10/07/2019 | By Kristie Heath and Regina Willingham
At Clayton County Public Schools, a Georgia Title 1 district with 55,000 plus students, we did just that when our new superintendent Morcease J. Beasley came on board in 2017. He wanted us to be committed to preparing students for a rapidly changing world and to improve their lives by preparing them for college and careers.
When we stepped back and took a good hard look, we found we were focusing the majority of our efforts on remediation rather than challenging our students with advanced learning. Making a conscientious effort to provide every student exposure to rigorous coursework that will equip them with the skills necessary to achieve academic success and compete successfully in a global society, we launched an ALA initiative to set students up for success. The ALA initiative increased the number of advanced course offerings in schools to eliminate barriers and increase access to all students.
Steps to Advanced Learning for All
The need to challenge students’ minds is one we should all take into account this upcoming school year. It’s certainly not easy to change the mindset of children, but it’s even harder to change the minds and habits of adults. That’s why we were very deliberate in the steps we took to make this initiative a success. Prior to current district leadership, advanced learning wasn’t a district priority. We did not have district-wide professional development for Advanced Placement/AP® or advanced learning assessments, so we knew we needed to add these supports in order to meet our initiative goals. To make this initiative a success, we formed a clear vision we communicated often to all audiences, we added a lot of professional development for teachers and supports for students, and we provided resources to help our teachers be successful in the classroom. Here’s how we used communication, professional development and resources to put this initiative in motion.
Successful change always starts with a clearly communicated vision. As a district, it was important for us to clearly communicate our high expectations for our students. When we started our new initiative, we built out our district team for advanced learning and made sure our message was shared both in spirit and in the resources we provided to our teachers.
Communicating our needs to our team of teachers, parents and students has made all the difference. Our superintendent now holds critical conversations and advisory meetings throughout the year to promote collaboration as a community. We created a theme of “Committed to High Performance” and made documents, brochures, webinars and video clips about it available online for parents, staff and students to access. We even publish a magazine that celebrates our successes and innovations.
Our consistent communication has helped our entire community — from district and building administrators to teachers, students and parents — strive to meet our expectations.
Professional Development and Student Supports
We also knew going into this initiative we needed to better understand the types of professional development our AP teachers needed in order to be successful. Some of those changes we were able to implement in the summer - and other changes take place throughout the school year.
Summer changes started with additional funding from the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI). With the help of the NMSI grant, we were able to offer an intensive AP Summer Institute, as well as touch points with instructional coaches throughout the school year. We brought in experts on the AP books we were currently using to help our teachers prepare to teach the course. Those same experts also came in to co-teach a lesson with the teachers – additional preparation for teaching the curriculum in the classroom.
Another summer change – our summer school focus. Our students’ summer school programs used to focus on remediation and our superintendent was the driving force in getting us to focus on acceleration instead. We now have a free two-week summer camp in June that offers classes on topics such as building houses and flying planes. In July, we also offer an AP summer prep program to make sure incoming ninth graders are ready to take their first AP course. This program focuses on fostering a growth mindset, developing a confident disposition, and acquiring the skills and strategies needed to manage the demands of the more rigorous coursework.
Throughout the year, we also began to offer study sessions for both students and teachers on Saturday mornings. We provide transportation, breakfast, and bring in a master teacher to delve deeply into topics the students need to know and to show teachers how to scaffold their instruction to meet students’ needs while challenging them. The master teachers also work on getting teachers to do more experimentation. The sessions are attended by students from several schools — thus giving them opportunities to have deep discussions with their peers.
Also during the year, we make the AP exams very accessible for students. We provide students with training before the course starts and exam prep along the way so they know what to expect when taking the AP exam. We also pay for the exams so parents do not have that burden.
One resource making a tremendous difference in our teachers’ ability to challenge students is remote grading. We work with a company that provides remote grading services and high-quality, timely feedback on student writing. The company provides consistent feedback on student writing to help students understand their strengths and weaknesses. This grading platform provides powerful data to educators, so they can scaffold instruction to focus on what students need to improve upon.
Armed with this information, we now focus heavily on teaching students to write with evidence - which is the best indicator that they are reading well. We ask students to formulate high-impact questions to help them get to answers and engage in academic discourse when sharing or discussing ideas. We strive to have students involved in their learning. We want them to practice getting and giving feedback and help them learn the skills they will need to be successful adults. All of this also helps students prepare better for the end of course exam.
This shift to accelerated learning has already led to remarkable results. Students sit for AP exams now more than in the past and scores have increased for both AP and SAT exams. In 2019, the AP exam pass rate surpassed our prior four-year average by five percentage points — with some schools reached double digit gains for qualifying scores. Our district has also seen an increase in the number of dual enrollment courses taken by students.
We now have students participating in the College Board’s Capstone program, which consists of two year-long courses that help students develop critical thinking, research, collaboration, time management and presentation skills. For their Capstone project, some of our students have taken on ambitious topics such as women serial killers, using mealworms to biodegrade foam containers without having an impact on the environment, and how the Russian Revolt correlates to our present political system. These students present their completed projects to a panel of judges, gaining valuable experience similar to what they might do presenting a dissertation in college.
Moving Beyond High School
We are excited about our results so far at the high school level and look forward to seeing where this new focus on advanced learning will take us as a district - now expanding the success to our younger students.
This school year, our sixth grade students are enrolled in the Grade 6 Accelerated Mathematics course, which includes exposure to sixth grade mathematics standards and a portion of the seventh grade mathematics standards. We are also piloting ninth grade literature in middle school and letting middle school students take a high school language and a CTAE business course.
Looking ahead, we are examining what we need to do in elementary school to prepare students for advanced learning opportunities in middle school. For our elementary strategy, we are looking to incorporate larger projects for students with a heavy emphasis on writing.
All students deserve an education that will challenge them academically. Students need to learn that they can accomplish hard tasks that they never thought were possible. As a district, our goal is to instill this mindset in all students and provide them all with the courses, support and opportunities needed to help them succeed.