Tuesday, June 18, 2013

JCPS seeks to turn around academic performance through innovation

This from the Courier-Journal:
For years, Jefferson County Public Schools has tried a host of measures to turn around its lowest-performing schools and students — with limited success.

Now, JCPS hopes to make new inroads after receiving permission to bend some state education rules that will allow it to launch innovations aimed at fundamentally rethinking how and where students learn, what constitutes a school day and how to loosen poverty’s stranglehold on students.
Their plans include:
• An innovative charter-like school developed from community ideas that could include flexible days or even room and board for students.
• An interactive iPad program with a Facebook-like interface, on which students could read, do assignments, take tests and confer with classmates and teachers outside of school, 24 hours a day.
• Jointly taught classes using videoconferencing to pair master and novice teachers.
• New technology that instantly links disadvantaged students to help within their community — before their grades tumble.

“If we are going to get different results for students, we need to think beyond the traditional ways of doing things,” said Dewey Hensley, the district’s chief academic officer.

The initiatives were approved earlier this month by the Kentucky Board of Education, which chose JCPS as one of four “Districts of Innovation” — through a program the General Assembly created last year to give schools flexibility to experiment.

The state has agreed to waive regulations in areas such as student attendance, turnaround options for failing schools, the length of teacher work days and year to allow for extra compensation, and definitions of a school day to allow JCPS to pursue its plans.

Most of the innovation efforts focus on students at the district’s 18 persistently low-performing schools, which already have undergone overhauls because of chronically poor test scores.

The plans themselves remain largely conceptual: It’s not clear which schools might be chosen for which initiatives. But the district is convening a task force to work out details, logistics, staffing and plans so they can enact the ideas over the next two years.

Brand new school


As soon as this summer, the district will hold public-input sessions to hear suggestions for its most ambitious idea, a new magnet school that will operate and teach in out-of-the-box ways, potentially operating with elements normally associated with charter schools. It could be created from an existing school or placed in a new building.

“We’re going to have a competition for designing a new school,” said Bob Rodosky, director of accountability, research and planning for JCPS.

He said the district will seek ideas from universities, church groups, education advocates, business leaders and individuals, with the school board honing them before fully developing the ideas and choosing an approach.

Although the possibilities are wide open, among those that could be considered are a residential school for disadvantaged students, a grade 6-9 or 6-12 academy, a school with flexible hours and longer days, a school with project-based learning or one that partners with a university, education or community group, district officials said.

Rodosky said he doesn’t want to fall into the trap of not being “imaginative enough.”

“We don’t want anything that looks like what we currently have,” said Superintendent Donna Hargens.

That sentiment was echoed by state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday — who has pressured Jefferson County to improve its poor-performing schools and described their failings as “academic genocide.” He has urged the district to do more than rearrange “the chairs on the Titanic.”

Looking for models


Legislators created the Districts of Innovation program in 2012, with elements of the law modeled on components of charter school laws in other states.

But Kentucky charter school proponents — who for years have pushed unsuccessfully to legalize them in this state — contend that while a charter-like effort may lead to improvements, it is not a meaningful substitute since the school system will still run the schools.

In all, 16 districts submitted applications to the Kentucky Department of Education.
Of those, the state has chosen four. Besides JCPS, they are Danville Independent, Eminence Independent and Taylor County, whose ideas include personalized study, progressing by showing mastery of concepts instead of school year and flexible learning schedules.

No extra state funding comes with the designation, and JCPS hasn’t put a price tag on its plan yet. But David Cook, the state Education Department’s director of innovation, said Kentucky may help districts pay for their initiatives through its nonprofit educational “venture capital” fund for innovation, with other costs shared by districts and local charities.

Hensley said he hopes to find donors to help with tablets and other costs, and partner with groups such as Metro United Way and universities. Hargens said it would be a good opportunity for business and other groups to help.

JCPS believes the ideas can help it reach ambitious goals by 2017 — boosting graduation rates from 69 percent to 84 percent, reducing achievement gaps, increasing reading and math proficiency and boosting college and career readiness rates among students from 45 percent to 79 percent.

The district’s plan, approved earlier this year by the JCPS school board, had already received the support of groups and individuals such as Greater Louisville Inc., Mayor Greg Fischer, Metro United Way and Jefferson County Parent-Teacher Association President Cherie Dimar, who called it a “chance to better address achievement gaps.”

Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim said many questions remain, such as how staggered schedules and extended learning support would be staffed.

Although teacher approval is not needed for changes at the district’s 18 persistently low-performing schools, teacher buy-in would still be important, he said. Some of the ideas could figure into ongoing teacher contract negotiations, he said.

He said the teachers union will want to be among the groups weighing in with ideas for the school, which he said could perhaps be run with a university partner or an organization such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which helps run public charter schools across the country.
The Rev. Jerry Stephenson, state director of the Black Alliance for Educational Option, which advocates for charter schools, said he’s “glad they recognize they’ve got to do something different.” Although his group will add to suggestions, such as a school that extends the school day and year, he remains skeptical the changes will be substantial.

“How many times have we heard innovation in the past 40 years? Usually it’s the same things done over and over, they just put a different set of clothes on it,” he said.

More innovations


Along with the school, the district’s application shows there are are three other main components:
• A “learn anywhere” academic software program, used on donated tablets or iPads, where students could access class texts, assignments and quizzes and interact with teachers, fellow students and mentors — possibly enabling flexible school schedules.

Rodosky said the district is looking at existing software or programs currently in development by private groups to find a user-friendly and interactive system — a far cry from the clunky, semi-functional class Web pages of the past.

He said he hopes to introduce them at a couple of schools before expanding the program, perhaps even beyond the low-performing schools. That could give students an option to learn and do work from home for part of some days, officials said.

“This smartphone and tablet stuff has young people engaged, and we’ve got to take advantage of that,” he said. “Kids are in school only 9 percent of the time, and this lets us expand learning experiences.”

• Improving access to high-level instruction by linking experienced and novice teachers at different schools through jointly taught classes using videoconferencing. For example, a new science teacher at a low-performing school might be linked with a duPont Manual High teacher, officials said. It also could allow students to take Advanced Placement courses not offered at their own school. In addition, teams of teachers would be linked to improve instruction and share ideas in “professional learning communities” with similar groups at higher-performing schools.

• Expand a program already being developed that would pinpoint students who face difficulties outside school — such as poverty, hunger, violence in the home or medical needs that interfere with schooling.

Instead of relying on time-crunched counselors making calls, at-risk students would be entered in a online system called Louisville Linked — an idea that grew out of a Leadership Louisville group — and become instantly connected to partnering community groups and churches and social service help.

That could help a emotionally distraught child whose parent was sent to prison connect with a Big Brother, help a child get eyeglasses or connect a student to summer camp, officials said.

“In the past, those kinds of things happened in spite of the system, not because of it,” Hensley said.

On the clock


While the district’s application states that the school could open as early as the 2014-15 school year, officials say it could take longer.

Teacher collaboration and the interactive learning ideas would likely begin sometime in the 2013-14 to 2014-15 school years.

The online support links will be operating this fall, Rodosky said.

State officials say they’ll keep close tabs on the district’s plans, and can revoke the status at any time.
But they’ll also work with the district if more flexibility is needed, Cook said. He said the state over the summer would work on a system for measuring success across the four districts, including gains on test scores, graduation and college readiness rates.

JCPS leaders don’t expect the efforts to be easy — they have to figure out how to fund, staff and implement them.

But Hensley said educators nationally need to search for new solutions to improve historically low-performing students and schools.

“For a long time, education has been frozen to the face of the mountain, unable to move up or down, and at some point you’ve got to let go and try a new route,” he said. “In many ways, that’s where we are.”

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