Monday, September 16, 2013

JCPS lengthens school day to help struggling students at 18 low-performing schools

This from Toni Konz at C-J:
Starting this week, the school day will be a couple of hours longer at 18 of Jefferson County’s lowest-performing public schools — an effort to boost achievement for thousands of struggling students.
Jefferson County Public Schools will provide an extra two hours of tutoring and support on Mondays, Wednesday and Thursdays, part of a $5 million effort by the district to help students who need it the most.

The district has identified 5,130 students eligible for voluntary after-hours academic help at its 18 persistently low-achieving schools — Fern Creek, Shawnee, Valley, Western, Doss, Fairdale, Iroquois, Seneca, Southern and Waggener high schools and Frost, Western, Knight, Olmstead North, Myers, Stuart, Thomas Jefferson and Westport middle schools.

District officials say they will offer the same extended learning opportunities to other schools after the newest round of test scores comes out later this month.

“We want to give these students an extra opportunity to learn what they haven’t learned,” said Superintendent Donna Hargens in an interview. “By extending the day, they will be able to work directly with a teacher who can help them with lessons or assignments they are having difficulty with.”

Although the extended-day program is not mandatory, Hargens said she hopes parents and students will take full advantage. Letters have been sent to parents for students who qualify for the program, either because of a teacher’s recommendation or because of academic data that shows that are falling behind.

“These kids were selected to participate in this program because they have needs — it’s very intentional,” Hargens said. “The schools are expecting them to take advantage of this extra help. We don’t want this opportunity to pass them by.”

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, who has criticized JCPS’s handling of overhaul efforts at 18 low-performing schools and called on officials to make more drastic changes, said Friday he applauds the district’s effort.

Holliday said that while many of the state’s other struggling schools offer after school tutoring, none are as detailed as Jefferson County’s.

“This is the most comprehensive plan for extended day that we’ve seen, and we have great confidence that this plan — if parents and students take advantage — will have an impact on student outcomes,” he said.

Principals across the district say they are equally optimistic.

“This kind of intervention will be more direct — we’ll be able to provide specific enrichment opportunities for each student and make sure we are catering to their specific needs and not a one size fits all solution,” said Iroquois High principal Chris Perkins. “It shouldn’t look like what they learned during the day — it will be more focused, more prescriptive.”

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, said the extended-learning program will help resolve some of teachers’ frustrations over trying to help struggling students.
“Many teachers have said they just don’t have enough time during the day for interventions and for planning quality instruction for other students,” he said. “This will give teachers time to work with struggling kids in a smaller setting, while also planning quality lessons.”

Finding the funding

The $5 million being used for the extended learning program is coming from the district’s reserve funds, a move that was overwhelmingly supported by the school board over the summer.

“If we can provide a longer school day for kids who are struggling and match them up with teachers who can best reach them and are committed to making a difference, this will be money well spent,” school board member David Jones Jr. said in an interview Friday. “This is a huge investment, and I have high hopes and expectations that this program will work.”

Hargens said the district will spend $3 million to pay approximately 200 teachers and 100 other classified staff members as part of the extended-day program at the 18 schools. That leaves approximately $2 million for other schools to use on after-school learning programs.

“We have kids who are struggling in every school and we want to be able to help as many as we can,” she said. “We are waiting for test scores to come out later this month and will determine our next steps based on the data that we receive.”

As part of the $5 million, the district will provide bus transportation back home to those who participate.

Hargens said the district will also use separate federal nutrition funds to provide a third meal for students.

“We are trying to remove the obstacles that have prevented students from participating in these kinds of programs in the past,” she said.
Dewey Hensley, chief academic officer for JCPS, said each school submitted a plan on how they will use the extended learning time in their buildings, but all schools will focus their interventions in math, as well as reading and writing across all subjects.

He said the extra learning time will also blend technology with one-on-one instruction in an attempt to “connect students with the greatest needs to the most effective teachers.”

At Iroquois, Perkins said he is hoping to target about 150 students daily.

“Our main goal is to go above and beyond what we are already doing and get our kids back on track before it’s too late,” he said.

Priscilla Najera, an Iroquois junior, said she thinks the longer school day will be beneficial.

“I think it will really help me focus on some things I’m having a hard time understanding,” she said. “This will give me more of an chance to talk to a teacher and get extra help.”

The 17-year-old said she isn’t concerned about losing time after school to socialize.

“Education is more important than going to play or whatever,” she said. “I can do that later on.”

Knight Middle School principal Faith Stroud said the extended-learning program will help many of her families who can’t afford tutoring.

“This is a free program that we will use to help our students with their academics, but also work on connecting with them outside of the normal school day,” she said.

Stroud is focusing Knight’s extended-day program on her entire sixth-grade class, using teachers to help with homework and build important skills such as accessing resources. On Thursdays, students will be encouraged to participate in academic clubs.

Of Knight’s 150 sixth-graders, 40 have committed to participating, Stroud said.

“You have to look at who your kids are and who you can have the most influence and potential with,” she said. “A lot of my older kids can’t stay after school because they are responsible for getting their younger siblings off the bus.”

District officials say they are hopeful the extended day program will have an impact not only on test scores, but on overall academic achievement.

“We are making a huge commitment to our students who need extra help,” Hargens said. “I really believe it’s going to make a difference.”

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