Data, Collaboration and Laptops Support 21st Century Skills
The North High School Academic Decathlon Team from Des Moines, Iowa had its most successful year in a decade during the 2011-2012 school year. Competing against 12 schools in Central Iowa, the North team placed first in a regional competition.
The win at regionals led them to the state competition, where the team placed 5th and earned 15 medals. They earned a spot at the national online competition by achieving the highest score of medium-sized schools at the state level where they finished 7th nationally in their division with six individual medals.
The North Robotics team also competed at the national level this year after winning second place in the qualifying matches of the FIRST Tech Challenge Iowa Robotics Competition and winning the FIRST Tech Challenge Inspire Award – one that awards a team for their journey in building the robot, completing an engineering notebook, promoting robotics in the community and the performance of the robot.
Not to be outdone, the Science Bound program at North has been named the best high school program four years in a row. Science Bound is a partnership between the Des Moines Public Schools (and two other smaller Iowa school districts) and Iowa State University that encourages minority students to pursue careers in STEM fields.
With achievements like that, it might be surprising to learn that the school serves a diverse student population dealing with poverty and homelessness. Nearly 75 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch, there are 19 different languages spoken on campus and almost a quarter of the students are in the special education program.
North is also one of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign intensive support sites, where NEA, state and local associations are supporting replicable, member-led school reform in 39 of the nation’s most struggling schools. The strategies and innovations being implemented in these schools have the potential to create a ripple effect for change in education policy and practice nationwide.
The Gains and How They Got Them
North gained 19.3 points in reading and 19 points in science on Iowa’s state standardized tests, the Iowa Tests of Educational Development (ITED). They also gained 8.9 percentage points in math. The science and reading gains took them from last place in the district to second.
“We place a different focus on class time,” said North Principal Matt Smith. “Two years ago when you walked into North, you’d find students in the hallway or just milling around. Now I think you’ll find a more engaging classroom that brings the students in, they want to learn, they want to be a part of what’s taking place in the classroom. The result of that is you have higher test scores.”
Staff and administrators at North have created a school environment focused on data and professionalism. Teams meet for 80 minutes every other day. The four School Improvement Leaders spend 90 percent of their day in classrooms with the teachers, coaching, doing walkthroughs, providing feedback and mentoring students. Every Wednesday, school lets out an hour and a half early for teachers to participate in professional development. Most of the professional development is teacher led, growing leaders from their own ranks.
“One of the things I think is really important is teachers have discovered they never really want to teach alone ever again,” said Jessica Gogerty, a School Improvement Leader and former physics teacher at North. “It’s made all of us stronger.”
Key to the collaborative and data-infused culture at North are the data team meetings.
“We designed the master schedule so that teachers had time to work together during the day. Every core teacher that teaches the same subject, whether it’s Algebra 1 or special education self-contained, they all have planning time together,” said Gogerty.
Here’s how Praveen Bannikatti, a 20th Century World History and AP Human Geography teacher at North outlines how the data team for World History works:
- The teachers look at the district’s World History benchmark tests with a School Improvement Leader. They give students a pretest at the beginning of each unit.
- Once the results are in from the pretest, they used their data director system to see which students are not proficient before the unit.
- They then develop a curriculum framework from questions that were most often missed and what they need to cover for the unit.
- As they develop the curriculum framework, the World History teachers develop three common formative assessments that they will all use throughout the unit to measure proficiency.
- From the formative assessments they see where the problems are, review instructional strategies together in data team meetings, and share what’s working for their students.
- Last is the district benchmark post-test for the unit where the teachers can see if their strategies helped students gain proficiency.
“I was a little hesitant at first because I didn’t quite understand it,” said Bannikatti. “But now I see how it works and it’s showing growth. It shows us what our students are and are not understanding, and what they’re able to do along the way. It’s beneficial for the students and it’s measurable.”
A Focus on Literacy
One of the major programs discussed in professional development time at North is the writing-to-learn initiative and literacy.
“If you think about it, reading and writing are skills that are involved in every aspect of our life,” explained Joe VanHaecke, a 9th-grade English teacher at North. “If we compartmentalize that into just English classes, students fail to make that connection.”
Writing-to-learn means students get daily writing activities to further explore concepts they learn in every class, even in choir. Literacy is further boosted at North with a 45-minute literacy course in the middle of each day.
“As a math teacher, incorporating some of the literacy strategies helps both me and my students,” said Amanda Dvorak, a math teacher at North. “With our new curriculum there’s a lot more story problems and the kids have to do a lot more reading. The literacy program has given me the tools as a teacher to be able to show my students how to read a math book, not just a novel.”
Updating Technology and Teaching Skills
In October of 2011, North rolled out a one-to-one laptop initiative – every student is issued a school-owned laptop for the year – funded through the School Improvement Grant. The goal of the program is to increase engagement and level the playing field for both students and staff.
“A lot of the kids or parents at the suburban schools have their own computers. Here, we felt like it would let our kids be at on same playing field in research and projects,” said Michael Lucht, an Algebra II teacher and technology specialist at the school. “We felt like it would enhance their education and we’d be able to push the kids harder.”
Teachers got their computers six months before students and formed subcommittees to address the various aspects of implementation. For example, they had a committee on community outreach and one for the professional development they’d need for the laptops. Staff went through a lot of training, on everything from basic computer technology to maintaining webpages for use in their classrooms.
“All of it was led by teachers with administrative support, so they were really driving the process,” said Melissa Spencer, president of the Des Moines Education Association the past two years. “It wasn’t the administration laying out the expectations and them just falling in line.” Spencer will return to the classroom at North this fall as a 9th grade Conceptual Physics and new project-based AP Environmental Science teacher.
While the laptops have many benefits, such as more instant feedback through online quizzes, there have been some big challenges. Classroom management is hard enough without students being able to pull up YouTube or Twitter any time in class. And not all students have Internet access at home.
So far the benefits seem to outweigh the challenges. “Getting the laptops was a big change,” said A.J. Walker, a rising senior at North. “I don’t think any students could really come up with an excuse for not turning in an assignment, everything became so accessible.”
With results like North’s, it is obvious the teachers and education support professionals go above and beyond. Expanding their teaching with the use of data and completely reorganizing the master schedule around collaboration time and intervention time for students is tough. And exhausting. But with a passionate staff that is an active partner in transformation, North is showing the signs that it can be done.
“The staff at North have always done a good job realizing we can help lead the change we want to see,” said Spencer. “Throughout the school improvement process, the staff have been part of the conversation about what kind of feedback they need to see in their classrooms and part of the conversation about data and professional development. By having a voice, it’s helped everyone understand where they need to go.”