Vernonia Elementary School has made significant progress over the last year in student academics, according to a new assessment program instituted by the Oregon Department of Education (ODE).
Two years ago ODE switched to a new system called ‘Next Generation of Accountability.’ Under this new growth model, Vernonia Elementary School (VES) was identified as a ‘Focus School.” Being classified as a Focus School put VES on a watch list for ODE, but also brought additional dollars and resources to help the school address identified shortcomings.
“This can help us address the areas where we’re not performing that well, and help our staff learn how to address those issues with our students,” explained VES Principal Aaron Miller during a recent interview.
VES has used those resources well and seen improved test scores overall as a school, and by individual students. Miller says some of that success can be attributed to the hard work and extra dedication shown by the teachers at VES.
“Our teachers are really looking at individual students and trying to determine how to best meet their needs and then putting those things in place in the classroom,” says Miller about his staff. “I know it’s been a lot of work for them and it’s been an extremely difficult and time consuming process. But they’ve seen the benefits and they’ve done an outstanding job of being dedicated to their students and moving forward.”
Under the new state-wide evaluation, ‘Priority’ and ‘Focus’ schools are schools that receive Title I funding who have been identified by the ODE as needing additional support. Priority schools ranked in the bottom 5% of Oregon Title I schools; Focus schools ranked in the bottom 15%. Model schools are Title I schools which are ranked in the top 5% and are showcased as achieving demonstrated student growth through actions they have taken.
Title I is a federally funded program that provides extra money to schools or districts that have higher poverty levels. The program specifically provides extra funding for students who are identified as disadvantaged as well as students who are not performing well.
Miller says the old evaluation system did not provide a fair assessment. The new assessment formula is much more nuanced and is based on a combination of factors including student achievement, growth, and subgroup growth. It focuses more on individual student growth as well as growth among students in historically underserved subgroups, which includes economically disadvantaged students, students in special education programs, and students who don’t speak English as a first language. “This helps level the playing field and looks at individual student’s growth, which makes sense,” says Miller.
Under the new assessment process VES students in the subgroups have not shown adequate progress. “In those subgroups our math and reading scores were lower,” explains Miller. “So we had to figure out a way to address their needs better, as well as address the overall needs of all our students.”
The Focus School identification for Vernonia lasts for four years. This school year, the second in the program, Vernonia received $34,000 through the program. Miller says VES is using the funding for professional and skill development for teachers, and for materials to implement new programs. VES was also eligible to receive an additional $40,000 this year and next year to implement an expanded reading program. “This was a mandate in which they actually gave us the funding to put it in place,” said Miller.
VES teachers are using these expanded tools and resources to look at how VES assesses their students, how they analyze data, and then provide instruction so students meet their achievement goals. According to Miller, teachers have used Focus School specific workshops, as well as early dismissal Fridays to come together and share ideas and strategies, receive additional training and develop tasks to create desired progress.
Specifically VES instructors have developed a standards-based report card for students and developed a master schedule which provides daily time for reading and math interventions. Teachers have also worked on how to prepare students specifically to perform well on state assessment tests as well as analyzing data about each specific student, including test scores, and attendance and behavior records, to identify students in need of additional services. According to Miller these focused steps have helped create a more consistent and cohesive program.
In addition, VES has developed an extensive Parent Volunteer Program, which puts parents in the classroom or working individually outside the classroom with students in need of extra help. This program supplements the Title I teacher and assistants who are already working to decrease gaps in learning. The expanding reading program also offers “Power Hour,” an after school program with six assistants who work with groups of students. Miller says over sixty students had already signed up for this program.
“One of the things we’ve found, as we focus in on specific skills is that we also need to provide time for kids to practice and use those skills, by reading to adults and not just have direct instruction,” says Miller. “We need to create a chance to work with an adult to provide those developmental assets that are so important for our kids.”
For VES, the results of this additional funding and work by instructors, teaching assistants, volunteers, and staff has been significant. The ODE uses a somewhat complicated matrix to produce a report card for each school, scoring schools in three categories: Academic Achievement, Academic Growth and Subgroup Growth. In 2011-12 VES scored 30% on this report card, earning them an overall score of Level 2, (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being lowest and 5 highest). Along with this Level 2 ranking came the Focus School designation. In 2012-13, after just one year of additional funding, VES showed improvement in all three areas and had raised their score to 65% and an overall score of Level 3. A closer look at the report card shows that in Academic Achievement VES raised their score from 60% to 70%, in Academic Growth they raised their score from 20% to 70%, and in Subgroup Growth had raised their score from 20% to 50%.
“It very good data and shows that what we’re doing has worked and we’ve made a difference,” says Miller. “But it’s only one year. We have to be able to sustain it and maintain that growth.”
Another telling statistic: when compared to all seventy-five Priority and Focus schools in Oregon, VES ranked 5th highest in scoring.
Miller explained that, under the old evaluation process, VES was classified as a ‘Targeted Assisted Program’ which meant the school assessed every single student and then identified and targeted those students with the greatest needs. Those targeted students were the only ones who could receive assistance from Title I professionals working in the school.
“We went through a process about four years ago to become a school-wide Title I school which allows us to serve all students. It was a very elaborate process, but now we are able to utilize our Title I dollars to help every single student.”
Miller says that before Oregon switched to the new, growth model evaluation, Vernonia was judged, just like all other schools who receive Title I funding, by Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), under the ‘No Child Left Behind’ program. According to Miller, under No Child Left Behind, there were targeted percentages of students who had to meet or exceed state test standards. “Every single year we met or exceeded AYP,” says Miller. “There was never any indication that we weren’t doing that well.”
According to Miller ODE decided this really was not a fair way to assess students and spent several years to develop the new rating formula. “When they changed the system to look more at growth of individual students, that was where they saw deficiencies in our test scores and identified us as a Focus School,” said Miller. “Until they came out with this new system, every single piece of data showed that we were doing what we were supposed to.”
Although access to extra resources has played a big role in the improvements VES has experienced since becoming a Focus School, Miller also gives a lot of credit to the resolve of his teaching staff and their willingness to go the extra mile. Miller cited an example: This upcoming summer from June 23-27 every single VES teacher has volunteered to attend a weeklong teacher’s conference in Portland. “The conference costs are paid for through our Focus School funding, but they are volunteering a week of their time,” says Miller.
The conference will focus on overall general instruction and helping students grow, as well as a focus on reading instruction and using all the elements of teaching to be more effective.
“I really feel like our teachers have put in an incredible amount of work,” says Miller. “The buy-in from staff has been a critical piece. They’ve really taken this to heart. ”