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PSD’s low-performing schools sweating out growth gaps

Could cycling on a stationary bike while playing Xbox games get a student more engaged in school?

Recent observations from within a new workout room at Lincoln Middle School in north Fort Collins suggest it’s certainly possible.

The Exerlearning Lab, as it’s called, is new to the school this year and has row machines, Dance Dance Revolution mats and yes, you read it correctly, an Xbox video game console students play games on while simultaneously putting in miles on stationary bicycles. It was made possible, in part, by a $25,000 grant from Poudre School District’s 2010 Mill Levy for School Innovation fund.

The idea is that students might have a better chance at focusing on their classwork if given an outlet to burn off some energy, said Gina Panighetti, a sixth-grade teacher who works with students requiring extra academic support in the lab four days a week. She said not all students who are struggling need to put in more hours reading or doing math; some benefit from taking a “brain break” and coming back to their work with a refocused mind.

“Sometimes you give a little to get a lot,” Panighetti said.

That’s true for Lincoln eighth-grader Teak Rouillard, 13, who said he doesn’t really like any of the subjects he studies in school but feels better going to class after working out in the Exerlearning Lab.

“It actually gets your day up and going, instead of being half asleep,” Rouillard said Wednesday morning. At the bell’s signal, he slowed the pedals on an upright bicycle to a stop and made his way to science class.

Officials said the lab’s purpose is to help students have the best possible learning experience by getting them better engaged in an academic setting. It’s also one cog in a plan approved by the Board of Education earlier this year and designed by school staff, educators, parents and PSD administrators to improve Lincoln’s declining performance on state standardized tests.

While some students performed better than their peers statewide, the school’s overall Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP)/Transitional Colorado Assessment Plan (TCAP) scores in reading, writing and math generally have dipped the past three years. Students scoring proficient or advanced in writing in 2011 dropped from 45.63 percent to 37.88 percent two years later. Overall science scores are the only scores that improved during that span, climbing from 28.03 percent to 35.96 percent.

The school’s median growth percentile, which shows how students are progressing compared to academic peers, is also well below federal and state expectations in writing and math, but is exceeding expectations in reading.

Each year, the Colorado Department of Education gives schools performance ratings based upon academic achievement and growth data from standardized tests, such as TCAP. Growth gaps, tracked among minority students, those needing to catch up or students with disabilities, also are considered.

Most of PSD’s 51 schools meet state expectations in academic growth and achievement and, in most recent reviews, received the highest of the four rankings, referred to as “performance” level schools. Lincoln has for the past three years been given an “improvement” status, which doesn’t require CDE intervention but typically spurs change.

Starting in July, Lincoln will drop down to “priority improvement,” a step above the lowest-tier rating of “turnaround.” Principal Clay Gomez, teachers and parents said there are some “real positives” to celebrate but that they’re also “moving full-steam ahead” with a plan to get things back on track.

One of the biggest challenges ahead is eliminating achievement gaps in a school where nearly 75 percent of its 488 students (as of the official Oct. 1 enrollment count) qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, a common poverty indicator.

These students often have to overcome a flurry of outside challenges just to be able to learn, said Danna Ortiz, a Lincoln parent and co-chair of the school’s accountability committee. And many require additional literacy help — a job that teachers said in reality requires more hands than are available at Lincoln.

Lincoln is also a designated Newcomer program site where middle school students learning English begin their education in PSD; students come from countries across the globe including Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. The school is seeing success, teachers said, with students being phased out of the program and into typical classrooms.

It’s certainly more challenging to have a stratified population, but the diversity reflects the “real world,” Gomez said, and gives Lincoln a unique flair he believes draws families to the school.

As is the case across PSD and the nation, Lincoln’s teachers and students have become more data-driven. Teachers talk with parents and students about state and district assessment performance, identifying strengths and areas for improvement for each student.

“It goes beyond ‘I need to get a 209 in the spring’ to ‘I need to use more vivid verbs,’ ” literacy coach and gifted-and-talented coordinator Liz Kennedy said of the depth of data she and colleagues are able to review with students.

In addition to small-group and one-on-one work, students who are struggling also have the option to take Discovery, a class that’s new this year. Dean of students Kyle Stack works with about 15 students on life skills, such as mood management and recognizing personal triggers. Positive strides in this area can mean improved academic success, he said.

Lincoln will have five years to move up from its impending priority improvement status. If not, it runs the risk of becoming a “turnaround” school.

Colorado Senate Bill 163, from 2009, gives the state the power to reorganize districts, take over management of schools, convert them to charters or innovation schools, or simply shut them down if they don’t show substantial improvement in five years. It’s important to note that school communities are supported by PSD and CDE throughout the process of boosting the priority improvement and turnaround ratings.

Putnam Elementary was declared a “turnaround” school in the 2010-11 school year because while student achievement was almost to state standards, student growth and growth gaps didn’t meet expectations.

Looking to improve scores across the board, Principal Steve Apodaca said the parents and staff are committed to focusing on individual student needs, teaching math and literacy in small groups of two-seven students, and upping the quality of teacher instruction in the classrooms.

While there’s room to get better — the number of students who score advanced or proficient in math, reading and writing on TCAP is lower than a number of peer schools in PSD — Putnam achieved a “performance” rating one school year later, tossing aside its “turnaround” status. Its most recent median growth percentile for math exceeds state expectations, meets expectations in writing and among English language learners but is approaching expectations in reading.

“It was a lot of affirmation that we were on the right track,” Apodaca said of the rating improvement.

Making the change was challenging, he said, but a great opportunity for the school community to come together and make changes that ultimately benefit its students’ educational experiences.

Source: Coloradoan

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