Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Supporting Students with Wrap-Around Services

Students come to school from a wide variety of background and experience. Positive external support from family, relatives, and other benefactors makes a significant difference in the academic and skill development, as well as the motivation of effort for a student. Most parents want to provide the very best support for their students possible but there is much to limit their options. Many families in Mecklenburg struggle with poverty. High-speed Internet access is very limited throughout the county. Workdays are long and schedules often require evening or weekend time on the job. These issues and others can limit the availability of support for students of all ages to fulfill their potential.

School is in session from approximately 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM for 180 days of the year. The number of student support services provided to students to take care of non-academic needs has grown exponentially over the past few decades. This includes breakfast, lunch, and even dinner meals for many, physical exercise, athletics, and a wide variety of extra-curricular programs.  But there are 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year. Students are away from school longer than they are with us. Their access to learning opportunities and support during this time makes the difference in success or failure in dealing with life’s challenges. For this reason Mecklenburg County Public Schools are looking to make partnerships with programs to provide what is called “wrap-around services” for students during the time that schools are not open.

There are many programs for students already providing wrap-around services. Last week this article focused on the importance of informal education programs including summer camps, boy and girl scouts, career programs provided by business and industry, summer school, and even athletic programs. These programs challenge participants to engage and apply the material that they have learned in the classroom (though they may not recognize that they are doing so.) Social and soft skills are also reinforced in these programs. However, many of our students are not able to participate in or get support from these programs. It is imperative that ways are found to support these students as they engage the career literacy, academic and skill development, and community engagement programs we are advocating for the 21st Century Schools. How do we do this?

Churches and civic groups like the YMCA provide wonderful life-support amenities to local communities and are not limited to structured timetables. Mecklenburg County Public Schools seeks to create partnerships with organizations of this type that would provide wrap-around services to students. How could this work? There are several possible examples to consider:
  • ·        Most academic resources are now available through the Internet. This includes textbook materials, research information, content video, online assessment, and even tutorial services. Teachers use this in the classroom and are well served to refer students to this material for homework. How do students without high-speed access at home complete their work? Churches, libraries, or civic organizations willing to make a place for students after school, on weekends, or during the summer, could set up access for students. It would be even better to have retirees and other volunteers serve as mentors to reinforce student effort. Technology can be used to directly connect the out-of-school academic activities to the assignments given in the classroom.
  • ·      Students need opportunity for physical activity. The YMCA has offered to help create appropriate activity programs with any partner that will provide wrap-around support for students.
  • ·      Some students depend upon their schools to provide consistent meals for nourishment. MCPS is very pleased to have secured federal and state support to provide afternoon snacks and even evening meals for students that participate in after school activities. This support can be extended to programs that are providing approved wrap-around services.
  • ·      The development of strong reading skills is critical to success in life. Reading skills are developed only by significant time devoted to reading. Wrap-around service centers can be supplied with an abundance of reading supplies and could have volunteers support student reading development. Math and writing development can also be supported.

Obviously there are many other opportunities for support that churches and civic groups can provide through well-planned wrap-around centers.  I am pleased as Superintendent to be engaged in conversations with leaders that are open to developing partnerships for this purpose. The schools are in a position, with parent permission, to transport students from school to the center. Each center would determine how much time they can make available to local students after school, on weekends, or during summer hours.

Our children are our most precious resource. We cannot afford to lose any to poverty or lack of resources. Wrap-around services may be the only way to make sure that we can meet the needs of all our students as we ask them to prepare for successful lives in the 21st Century.  

Friday, April 15, 2016

Academic Progress in a 21st Century School

The second important characteristic of a 21st Century school is a strong and appropriate academic curriculum. It was once said of schools that students would learn the three R’s, Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic.  To prepare students for success in today’s world there must be rigor, relevance, and relationships.

Rigor and relevance are defined by a clear understanding of what is required to be successful with one’s chosen life-goals.  One begins with the end in mind, and builds backwards. The goal must therefore be more than meeting the requirements to earn a high school diploma, and much more than a passing score on an SOL test. One must have a good sense of what is required academically to compete successfully at your objectives and strategically build a firm foundation in each of those areas.

Today’s job environment is very competitive and specialized. A rudimentary ability to read and write and basic knowledge of addition and subtraction, along with how to use a calculator, is no longer appropriate.  Virginia Advanced Study Strategies recently conducted a study of what math skills were used frequently by workers in entry-level advanced manufacturing, medical, energy and IT jobs in Southern Virginia. None of these workers had a bachelor’s degree, but had earned credentials appropriate for their jobs. The group included persons working as firefighters, welders, a variety of medical assistants, heating and air conditioning, auto mechanics, and computer technicians. Each one required a firm grasp of foundational math, geometry, some algebra, and statistics. A deeper look at the credentials earned for each job revealed a requirement of knowledge of chemistry, physics, and technical reading and writing. Meanwhile, the 25% to 30% of jobs that do require a Bachelors, Masters, or Doctorate are focusing even more on the original and deeper-thinking skills that come from challenging advanced academic classes.

So academic rigor starts with an understanding of the academic requirements of success at the goal, and then building an appropriate framework and foundation toward that goal. We must be sure that there are no gaps in the steps toward the goal, that there are ample opportunities for students to reinforce foundational skills, and that learning is moving from short-term memory to mastery. Unfortunately, there are many barriers in our schools to this level of academic rigor:

·      The Standards of Learning (SOL) is not a comprehensive curriculum. Teachers who focus only on teaching the SOL put students in a position to move from one level of class to the next with large gaps of required knowledge. Schools must have a comprehensive curriculum with scope and sequence of content, and appropriate resources to teach rather than test preparation only.

·      Mastery of learning takes repetition and practice. Teachers often cover material that students should learn by review but skip student engagement and practice. Reading and writing skills are learned as each student practices much reading and writing. A wise math teacher observed that a math class should have practice boards attached to every wall with all of the students at the board completing formulas, not just the teacher at the front of the classroom.

·      Students must master material before engaging more difficult content. One cannot skip steps of learning. Students do not learn at the same pace. Mental maturity comes at different times for different reasons. It is absolutely appropriate to move students from one achievement group to another as they demonstrate mastery. Assessment of material should be available at a variety of times during the school year for promotion to the next level of academic engagement. Remediation of un-mastered skills should be immediate.

·      Academic success is hampered by gaps in time. The old saying “If you don’t use it you lose it” is true. It’s difficult for students to maintain academic development over a summer if there is no engagement of what has been learned. High schools on a 4 X 4 block schedule do a great disservice to a student’s academic development if there is a semester plus a summer’s gap in content engagement. The most inappropriate is the high school student who stops engaging academic material like math or foreign language in their junior and/or senior year because they “completed all they need to graduate.” Community College and University professors all agree that these students have destined themselves to remedial classes.

Fixing each of these barriers to academic success is going to take some time and hard work on the part of our local educators. There will be a lot of professional development for all of our staff in years ahead. The effort will pay off with the best dividends; our students will leave us well prepared for career and college. Our community will grow because business and industry will recognize that our schools are producing quality graduates and they will want their own children to attend.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Vision of a 21st Century School, Part II

Is there a need for local K12 schools to have a different educational focus than what they have had in the past? Is the world different than it was in the 70’s and 80’s? Is technology having a major impact on each individual’s life?  Have you noticed any differences in the jobs that are available? Have the support dynamics shifted for a majority of families? If we find that life has changed dramatically for families, business, and the communities around us then we should assume that schools should be changing as well to prepare students for success.

Last week we began to consider a vision for a 21st Century school by suggesting four necessary components; comprehensive career literacy, access to advanced academics, development of strategic partnerships, and digital support for lifelong learning. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Consider this graphic:

This captures the essence of the four major components and applies them at each grade level. Throughout the elementary and middle school years one finds the progressive focus on academic and career literacy development for students. The high school years are divided into lower high school and upper high school with an emphasis on high school redesign. Students at this point are preparing to identify career goals to direct their high school graduation plan. Some will be prepared to do this by the end of 8th grade, others could need more time. Whatever goals they set can be identified and supported within one of the six career centers. Those that know they are focused on careers that require a university or graduate degree should take advantage of the most academically challenging curriculum available to prepare for success at that level. However, most student are going to get the best return on investment for their higher education dollars as they prepare to earn the appropriate credentials that demonstrate skill mastery within a career cluster. This opens doors for a variety of experiences in the upper high school program. These experiences are very practical to include apprenticeships, internships, on-the-job training, and credential preparation at local community colleges or higher education centers.

Why focus on these six career centers when there are sixteen basic career clusters? Because high school is the place for foundational preparation. A student can specialize their preparation for any job goal through a strong academic and skill base in one of these areas. Consider some examples. Through the Health and Human Services Center one could prepare for any one of a myriad of jobs in healthcare, social services, or education. Through the Advanced Technology Center, a student can focus on software coding, internet security, or computer hardware or network support services. The STEM Center will offer preparation in building trades, auto-mechanics, and advanced manufacturing. There are universities in Virginia that offer advanced degrees for each career center for those jobs that require a BA, MA, or Ph.D.  Southside Virginia Community College and the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center offer industry certifications appropriate for each Center. Perhaps most important, there are businesses in Mecklenburg County to partner with each Center that can support internship or apprenticeship programs for students.

This is an outline for a practical education that prepares a student for life rather than passing a minimum competency test. Focusing on future career realities motivates students and parents because it engages the financial and workforce competition of the real world. It engages local business to identify the specific skills they are looking for in a workforce. It opens doors for students to engage their interest in local sports, civic organizations, and extra curricular activities and makes these a part of their education experience. This is preparing students for the 21st Century.