School & District Management

Tackling Two ‘Danger Zones’ of Freshman Year: Attendance and Homework

By Catherine Gewertz — June 19, 2018 7 min read
Assistant Principal Jolene Grimes, left, talks with new students during a family night for incoming freshmen at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle.
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Nathan Hale High School and Jane Addams Middle School are only half a block apart, but for many years, the adults who ran them rarely talked to each other, even though something crucial was at stake: the often-rocky transition from 8th to 9th grade.

“We can see each other’s kids in the crosswalk, we’re that close. But for a long time, we didn’t have much of a relationship,” said Tina Tudor, the 9th grade coordinator at Nathan Hale, in North Seattle.

Now, the closeness is more than geographic. Because of a new initiative that’s designed to help students make a strong start in high school, leaders at Jane Addams and Nathan Hale are communicating frequently and collaborating to build family support as their students navigate the move to high school.

The work is part of a research project in Seattle that involves 22 middle and high schools. In partnership with scholars from Johns Hopkins University, and supported by a four-year, $2.5 million federal grant, Seattle is working to identify strategies to involve families in helping their children get ready for high school in 8th grade and grapple with new expectations and responsibilities in 9th grade.

The theory behind the project is that strong partnerships between schools and parents can tackle two key danger zones of 9th grade: poor attendance and unfinished homework. Across the country, those two dynamics account for a lot of course failures in the freshman year and increase the odds that students won’t graduate on time.

What Is Continuous School Improvement?

Continuous school improvement is a cyclical process intended to help groups of people in a system—from a class to a school district or even a network of many districts—set goals, identify ways to improve, and evaluate change.

The most common approaches seem to share a few concepts, such as: looking at problems as part of a system rather than as isolated episodes; working to improve policies and processes within that system; repeatedly testing assumptions about the causes of problems and their possible solutions; and involving those most affected by changes—like teachers and students—in deciding what tweaks to make. As one school superintendent in Wisconsin described the process, “We don’t want random acts of improvement.”

Many schools are focusing attention on those things, but the Seattle study is thought to be the only one that’s putting the continuous-improvement process at the heart of the work. Imported from the health-care industry, continuous improvement is a guided, cyclical approach that schools use to bring about change, using data to plan, execute, evaluate, and revise their actions as they go along.

If Ideas Don’t Work, ‘Let Them Go’

Miriam Greenberg, the director of the Strategic Data Project at Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy and Research, which helps school systems build their muscles to use data to improve, said that part of continuous improvement’s value is being systematic and evidence-based in the search for solutions to a problem, rather than “just throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks.”

Equally important, she said, is being able to recognize when a chosen solution isn’t the right one.

“If we really mean ‘continuous improvement,’ we need to show evidence that these things are working and if not, let them go,” Greenberg said.

Seattle is in the third year of the four-year project and is still collecting and analyzing data to see whether the project has improved freshman performance. But in the meantime, middle and high schools are trying a variety of tactics to forge better bonds with families and with each other.

The partnership between Addams and Hale produced a major, annual joint event these two schools had never done before: a high school orientation for 8th grade families—not just students—each spring at the middle school. It offers programming and information for rising 9th graders and their parents and includes a chicken dinner, Tudor said.

Nathan Hale students help advertise their school clubs at the family night event.

The 8th graders get Nathan Hale T-shirts and hear presentations from Hale 9th graders about navigating a range of high school challenges: getting to class on time and completing their homework, keeping track of all assignments in their “log books,” making new friends, and staying out of trouble on social media.

The schools greet parents with “ambassadors” who speak their languages and help them sign up for “Hale mail,” the notification system that keeps them abreast of key events. School staff members get parents acquainted with the high school’s graduation requirements and how to monitor their children’s progress to make sure they’re on track, Tudor said. They learn that their children’s risk of not graduating is directly tied to how much class they miss.

Building Connections

Before the research project, staff members from Hale would visit Jane Addams to sign students up for courses in the spring, and that activity didn’t involve parents, Tudor said.

The opportunity for Hale to build a close relationship with one of its feeder middle schools arose from a confluence of events, Tudor said. After many years as a K-12, and then a K-8, Jane Addams reorganized as a 6-8 school just as the Johns Hopkins study was getting off the ground.

Those changes offered “the perfect timing” to make new connections, Tudor said. And it felt really necessary: Hale High emphasizes a personalized, rigorous approach to learning and wanted incoming 9th graders to be as prepared as possible, Tudor said.

Librarian Deborah Gallaher talks with incoming freshmen and their families during a family orientation event.

The extra attention to attendance and course completion—from both school staff and parents—has allowed Hale to outperform the district on the proportion of 9th graders who are on track for on-time graduation, Tudor said.

Other high schools in the research project have also teamed up with their middle schools to co-host family information nights for 8th graders. Some have focused on training parents to use their schools’ web portals, so they can monitor their children’s progress in class.

The Seattle Housing Authority also partnered with the project by sending postcards to families in its rental units about the importance of attending school regularly, said Adie Simmons, who oversees the Seattle district’s “engaging families in high school success” initiative and supervises the “family-engagement teams” at the schools participating in the research study.

In reflecting on the family-engagement projects they’ve tried, many middle and high schools have noticed that they’re still having difficulty reaching families of color and immigrant families, Simmons said. A few schools have responded to that by deploying teachers, counselors, or school secretaries to make personal phone calls to families in their primary languages, she said.

Tweaks and New Strategies

Some schools have embraced phone apps that send parents texts—in 30-plus languages—about transition-related school events or deadlines.

Other Improvement Partnerships

The efforts in Seattle to better engage families in students’ transition from middle school to high school is one of six research-and-development efforts funded by the federal Institute of Education Sciences in 2015 and 2014 that focus on continuous improvement approaches in education. Other projects are:

“Changing the Odds: A Short-Cycle Approach to Improving Students’ Long-Term Mathematics Outcomes”

Principal Investigator: Julian Betts, University of California, San Diego
Partners: San Diego Unified School District; University of California, San Diego; San Diego Education Research Alliance
Purpose: In an effort to address the problem of weak math achievement among middle school students, researchers will implement, adapt, and revise a math instruction intervention with four high-poverty middle schools in California.

“Coaching to Improve Common Core-Aligned Mathematics Instruction in Tennessee”

Principal Investigator: Jennifer Russell, University of Pittsburgh
Partners: The Learning Research and Development Center and the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh; Tennessee Department of Education
Purpose: To better prepare teachers to teach the Common Core State Standards in math, researchers are working with teachers to build a network of highly trained coaches that can be expanded over time to reach across Tennessee and carry out future improvement work.

“Continuous Improvement of a What Works Clearinghouse-Rated Early Mathematics Intervention” Principal Investigator: Prentice Starkey, WestEd
Partners: WestEd, Pasadena Unified School District, Rialto Unified School District, Tehama Department of Education, and Compton Unified School District
Purpose: Researchers are working with elementary schools in California to improve and sustain the implementation of a curriculum called Pre-K Mathematics so that it meets the learning needs of low-income students attending these schools. Although the program has led to significant gains in randomized trials, researchers and district administrators have noted that implementation often fades after the evaluation is over.

“Continuous Improvement Research to Support the Implementation of a Statewide Reform to Postsecondary Developmental Education”

Principal Investigator: Trey Miller, RAND Corporation
Partners: RAND, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board
Purpose: This partnership aims to help six Texas community colleges develop and implement effective responses to a new state initiative focused on ensuring that more students who take remedial classes move onto—and succeed in—credit-bearing courses.

“Montana Continuous Improvement in Education Research to Improve Secondary School Literacy Outcomes”

Principal Investigator: Ellen Schiller, SRI International
Partners: SRI International, Montana Office of Public Instruction
Purpose: To better meet the needs of middle and high school students with weak reading and writing skills, researchers are working with educators to revise and adapt core aspects of the Montana Striving Readers Program and boost the capacity of schools across Montana to implement that intervention.

Source: Institute of Education Sciences

A few schools are trying homework assignments to reach parents. Designed by the Johns Hopkins researchers, the assignments are packets that 8th graders take home and work with their parents to complete. They require students to lead their parents through discussions about the importance of attending school regularly and completing assignments and they include discussions about students’ dreams about their high school years.

Schools use the continuous-improvement process to hatch their ideas and track them as they unfold. With coaching from Simmons, they learn to use a plan-do-study-act approach, identifying the problem, coming up with a possible solution, planning it, executing it, and then evaluating how it went.

They learn to focus on specific questions during their discussions, such as: What specifically are we trying to accomplish? What changes might we make and why? How will we know a change is an improvement?

Leaders from Jane Addams and Nathan Hale began planning this past May’s joint family event in January, with team meetings and discussion, Tudor said. They had “a big debrief” at the central office with Simmons in October and identified what changes they needed to make for next year’s event.

They realized, for instance, that they needed to stop using a sign-in sheet, because it created a long line of parents waiting to get into the event, Tudor said.

Those kinds of revisions may seem intuitive, but they’re often skipped in the relentless push of obligations schools must meet, said Joyce L. Epstein, the director of school, family, and community partnerships at Johns Hopkins University and a lead researcher on the Seattle project. Schools often use pieces of the plan-do-study-act cycle, she said, but not systematically or with a team.

Without a clear system in place for thinking, discussing, planning, doing, and evaluating, ideas can “disappear in the ionosphere” without taking root or getting better, Epstein said.

Steven B. Sheldon, another Johns Hopkins researcher on the project, said the process helps move schools away from the “annual checklist” mentality, where they put an idea or activity aside for a year until it’s time for them to tackle it again.

There have been big challenges in the family-engagement work, research team members said. In many schools, the core idea of the project seemed to contradict a key idea of middle and high school culture: that young adolescents should take on more responsibility and lean less on their parents.

“When I asked our middle and high schools what they did for parents [in the transition to high school], I got blank stares,” she said.

Some schools didn’t participate in the project fully because their principals never fully bought into the importance of family engagement. Some schools left the work of family engagement entirely to their parent-teacher associations, which didn’t typically reach all parents, Simmons said.

Simmons believes in the idea that parent support for attendance and homework completion can make a huge difference in 9th grade success, and she holds out hope that the data will show improvements.

Greenberg said the continuous-improvement process offers a powerful tool for schools to get better, but only if they use real evidence to evaluate and change their work.

“I worry that continuous improvement could be just the fad du jour,” she said. “But if we take it seriously, it can be transformative.”

Coverage of continuous-improvement strategies in education is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2018 edition of Education Week as A ‘Plan, Do, Study, Act’ Approach to a Better Freshman Year


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