Following the State of Education address on Jan. 29, all schools entered a star-ranking system, placing them on a performance tier of high-achieving five-star schools to one-star schools, which require improvement. Sparks-area principals took some time this week to assess their school’s ranking, strategies for improvement and the overall expectations for the new framework.
Here’s a breakdown of what a few local principals had to say.
Jennifer Van Tress, principal at Van Gorder Elementary School -- 5 stars
“I like the new system because it is no longer a pass-fail system,” Van Tress said. “They make sure that all kids are improving and not just able to pass a test.”
Van Gorder is one of the largest elementary schools in the district, hosting almost 900 students. Van Tress said with a large population and many students performing well, she is happy to see a framework that not only focuses on what needs improvement but displays high academic success in her school.
“It is going to be tough,” she said. “If you are already at a high level, how do you maintain a high level? But I think the growth model is going to open up a new shred of avenues and we are going to be able to really look at the performance from a different perspective.
“My No. 1 credit is my parent involvement. My parents are extremely dedicated to their children being successful,” Van Tress said. “Secondly, my teacher’s dedication. They are extremely concerned about their students and their student’s learning, and they are willing to look at every child and address their individual needs. That is part of the reason why we are so successful.”
Van Tress said the Performance Framework was “the right thing to do” for school accountability and she said if she could offer any advice to other principals in the district it would be to place some added emphasis on student’s writing.
“I think one of the reasons we are doing so well is the focus on writing,” she said. “We have incorporated writing into not only our typical English and social studies, but it is incorporated into our science and math as well. We are writing across the curriculum and when you have children doing that, it is a higher level for the children and they become more critical thinkers.”
Kevin Carroll, principal at Sparks Middle School -- 3 stars
“I think it is going to hold all schools accountable in a fair way through the number of data points schools will be accountable for,” Carroll said. “As a principal, it gives me those reference points where we need to focus and it also gives me the points where we are doing well.”
Carroll said the level of transparency the new framework provides allows parents, teachers, administrators and students a chance to see how each school is performing in various categories. He added that his school appeared underachieving through the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) formula, but did not factor in the amount of work done with minority populations.
“Before this new framework we were really focusing on making our kids proficient,” he said. “I think with this, what it allows us to look at is student growth and, in a school like ours, closing the achievement gap and showing the diverse population that we have. With that 3 star ranking that is really where our focus needs to be.
“Our teachers work extremely hard and among a large percentage of my staff there were some celebrations (after receiving the ranking) because we are doing some great things; but again, we see we are not doing poorly but we need some focus on these areas and that is what the framework does.”
Carroll said it was worth noting no middle school in the district received a five-star ranking and, on the other hand, no middle school ranked lower than three stars. He said it would be worth examining what middle schools should be focused on to get more five-star middle schools represented in the district.
“We have the motivation that all kids can learn no matter their background or their culture,” he said. “All kids come to our school and they can learn. We need to be aware of that and focus on that by providing the needs of all learners. We are going to do that and close that gap.”
Prim Walters, principal at Spanish Springs Elementary -- 3 stars
“I like this framework because you’re not just looking at proficiency, you are looking at so much more,” she said. “I think when you do that you are looking at the whole child. You are looking at proficiency, growth and parent involvement.
“I would say that the best thing about this school is its culture and we really stress being respectful to everybody who walks through the door. I think if you walk in you know we are all happy to be here and we are all working hard for kids. I think that is hard to measure, but this accountability framework is trying to get there.”
Spanish Springs trails only Van Gorder in population numbers among Sparks elementary schools and Walters said she has relied on her “strengths” inside the school, which is comprised of “strong teachers to mentor and come up with strategic ideas.” She said tools like an intervention specialist to work with teachers will help close achievement gaps and boost the school’s ranking.
“My staff is working really hard to fine tune and find ways to reach the students that we’re missing,” Walters said. “One of the areas that we struggle is students that are on an IEP (Individualized Education Program) and it’s going to be tough to get them to proficiency. But if we can get them to grow it will be huge, and that is where we are trying to focus on fine-tuning our teaching skills and really work hard on our students.”
Tasha Fuson, principal at Spanish Springs High School -- 3 stars
“I like our new framework,” Fuson said. “It gives a much better picture of the schools in terms of what it is we are doing, what our challenges are and what our gains are. AYP and No Child Left Behind were very narrow and all based on one test and broken down by subgroups.”
Fuson manages the largest school in the district at about 2,400 students and cited a time when, under the previous framework, the school was put on a watch list because students who required special education did not pass proficiency exams. She said the school did have some weaknesses, but having the strengths highlighted on the “broad scope” of the Performance Framework accurately portrays the school’s effectiveness.
Spanish Springs High recently recorded an 80 percent graduation rate, which was higher than the state (62 percent) and national (75.5 percent) rates. Fuson said the number speaks to success, but more needs to be done in boosting Advanced and Honors diplomas in the school.
One of the strategies the school uses is its Academic Success class, a required course for students each year breaking down their interests, possible colleges or career academies, classes needed for their career field and steps required for college applications and scholarship funding.
“We always think we prepare kids for college but we don’t prep them on how to fill out an application and apply for funding,” she said. “We can’t just expect kids to leave us and figure it out on their own.
“Our students have the ability to earn 26 credits and we need our kids to understand that the senior year is not a time to take it easy. You need to take the most rigorous classes you can to prepare you for college and the college environment. No longer is graduation the ultimate goal.”