District eyes ways to close achieve­ment gap

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Eric Devlin ede­vlin@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @Eric_Devlin on Twit­ter

PHOENIXVILLE >> It’s an is­sue school district of­fi­cials ev­ery­where have been try­ing to tackle. What is the best way to close the achieve­ment gap among his­tor­i­cally un­der­per­form­ing and dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents?

In Phoenixville, ad­min­is­tra­tors spent the sum­mer fo­cus­ing their ef­forts on this very ques­tion. They ad­mit more needs to be done to help this group of stu­dents and have im­ple­mented a strat­egy they said will do just that.

From con­stantly check­ing to make sure stu­dents are un­der­stand­ing ma­te­rial at the el­e­men­tary school level, to chal­leng­ing stu­dents to rise above their po­ten­tial at the mid­dle and up-

per level, the hope is to be­gin see­ing pos­i­tive signs of change. Af­ter all, the district’s goal is to pre­pare and in­spire all stu­dents, said Phoenixville School District Assistant Su­per­in­ten­dent LeRoy White­head. “All means all.”

Lower lev­els

At the el­e­men­tary and mid­dle school lev­els, stu­dents stan­dard­ized test scores showed large per­cent­age dif­fer­ences be­tween pro­fi­cient and un­der per­form­ing stu­dents. At the high school, gains were made with the num­ber of Ad­vanced Place­ment ex­ams taken and passed and mea­sured im­prove­ments were seen on the Key­stone Ex­ams. Yet the ad­min­is­tra­tion agreed more works needs to be done.

To ad­dress the gap in the lower school lev­els, White­head said staff has been work­ing on in­creas­ing the num­ber of for­ma­tive as­sess­ments, or “dip­stick tests,” which are shorter,

quicker tests that can be im­ple­mented in a va­ri­ety of ways, of­ten on a daily ba­sis, to check stu­dents’ un­der­stand­ing of a les­son.

“It could be as sim­ple as one, two, three ques­tions,” he said. “It’s a quick check to see what stu­dents are know­ing and un­der­stand­ing as they’re mov­ing along and con­tin­u­ing in that in­struc­tion.”

At the same time, the district has taken a closer look at its af­ter-school pro­gram­ming to find ways to en­cour­age stu­dents to achieve.

“What’s the car­rot to get a kid to say ‘OK I’m go­ing to do my home­work af­ter school but I’m go­ing to get this re­ward?’ Whether it’s a give­away or a fun ac­tiv­ity,” he said. The district has also looked into part­ner­ing with the district’s ed­u­ca­tion foun­da­tion and other com­mu­nity part­ners for help with its pro­gram­ming. “We’re tak­ing a look at the dif­fer­ent clubs and ac­tiv­i­ties that we’re of­fer­ing. It’s re­ally a soup to nuts kind of ap­proach.”

Up­per level

At the high school level, un­der­per­form­ing stu­dents

are chal­lenged to take higher level courses. That comes from the ef­forts of mid­dle school Prin­ci­pal Frank Gar­ri­tano and high school Prin­ci­pal Craig Parkin­son who reg­u­larly in­vite stu­dents to take more AP courses in high school, even if stu­dents might not think they’re ready for col­lege level courses, Fe­g­ley said.

“It takes a while to work. To be able to sup­port them and en­cour­age them to take that risk,” he said. “It is a non­typ­i­cal risk for them to take but it is an im­por­tant risk for them to take.”

Ap­prox­i­mately 80-90 per­cent of stu­dents rise to the oc­ca­sion by earn­ing a C or higher in a col­lege course, Fe­g­ley said.

He said while it’s cer­tainly about rais­ing aver­age and above aver­age stu­dents, it’s also work­ing on rais­ing our stu­dents who are hav­ing more chal­lenges in aca­demics and in life to reach those high lev­els and find those doors of pos­si­bil­i­ties that they don’t even know ex­ist. Be­cause they don’t.”

Com­mu­nity in­volve­ment

Fi­nally, the district has be­gun a push for greater com­mu­nity in­volve­ment.

“We are do­ing a lot of reach out to the com­mu­nity,” Fe­g­ley said. “That’s why we spoke to the com­mu­nity on open­ing day. That’s why we in­vited the com­mu­nity in to hear our open­ing day pre­sen­ta­tion. I think we had over 60 com­mu­nity mem­bers present to hear us talk about achieve­ment gap and the work we want to do and

work­ing with them to go for­ward.”

Fe­g­ley said in a num­ber of weeks he’ll an­nounce a new ini­tia­tive to bring com­mu­nity mem­bers in to help stu­dents over­come what he calls in­sults in their lives.

“In­sults being any­thing from poverty, not hav­ing food on the ta­ble that night, to hav­ing to be the one who takes care of their brothers and sisters or go off to work be­cause they need to help put food on the ta­ble,”

he said. “Lots of dif­fer­ent ways you can call it in­sults on them being a kid.”

Over­all, White­head said the district was try­ing to set re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions.

“To be clear we’re not go­ing to wave a magic wand and fix a 30 per­cent achieve­ment gap in a year,” he said. “What you want to look at is are there pos­i­tives here? Are there some pos­i­tive signs of change in terms of tra­jec­tory in clos­ing that gap?”

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