Progress at Belmont Continues, One Step at a Time
Test scores get all the press when talking about how to measure the success of a school transformation.
Belmont High School in southeast Dayton is doing things a little differently. They’re taking it one step at a time. And halfway through a three-year school improvement plan, they’re seeing results.
First up was getting student discipline in order. The dramatic drop in violence at the school has been covered by the NEA Priority Schools Campaign and Dayton Daily News. Now the Belmont story continues with collaborative efforts to ramp up the school’s academic discipline.
“You can actually learn here now,” said Brooke Todd, a senior who vividly remembers the fight she witnessed her first day at Belmont as a freshman. “I probably wouldn’t be graduating if the school hadn’t changed.”
Quantitative achievements don’t fully demonstrate what’s happening at Belmont. It’s things like teachers requesting to transfer into the school after years of an ‘evacuation model.’ Students are not only working, they are working to improve. There are actually extracurricular activities now at Belmont.
And the numbers are here, too:
- Belmont has increased its Performance Index score by 3.5 percent from the 2009-2010 to 2010-2011 school years. The Performance Index is a weighted average that includes all tested subjects, grades and untested subjects. It is designed to reflect the achievement of every student enrolled in the school.
- Promotion rates have risen significantly. In 2008-2009, only 30 percent of ninth graders were promoted, while the next year, the figure went up to 63 percent. In 2010-2011, the number climbed even further—all the way up to 84 percent. A similar pattern emerged for tenth graders. In 2008-2009, 42 percent were promoted, in 2009-2010, 78 percent moved on to the next grade, and for the 2010-2011 school year, the figure stands at 80 percent.
- College-level test participation has risen dramatically. In 2008-2009, eight juniors took the ACT, and in 2009-2010, that number doubled to 17. In 2010-2011, 80 juniors took the test. 86 percent of Belmont students have been accepted to some form of post-secondary education.
“Everything’s on an upward trend,” said Michael Slightam, an American History teacher at Belmont. “Of course there’s always room for improvement. Anytime that you go through growth and change, you know you’re going to experience pain, which is fine. But we’re not afraid as a group or a team to discover what we did wrong and fix it rather than hide from it.”
Talk About Stressful
The start of the 2011-2012 school year brought 7th and 8th graders into the mix at Belmont. As if adding two grade levels with pretty much the same staff wasn’t stressful enough, they moved into a new building just after Thanksgiving.
“We got off to a pretty good start during the year, and then the move happened,” said Belmont Principal David White, whose bullhorn has been replaced by a microphone and speaker system. “The process literally took nine weeks, so second quarter was rough.”
But the stress associated with the move seems to be short-lived. The new Belmont building is one of, if not the, nicest and most state-of-the-art in the district. With bright windows, a nice cafeteria, and air-conditioning, the new environment is a vast improvement over the old. The gym induces jealousy from the other high schools in the district.
The physical setting adds to the sense of Belmont pride that is growing as the transformation proceeds. Many at the school associate moving with a literal shedding of the “old Belmont.”
“Once we got out of the old and into the new, the focus of the teachers and students switched more towards academics,” said Ken Kraemer, assistant principal. We see less behavior problems, more positive influence on grades.”
Along with excitement for the new space is respect and opportunity. At the old Belmont, students could not be trusted with toilet paper in the bathrooms. Instead, they had to check it out from staff. That’s no longer an issue as students work hard to maintain the cleanliness of their school.
“The students are ecstatic about being in the new building,” said Bobo Harmon, a paraprofessional who can always be found with a group of students, making sure they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. “They like the space, the colors, the brightness. It’s a good feeling right now.”
But adding 7th and 8th graders and learning the ins and outs of a new building aren’t the only stresses at Belmont.
The school is in a district dealing with the requirements of the federal Race to the Top program. On top of that they have an additional set of requirements from the federal School Improvement Grant program. The district, Dayton Public Schools (DPS) is also beginning to transition curriculum, instruction and assessment processes to meet the new expectations of the Common Core Standards, which will be implemented in Ohio in 2015. All of this while the district faces an approximate $12 million deficit in the state budget.
“There’s a full-blown shift in the educational system in Ohio,” said White. “It’s been a huge challenge, and I just try to keep everybody up. I stay as transparent as I can and just say ‘this is what I know and I don’t know everything’ but as long as we’re working at this together, we should be okay.”
David Romick, president of the Dayton Education Association, sees a lot of frustration and flux with the various federal, state and local requirements.
“There’s a lot of ‘what’s next?’ or ‘what else?’” said Romick. “Our teachers took 4,000 units of professional development last summer on their own time to gear up for transformation this school year… but the question hanging out there is how much of it, if any, is going to be required.”
Romick meets with DPS superintendent Lori L. Ward weekly to keep up to date on all the issues surrounding education reform. His relationship with Principal White remains close and collaborative as they work together to keep the staff at Belmont from becoming too overwhelmed.
The focus on reform is a shift from the traditional role of local association leader. “When I was new, I saw myself as a member advocate, working through issues with members,” said Romick. “Now it’s become much more of a reform management role.”
When Educators Get the Chance to Lead
While dealing with the stresses that come along with education reform, the morale remains high at Belmont. That’s what happens when educators are considered equal partners in the school’s transformation.
In the summer of 2010, Belmont Principal David White gathered all the teachers, handed out the district pacing guide and told them to write their own curriculum to align with the district requirements. Last summer, staff came in with their subject area teams and adjusted the curriculum.
As Marjorie Punter, a literature teacher at Belmont explains: “You had to take the curriculum you were working under, and project where you wanted it to go. At the end of the year we wrote a crosswalk on where we thought things should be changed. For some of mine I had to adjust timeframes; didn’t spend enough time on this, too much time on that. Then we reworked the curriculum based on the crosswalks.”
Ultimately the students benefit most from their teachers leading the education program. “Our curriculum is designed around the learning needs of the students that we have, you know, our kids,” said Slightam.
The collective input on the curriculum has enabled everyone to be on the same page; who is teaching what and when. With a strong curriculum in place, attention has shifted to classroom learning.
The learning is structured around three measurable units: bell work, the very beginning of a class period where previously taught material is reviewed; classwork, the teaching and student participation of new material; and homework, assignments that reinforce what was learned in class.
“We started out on bell work, classwork and homework. It was an attendance thing, like how many students are doing it?” said John Seebock, Dean of Students. “Now we’ve moved on to the next level with how well are they doing it? By finding out how well they are doing on bell work, classwork and homework, you can decide how well you’re teaching that subject matter.”
The teachers and students set weekly performance goals together. “It’s a nice way to start each week with your students,” said Katherine Schaaf, a 7th and 8th grade math teacher. To say ‘this is where we were last week. This is what we achieved. Now how do we bring everybody up in the class?’”
Teachers then measure how well their students performed on the bell work, classwork and homework assignments. The data is shared in weekly grade-level team meetings with administrators and decorate the classroom walls. In fact, you can’t turn a corner in the school without seeing progress charts in the halls. Even during lunch, the Ohio Graduation Test results are shining from a projector as students eat, constantly drilling in the importance of their academic success.
“The nice thing about what we do here at Belmont is that everybody is consistent with the type of data that they track,” said Schaaf. “We are truly using it to make decisions about what we’re doing.”
There is a lot of hope that the school’s focus on academics and use of data can get the 7th and 8th graders on the Belmont track a lot earlier.
The 7th and 8th graders have their own wing of the school, slightly isolated from the older students. This year there are fewer than 40 students; next year there will be more than 100. What happens at Belmont will determine if other high schools in the district adopt the same model.
“I like the idea of getting the 7th and 8th graders sooner because our 7th graders are so far behind,” said White, who has personally taken to monitoring their wing during class changes. “We’re trying to track down why, it didn’t happen here, but it terms of curriculum and instruction, we’ve realized now that it’s better to have them in the building so we can get them to where they need to be.”
For example, the 7th, 8th and 9th grade teachers are all on the same team that meets twice a week. They can discuss the problem areas they see in the transition to high school. In addition, teachers meet with their subject area peers where the higher-grade teachers can identify weaknesses they are seeing and the lower grade teachers can work on strengthening those skills and better preparing the students for the higher levels.
“We are setting up a curriculum that will fit the 7th and 8th graders so when they transition into the high school level, they will be able to succeed,” explained Kim Norsworthy, a 7th and 8th grade teacher at Belmont. “They will know what’s expected by their teachers, and the teachers will know what’s expected by the students.”
The Proof is in School Spirit
You know the Belmont plan is working when students are at school until 9 PM working on academic projects.
“We have kids that are getting involved in things that kids normally wouldn’t get involved in,” said Slightam.
For example, National History Day is a big deal in Dayton Public Schools. It’s a competition with events at the district, state and national levels that encourages students to submit imaginative exhibits, original performances, media documentaries, Web sites and papers related to a chosen theme. In the past, Belmont students would have one, maybe two entries for the competition. This year, after making it to the state competition last year, the school has seven entries.
There is still work to be done at Belmont, as the school has yet to meet Adequate Yearly Progress. But you can tell they’re getting there, as the students become more engaged and eager for new learning opportunities.
Government teacher Kate Sanicky was teaching her class about Washington, D.C. last semester. A group of students who had never been outside Dayton approached her about organizing a trip to D.C. since they were learning about it.
Sanicky agreed to chaperon and the students set to work fundraising for the trip. They spent eight hours a day gift-wrapping at the mall on weekends during holiday season. They tapped into teachers and Belmont alumni. They sold candles, candy, cookie dough and coupon books. “You name, they’ve done it all,” said Sanicky.
The students raised enough funds and spent spring break visiting and learning more about the nation’s capitol.
“It is a lot of time,” said Sanicky. “But when students start saying ‘Ms. Sanicky you do everything’ you realize that builds rapport with them, they understand you care about them. So they put in the extra time as far as their academics are concerned. They don’t want to let you down because they know you’re not going to let them down.”
The focus on academics and improvement in grades has also enabled more students to participate in athletics. Eligibility used to be a major issue for the coaches at Belmont. “I used to bite my nails and think ‘how many kids am I going to lose?’” said Slightam, who is also the baseball coach for Belmont. “Now I’m confident.”
Kipp Grubuagh is the intervention specialist at Belmont, and the wrestling coach. Last year, 16 students tried out for the wrestling team. This year there were over 30. “With the order in the building I’ve noticed the sports participation is up,” said Grubaugh. “There are more students coming out for teams, and we’re becoming more and more successful, too”
Not only did Belmont have its first pep rally in memory this year, the school’s football team had its most winning season in nine years. The girl’s volleyball and basketball teams also excelled this season, generating a greater sense of school spirit for the Belmont Bison. “It used to be that the Belmont crowd was four or five people,” said Punter. “But now people are coming to the games and the students are starting to support the teams.”
The changes at Belmont are having a positive impact on even the most at-risk students.
Austin Carr was a truant student. He dropped out, came back, dropped out again. With a young brother at home and mother in and out of the hospital, school did not seem like a top priority. “It just got to me,” said Carr. “A diploma is just a piece of paper and it just wasn’t as important as my family.”
He was forced to come back to school by the court, but the attention of Principal White and his teachers got Carr back on track and kept him coming to school. While taking on the role of a strict disciplinarian with the students, almost like a drill sergeant, Principal White does have a softer side. Walk through the halls or spend a lunch period with White, and it’s clear he knows nearly all of the student’s names and the effective ways to encourage them.
Last year, Carr’s interim report showed really strong improvements. Principal White took notice and the first day back from spring break, called Carr into his office. Carr was surprised to find out he wasn’t in trouble.
“Mr. White showed me my report and was like ‘dude, I’ve never seen a jump like this.’ I’ve been coming to school ever since. I’m getting good grades and it keeps me out of trouble.”