College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Fostering a Culture of Growth and College Readiness

By Contributing Blogger — August 15, 2016 6 min read
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This post is by William Haithcock, principal, and David Underwood, instructional guide, at Harborside Academy in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

When the new school year begins, so do the annual IEP meetings. Too often parents come through the door braced for the yearly reminder that their child is reading below grade level. Teachers feel helpless that students from poverty have significantly lower achievement scores than their affluent peers. And underperforming students hang their heads as they concede that they are just not good at school. If we are to meet the charge to get all students college and career ready, our first job is to reverse the drag on morale and achievement that such negativity can create. At Harborside Academy, a sixth-to-twelfth grade public charter school serving very diverse students from the metro strip that spans Chicago and Milwaukee, we’ve turned sad IEP meetings into uplifting strategy sessions. Our strategy is simply to focus on growth--intentionally, relentlessly, and enthusiastically so that all our kids have the chance to go to college.

Harborside Academy, part of the EL Education network of schools, is a choice option for students within the Kenosha Unified School District. Each year, Harborside has graduates who earn significant academic scholarships, but also has a large number of students who struggle to make it to the finish line. Although we are a small school with limited resources, we’ve discovered that when all students and staff pay attention to yearly/incremental growth, we can compete with and even outpace our better-resourced neighbors.

We believe that if we create a growth-centered and positive culture when our students are young and then help them consistently outperform the averages for expected growth, students will successfully close the gap between themselves and their “proficient” peers. We also ask our highest achieving students to focus on growth. It is great news if a student is on track to be college ready. Now, let’s focus on reaching scholarship levels of achievement!

Starting at 6th grade and right up until graduation, we ask questions like, “How much did Marcus’s NWEA MAP score change from fall to spring?” “How much did the average for our 8th grade cohort increase?” “How much did our 11th graders grow on their writing (as assessed by the pre and post scores on the Common Core State Standards evidence-based argument rubric)?

Conceptually, focusing on growth sounds simple, but the minutia of tracking and responding to data is both a relentless and productive march. It starts with students identifying baseline data and setting growth-based goals at the start of each year. Every student at Harborside maintains an electronic data binder. The binders provide each student with an identical Google Doc spreadsheet with multiple tabs for each standardized assessment that Harborside students take. Middle school students enter their NWEA MAP progress three times per year and their annual Wisconsin Forward Test results. High school students enter their MAP and ACT Aspire results as they build towards the actual ACT test given in March of their junior year. A final tab within each binder automatically produces colorful charts that track student growth. Students are encouraged to monitor their progress over time like the stock market. Every entry does not need to make huge leaps and bounds, but over time scores should result in progress that trends upwards. Students then discuss and reflect on their growth with their teachers and with their parents at student led conferences.

The staff also focuses closely on data by tracking cohort grade level growth and targeted growth for groups of students who have achievement scores below grade level. By mid-September, all teachers know the grade level and target group goals. They also create an individual professional goal, in alignment with the schoolwide goals, that is focused on student achievement growth. Aligning school goals, teacher goals, and student goals in this way gets everyone pulling in the same direction.

Although our decisions and program are intentionally data-informed, we also recognize that motivating students to care about the data takes more than numbers. Recently we’ve partnered with Camille Farrington and her staff at the University of Chicago with the goal of strengthening student “non-cognitive” skills in order to help all students develop the positive mindsets that they need to achieve academic growth. We practice and celebrate those non-cognitive skills--perseverance, collaboration, responsibility--in a variety of ways, starting with our youngest learners. In sixth grade, just after the semester break, students celebrate the halfway point of k-12 education by graphing their data for the first time, visiting colleges, and attending a career fair. During the week, students often realize that some kind of postsecondary schooling is needed for the career that they want. They begin to think of school differently, as a pathway to the future they want rather than just compliance with parental or societal pressures. At the end of the week, Harborside sixth graders walk to the post office and mail letters to their parents asking for their support as they tell them about their career and college goals. (This experience is especially powerful for our younger students who have recently watched and cheered for the Harborside twelfth graders as they participated in the EL Education national College March.)

Sixth grade is just the beginning of getting our students on the path to college. To keep the focus on growth and college/career readiness, we organize college visits at all grade levels. We have a daily CREW/advisory curriculum that addresses college and career readiness at each grade level. We’ve developed a series of elective classes to help support students as they strive to achieve their goals including math and literacy seminar courses, a series of applied science/stem courses, structured study halls and standards based summer school intervention classes. We offer an ACT prep class that was developed with the local Sylvan Learning Center, and for the first time this year Harborside will implement a new elective titled “Get College Smart” that has been developed in partnership with Dr. Bob Neuman, Dean of Students at Marquette University. And finally, our awards and recognitions honor and celebrate students’ growth as often as they do achievement.

All of these efforts, along with great daily teaching, have helped to produce largely positive results. All grade levels at Harborside are testing above the district and national averages. Growth rates are strong, especially within targeted groups of students who started the year below grade level. Last year’s graduates accepted a school record of $1,690,000.00 in scholarships. Still we know our work is never done.

The old story asks, how do you eat an elephant? The answer--one bite a time--also holds true for learning.

By focusing on growth and nibbling their way toward incremental goals, students who have historically struggled in school will begin to raise their chins high at those annual review meetings. Their shame and embarrassment will be transformed into feelings of pride and celebration. These students have waited a long time to feel this good about school. We can help make it happen.

Photo Credit: Harborside Academy

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