and career-readiness for every student.”
As a way to reach that goal, Estill County is working with the Kentucky Department of Education to improve classroom instruction across the district in hopes of reducing the number of students who perform at the lowest level in the state’s accountability model.
Estill is one of 11 districts in the Novice Reduction pilot, an initiative to close achievement gaps among specific groups of students – such as minorities and students in poverty – and their white or more economically advantaged classmates.
The idea is that by focusing on moving all students out of the Novice category, achievement gaps should begin to narrow, KDE officials believe.
Closing achievement gaps is one of the Kentucky Board Education’s top priorities and districts are required to address gaps under state law. In addition, novice reduction will be part of the accountability system and is now included in schools’ and district’s continuous improvement plans.
“We call it novice reduction, but it’s not really about test scores,” said Amanda Ellis, associate commissioner in the office of Next Generation Learners. “It’s about daily practices of what children get every day in their core instruction and the basics of highly effective teaching and learning.”
All schools and districts can participate through the Novice Reduction website, where they can assess their needs by going through a step-by-step process. After using the diagnostic tools, the site helps educators create a plan to target one or more of the six key core work processes that KDE has identified as essential to improving student achievement.
Some educators start out using the website on their own then find they need more support from Novice Reduction Coordinator Linda Rains or one of the five Novice Reduction coaches.
“Not every district needs the same thing or approaches it the same way. We can’t say there’s a universal fix. There isn’t a silver bullet,” Ellis said. “Our tools are very versatile, and the way Linda and her coaches have approached it, they can fine tune it for the needs of that school or district.”
So far, the coaches have trained more than 3,500 educators across the state and 158 of the state’s 173 districts are working on some form of novice reduction, Rains said.
“The coaches are very good; they are straight out of the classrooms or schools,” she said. “They are really connected to the work.”
Novice Reduction Coach Vanessa Dials has been working with Estill County since August to improve core instruction. The schools’ principals are working to create a new Professional Learning Community (PLC) planning protocol that will help teachers continually revise and improve their instruction, Dials said.
Estill County contacted KDE after analyzing students’ performance and realizing the district needed help, Saylor said.
For example, 32 percent of Estill County’s elementary students and 35 percent of its middle-schoolers performed at the novice level in reading in 2014-15. Students in the gap groups also struggled, with 67.4 percent of middle school students in the gap group rated at the novice level in language arts and 35 percent of gap-group students rated at the novice level in writing.
“Our schools and our teachers, they were working very hard, but we were not really working smarter,” Saylor said. “If you just double down on what you’ve always been doing, you’re going to get the same results.”
Working with Dials and Rains has made the principals and teachers look more closely at the instructional practices taking place in the schools, Saylor said. Each school now has its own 30-60-90-day plan and the principals are preparing for walk-throughs during which they will record data about core instruction to set a baseline for teachers.
The new PLC protocol helps teachers know sooner how students are doing so they can reteach skills or concepts to students before it’s too late, said Tonya Isaacs, assistant superintendent.
“We’ll see results each week so that we don’t wait until K-PREP,” she said. “K-PREP is like an autopsy – we want to get them before the autopsy.”
In addition to the protocol, teachers are now using data walls so they can see students’ achievements at a glance and student data notebooks so students have access to their own data to and know how close they are to their goals.
The principals also have visited Hub Schools – schools which were once priority schools but have vastly improved student achievement – to see best practices in action.
The effort to move students out of the Novice category won’t be done when the school year is over, or when current novice students become proficient, Isaacs said.
“This is not a program, it’s not something you get in a box,” Isaacs said. “It’s just best practices, all the way around, top to bottom and it’s a continuous improvement cycle.” The districtwide effort is succeeding in creating an atmosphere of unity across Estill County schools, Isaacs and Saylor said. Teachers, principal and district leaders are now thinking of the district as one K-12 school, they said. The district has one school just for preschool and kindergarten, a primary school for 1st and 2nd grade, an intermediate school for 3rd, 4th and 5th grade, a middle school and a high school.
“Each one of those parts are dependent on each other,” Saylor said.
Jessica Mullins, principal of Estill Springs, the 1st- and 2nd-grade school, said her teachers appreciate the clarity of the goals that have driven the novice reduction plan.
“They have adopted a growth mindset, teachers know they will grow out of this, their students deserve it and are capable of it,” she said. “It’s just changing the expectations.”
At the high school, students and administrators have always focused on ACT scores and End-of-Course exams as the markers of achievement, said Principal Chris Winkler. There wasn’t a formal plan to help struggling learners reach the next level.
“There wasn’t the focused intentionality. Getting a plan is part of the key to success,” he said. “And I think it’s going to pay dividends for all of our kids.”
Linda Rains Linda.Rains@education.ky.gov
Jeff Saylor Jeff.Saylor@Estill.kyschools.us
Tonya Isaacs Tonya.Isaacs@Estill.kyschool.us
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