District eyes ways to close achievement gap
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?”