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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How to save Jacksonville's Intevene schools

With the school board set to vote on what to do I thought this was timely. I have a plan they seemingly have none. -cpg

A common definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over but to expect a different outcome. Well as I sit here three weeks before school begins it looks to me as if the district is content to do the same thing again.

Our local education system has systemic problems that need to be addressed in order for its long-term health to be assured. We need to increase the amount of parental involvement and community buy-in. We need to develop multiple curriculums that serve more children rather than having just the one-size fits all one where everybody is going to go to college right after they graduate and finally the district has to change it’s unwritten pass them along (without skills, discipline and a work ethic) policy that they have now.

These policies have led to seven of our schools being placed on the intervene list (more than any other city in the state). Six of these schools are neighborhood high schools. This means six of or 14 neighborhood high schools are considered six of the worst schools in the state. Several other neighborhood high schools aren’t far off.

There are some things I believe we can do in the short term however that will lead to rapid and appreciable improvement and we need to start with three basic ideas.

A realistic schedule/curriculum
Teacher buy-in

These can be improved without breaking the bank or reinventing the wheel.

I honestly believe changing the schedule would do the greatest amount of good. The A/B block schedule is too much for kids both barely interested school and without the skills they need. We need a schedule where kids are constantly getting reinforced and don’t have the opportunity to bet bored or cut up. This could be achieved with a six or seven period day where the classes met everyday. If the district is not willing to mandate it at all the intervene schools, I would suggest a pilot program for the new intervene schools. We can’t continue to do things the same way and hope things miraculously change.

The district is going to more reading in the content area classes and I think this is an excellent idea. However, the teachers need to be trained how to do this before the new school year begins. If they are trained over the course of the year there will be diminished returns.

Adding more requirements to classes, such as reading assignments, to the content area classes leads to other problems. Teachers feel overworked as it is which means adding more things to their plate will both be met with resistance and often be applied in an uneven fashion. In short, if you are going to put something on their plate and you want it to succeed then you really should take something off of it.

The state mandated word walls, complicated daily agendas, mini lessons, focus lessons, massive data notebooks and two page lesson plans with scripted questions have been insisted on in the intervene schools for years. We can all see how well this is working. I would seriously consider streamlining the agenda and lesson plans and strongly encouraging word walls but not making them mandatory. It also seems to be a huge waste of both manpower and resources to require teachers to keep a telephone book sized ring binder of printed data on their students, when all the information is on the computer; literally at their fingertips already.

Furthermore I recommend making the learning schedules more flexible. If the first third of a class is use reinforcing reading skills then it just makes sense that classes will fall behind on the leaning schedule. Besides it seems to make sense that we make sure kids learn some things rather than just be exposed to many things.

It’s not just reading that should be taught in the content area classes but writing as well. The state just said they are really going to increase the rigor on the FCAT writing tests. Many of our kids are taught format writing for the test not actually how to write. Continuing in years past this has been the one area that the intervene schools have done well in. If these free points are suddenly taken away from those schools I can imagine a scenario where things get worse and do so quickly. If we want to see appreciable gains or at least minimize points lost, imagine a class where a third of the class is spent writing about a topic, a third reading about the topic and the final third learning about a topic.

If teachers then had topics provided to them rather than having to create them themselves they would be more likely to use them. It takes a lot of time and effort to find an appropriate reading and develop questions around them. Also remember many of these kids don’t have the skills that they need which means before we can move them forward we have to catch them up.

Continuing with reading, I think it would be a great idea is all the intervene schools offered at least one section of creative writing, yearbook and/or student newspaper. These writing based classes would help out. At my school I don’t think we offered any of these classes.

Discipline should be addressed. Teachers have become experts of ignoring bad behavior and putting out fires, which takes away from the learning environments. If a teacher spends just ten minutes a class doing these things that’s a month of academic time lost over the course of a year. A few bad apples can indeed spoil a cart and we would have such tremendous addition with just a little subtraction.

I recommend creating mini grand parks at the schools where kids would go to for weeks at a time. If they didn’t do their work they would have another day added, if they missed a day they would have another day added. They would go to lunch after the normal lunch period but not be allowed to sit together and as a group have two restroom breaks a day. In these mini grand park kids would sit individually at tables or in study carrels not allowed to talk. There work would be provided to them and when they had questions or needed help they would raise their hands to ask for it. After two weeks I am sure kids would not want to return and I can imagine it being a powerful inducement to behave especially if they were sent there after just two referrals. Remember for a consequence to be meaningful, it must be meaningful. Right now we woefully lack meaningful consequences.

It could be staffed by academic coaches, assistant principals and by teachers periodically willing to give up a planning period here and there.

Grade recovery should be changed. It should only be for kids that try hard but just don’t get it and need a little more or for kids who have legitimate reasons for missing many days. So many kids use it as a fall back and just show up to cut up. That should be stopped immediately and it should be announced from day one that is how things are. Behavior, effort and attendance must count for something.

After the first nine weeks I suggest regrouping kids by ability. I know this has become a taboo concept in some education circles but it would allow the schools to have accelerated groups and groups that needed extra attention. We scream differentiate our curriculum but doesn’t this just make things harder? It would be much easier to teach one group of kids on the same level rather than three groups of kids at the same time who were on different levels.

Finally I would encourage your administrators to allow teachers to fail students, something we haven’t been able to do for years, and write referrals. Teachers should not be scared to write referrals or fail kids. If a teacher does these things it doesn’t necessarily make them bad. Preparing kids for life, which has consequences for a lack of effort and bad behavior should be the minimum of what we are doing.

By having a realistic schedule/curriculum that better suits the students’ needs, exchanging teacher busy work for work that will assist the kids to learn and catch up and by instilling discipline, I think immediate and appreciable gains can be achieved.

None of this is reinventing the wheel and I imagine most if not all are things many people have already thought of. Its now just time we put these measures into our schools.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

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