PECHS Turning Around

Published 3:49 pm Tuesday, July 2, 2013

PRINCE EDWARD – The sands of the hourglass are nearing an end. Prince Edward High School's three-years in the turnaround program and Cambridge Education's involvement is officially drawing to a close.

The June school board meeting afforded a time of reflection and program goal assessment of efforts to help the school improve.

“…I really, really enjoyed working with you,” Cambridge Consultant Dr. Harold Lawson offered at the end of his presentation.

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He went on to note that they are a great school board and have a great leader in Division Superintendent Dr. David Smith.

“…He was tough. He was tough on me, I thought…We've had some hard conversations, but I think all in all we've made progress,” Dr. Lawson said. “I think we're…in a place that you're gonna continue to make progress…Your school is accredited…You've made progress and just continue with this and it's (going to) be more progress.”

Prince Edward was designated by the state as a turnaround school in 2010. Of the 128 Title I schools, the County's high school ranked in the lowest five percent among those authorized, but which do not receive Title I funds. The criteria weighed for the designation was the academic achievement of all students in reading and math and that a school has not reduced its failure rate in reading/language arts and/or mathematics by 10-15 percent each year for the past two years.

School officials were tasked with certain criteria with the designation and selected Cambridge Education as their lead turnaround partner. Federal funds, totaling about $500,000 in each of three budgeted years, fueled the turnaround effort and Cambridge's assistance, aimed at helping the school improve.

But that time and the funds are about to expire.

A spokesman for Cambridge at the June school board meeting highlighted that the Superintendent and Cambridge met and hammered out a memorandum of 25 indicators that “would be met by the end of the third year.” The two worked together on a plan, it was noted, to make sure that the high school became fully accredited by the end of the third year.

Among the accomplishments Dr. Lawson cited in the report: preliminary numbers indicate that the school is accredited for the second year, there is an improved overall student achievement despite increased test rigor, they are closing the achievement gap for special education, and refocused instructional practices to have increased rigor in the classroom, vocabulary development, high level questioning, critical thinking, increased utilization of technology and use of instructional data.

Other accomplishments he highlighted: improved techniques for conducting classroom observations and feedback; increased parent participation; improved the school culture by creating a strong theme (“Believe”); improved graduation rate (169 students graduated, four did not); reduced the number of reported discipline incidents; and increased teacher participation in faculty-designed professional development.

Dr. Lawson detailed specific performance objectives in student performance, school climate, excellence in teaching and building leadership capacity, some of which were fully met, others were deemed to have been partially met.

In the area of student performance, it was noted:

*The first year objective was that the annual Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets for student achievement set by the Virginia Department of Education will be met in reading and mathematics by all student groups and in the all students category at a minimum in safe harbor. The objective, it was deemed, was fully met in year two.

*In the second and third year of the contract, the annual AYP targets for student achievement were to be met in reading, mathematics and graduation by all student subgroups and in the all students category. That, it was assessed, was fully met.

*The difference between the highest performing subgroup and each of the other subgroups in English, math, science, and social studies were to be reduced annually by 50 percent as measured by SOL performance. Dr. Lawson offered that it “didn't happen,” but he added that they worked on it. “I think one thing that we have to do, we have to look at other…comparable high schools and the other schools in the district. We made some progress, but we didn't make the progress that we thought we were (going to) make.”

*In each year of the contract, the percent of students achieving pass advanced in English, math, science and social studies will increase by at least five percent. It was noted that in the second year, the percentage of students achieving pass advanced increased in English (30-32), declined in math and history, and more than doubled in chemistry. Data for the 2012-13 school year was unavailable. Dr. Lawson offered that it “didn't happen.”

Asked specifically about why the goals were partially met on either or both of the latter two, Dr. Lawson offered: “We're talking about three years-three years in this process. Change in schools, a change in the culture of the school and changing the achievement level among students, I think is very difficult to do on a whole in three years. But I think you can see progress, and we do see progress, but I don't think we can actually change…it so…we get rid of the gap group, for example. Because Dr. Smith said it just a minute ago, this is a problem all over the country. Now would the gap group have grown more without the efforts that we have? Maybe. Maybe not. I don't know, but we certainly put forth the effort trying to close it. And in special education, unless last year's data is wrong, we made progress this year.”

Chairman Russell Dove asked about what they need to do going forward. Dr. Lawson offered that they have sustainable actions, that they need to stay on the path that they're on.

“If we can stay on that path, I think we will continue to make progress,” Dr. Lawson said.

Noted school board member Dr. Timothy Corbett, “I think we need to be specific about what have we done as far as closing those gaps and what are we going to do or what should we do differently about closing those gaps.”

Dr. Lawson offered that they worked with teachers in professional development in talking about how to add more rigor to their class, how to address failing students, and had activities going on such as after school tutoring.

“One thing that we need to do more of that we have really tried to do and is seeing a difference is differentiation of instruction in the classroom,” he said. “And we're still working on that.”

A key piece, he also suggested, is what the director of instruction is doing-vertical planning K-12.

“That is a key piece because what happens at the high school level should be happening at the elementary level and the middle school level,” Dr. Lawson said. “When that happens, our score's gonna grow, our gap is gonna close.”

Dr. Lawson believes they have made progress and having the test redone will cause the gap to widen.

Another area of challenge yet to be met cited in the written report is student achievement on advanced placement tests. The objective was to see the percentage of students scoring a three, four or five on the test increase by at least five percent in each of the AP subject area taught at the high school. In the first year, the percent of student increased from 20-30 percent, but that went to 25 percent in the second year. Third year data won't be available until this summer.

It was also noted that attendance has increased from year one to year two and slightly from year two to year three and that there has been a 52 percent reduction in incidents, referrals and discipline actions referrals (the total number of offenses went from 362 to 415 from the baseline year of 2009-10 to the first year, but dropped to 217 in 2011-12).

Cambridge officials handed out several awards to school officials following the presentation, effectively closing the chapter on the official turnaround effort.

“Over the last three years, the work with Cambridge has resulted in some very positive changes in school culture-some significant improvements that have resulted in a better learning climate and our interest now is in being able to sustain the changes that have been put in place so that they become routine in the operation of the high school,” Dr. Smith told The Herald in a break in the meeting.

“As with any evaluation of a major program change,” he added, “there are…always some things that we would like to have seen have more positive results, but there are many things that had positive results that weren't anticipated. So, overall, the changes are very important and we look forward to the future and being able to continue…what has been started and developed up to this point.”