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Reading and math success: Janesville School District ramps up efforts with 'promises'

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Sunday, October 15, 2017

JANESVILLE — You're a Revolutionary War soldier.

The Red Coats are about 250 yards off. You plan to pick off their leader with a single sniper shot and then scatter the remaining troops with a carefully placed cannon ball.

Should you use a musket or a rifle to pick them off? Explain why. In windless conditions, what would be the best angle for the barrel of the cannon?

Be sure to show your work.

You could call it the new math. But it it's not math, but social studies, with a smattering of college level physics.

It's also part of a comprehensive set of promises created by the Janesville School District and approved by its board.

Most of us would call those promises “goals” or a “five-year-plan.”

But Superintendent Steve Pophal is insisting on “promises.” It's a word freighted with meaning. Promise implies guarantees, it suggests heart-felt pledges.

“Everybody from 5 to 85 understands what promises are,” Pophal said.

The promises are broken down into five categories:

-- School and student success

-- Relationships with students, parents and the community

-- Culture and climate for staff

-- Health and safety

-- Finance

School and student success are at the top of the list, and contain the most purely academic goals and those that will require the most support from outside the school walls.

NINETY PERCENT SUCCESS

School and student success contains nine goals ranging from increasing the graduation rate to getting more high school students in dual credit courses at local colleges or technical schools. 

But two of the promises stand out for their boldness. By 2022:

-- 90 percent of third-graders will read at or above grade level. Currently, about 58 percent of third grade students can do so.

-- 90 percent of ninth-graders will successfully complete algebra I. Currently, about 76 percent of ninth-graders do so.

In a recent meeting, Pophal and Allison DeGraaf, district director of teaching and innovation, stressed that 90 percent means 90 percent of everybody -- English-language learners and students with special needs included.

Third-grade reading and ninth-grade math are crucial steps in students' academic careers, moments when their future success is determined, Pophal said.

In third grade, if students can't read with fluency, it puts them behind in all other subjects.

Educators refer to this as moving from “learning to read to reading to learn.”

The Annie E. Casey Foundation found that “students who don't read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma than proficient readers.”

Those results have been replicated in a variety of studies.

Here another trend that has been tracked and codified:

When children of middle-income families enter kindergarten, they already have about a six-month learning advantage over their low-income peers. During the year, the students learn at the same rate. But in the summer after first grade, the middle-income students usually move forward about a month, while the low income children, without the same access to resources, fall behind another two months.

The cycle repeats itself as the children age, and without intervention can result in a gap of up to three years by fifth grade.

That's something educators have known for a long time and have tried to combat with summer school, reading programs and other outreach efforts.

But they haven't been successful yet.

“This is more about what happens when kids are not in school than what happens when they are,” Pophal said. “Really, the solution is in what happens in summer and what happens before they get to 4-year-old Kindergarten.”

More summer school isn't the answer. The district has tried extending summer school past the traditional four to six weeks, but attendance drops off radically after four weeks.

Pophal and other school district leaders are working to make connections to community groups that could help them with the issue.

Another prong of third-grade reading success involves creating an early literacy task force. In addition, schools are ramping up their efforts to reach parents.

Here's an easy example: Parents of elementary school-aged kids routinely get bulletins about what happened in the past week. Pophal wants to change those notifications so parents find out in advance about what's going to happen in the classroom. The bulletins might contain suggestions on how to engage kids on the books their reading or the projects they're working on.

District officials also want to have more family event nights that would involve literacy activities. The challenge will be to make the nights appealing and nonthreatening for parents who didn't have good school experiences themselves.

“Parents all want to do the right thing for their children,” Pophal said.

Will it work?

A recent 4-year-old kindergarten night at Rotary Botanical Gardens brought in about 700 families, DeGraaf said.

Other options include loading electronic devices with literacy materials and allowing the students to take the devices home for the summer.

SOLVING OR X

Students in algebra I all ask: “When am I ever going to use this?”

The answer?

“Algebra I is the base for all upper level courses,” Pophal said.

Students won't be successful in tech ed, construction classes, welding, science or engineering without that base, Pophal said.

Without that base, the college path is out of the question, and work place options are limited to low-income jobs that perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

What will make the math program more successful?

The answer is codified in one of the district's “school and student success” promises: “Teachers will increase/focus instruction from direct to engaged and empowered instructional opportunities.”

“Direct instruction” is the way most of us learned. The teacher spoke, we listened and took notes. Occasionally, we built a fort out of pretzels and pipe cleaners as a way of illustrating our knowledge.

Edison Middle School's Andy LaChance is a good example of “engaged and empowered.” In social studies, for example, the students are learning about the Revolutionary War. A recent topic was battlefield tactics, including the story of Daniel Morgan and his sharpshooters.

The class started with a quick trip outside, where kids squinted at a red-coated figure 250 yards across the field. From there, the classroom discussion included tactics, the advantage of rifles over muskets, the effect of gravity on a cannon ball—and a pen thrown up in the air—and finally a math problem involving sine, cosine, meters per second and a variety of other factors.

“I got that problem out of a college physics text book,” LaChance told his students. “When your parents ask you what you did in school today, instead of saying, 'Nothing' you can say, 'College physics.”

The point of all that effort? It's about using engineering and math to teach social studies.

“Application, application, application,” LaChance said.

Kids retain the history lesson because of the visuals. Those lessons are reinforced with projects. One student fashioned a rifle out of wood and was able to explain why rifle bullets travel straight and musket balls did not. Another student researched Revolutionary-era soap recipes and ran comparisons.

For LaChance, the biggest victory comes when students taking algebra tell their math teacher “Oh, yeah, we used sine and cosine in social studies.”

Pophal and others say that kind of engaged teaching will help more students understand math concepts in a deeper way than memorizing formulas.

The district is also looking at new algebra curriculum that will offer more “real life” applications.



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