Tuesday, 18 June 2024

Salato: Let’s focus on growth

Becky Salato. Courtesy photo.

When it comes to motivating students (or anyone, really), holding them to an overwhelming goal doesn’t work.

The California Department of Education regularly updates an online dashboard for each public school district to display information about academic achievement and some of the factors that contribute to it, including suspension rates, chronic absenteeism, English Learner progress, and more.

As a district, Konocti Unified has a history of struggling to achieve at high levels when measured on the basis of “Distance from Standard,” which is what the dashboard uses. I recognize the importance of having uniform standards, but I also know how depressing it can feel when those standards feel out of reach. So, while we continue to strive for high marks, our schools are paying attention to whether students are making progress.

Imagine for a moment that your health level makes it hard to walk to the mailbox without getting winded. You know you’re not in great shape, and when someone tells you you’re not as fast as the track star next door, you shrug and shuffle back to your front door. Would you like to be in better shape? Sure. Who wouldn’t? But when external measures seem completely unrealistic, why put any effort into achieving them?

Now imagine that the whole neighborhood is on a health kick and each person is measured on their own improvement. You receive daily encouragement and helpful information about the benefits of cardiovascular health. Each time your minutes-to-the-mailbox score improves, everyone celebrates.

Suddenly, you’re fired up. You know you can shave another minute off your time. You love how much better you’re feeling. You think it’s great that you aren’t tired all the time. Now, you’re not even working hard for the recognition; you’re working hard because you like the results. Now, it’s for you.

This is what we are going for at Konocti Unified. We’re measuring student progress. If a middle school student is reading at a third-grade level and they achieve two years of progress in one year, according to the distance-from-standard measure, they are still “below grade level.”

But according to our measure, they are ROCK STARS! In one year, they learned twice as much as anyone expected. We call that a reason to celebrate.

When students start succeeding, they start to believe in themselves. After all my years in education, I can tell you, this is where the magic happens. This little snowball of success can roll into an avalanche or achievement.

At Pomo Elementary, Lexile (reading) growth rates were stunning. The percentage of kids who hit the 50-point growth goal was as follows:

First grade: 83%
Second grade: 85%
Third grade: 73%
Fourth grade: 69%
Fifth grade: 61%
Sixth grade: 52%

This is a huge improvement over prior years. We have implemented a strong foundational reading program in grades K-3. Schoolwide, we are providing the kind of support that catches students as soon as they start to stumble, so they don’t get stuck — and frustrated. This keeps students motivated to learn.

We celebrated all students for the schoolwide success — this helps students feel connected to each other and feel school pride.

For students to succeed, we need them at school. Poor attendance has been a problem countywide, but we are starting to see improvement in that area. By making our schools as welcoming as possible, students have a place where they feel like they belong.

Sometimes, this means finding a club or sports team. Sometimes, this means connecting with a caring adult willing to take the time to listen. Sometimes, it simply means getting used to each other.

At Obsidian Middle School, we had a bumpy start to the year. We knew this would be the case. When this many middle schoolers come together in a new school, they need to figure out the social hierarchy. It’s human nature.

The good news is that things are settling way down. We have a tiny fraction of the fights on campus that we had at the beginning of the year. Our goal is no fights (standards-based goal), but we are focusing on our progress (things are moving quickly and dramatically in the right direction).

At Obsidian, we are also creating a culture that supports a sense of community. Our House Structure program allows students to be in a smaller learning environment.

Students have two core teachers, one STEM (math and science) and one Humanities (English and history). Each house has approximately 90 students, and the students travel together in their three blocks throughout the day. This makes a middle school of 600 students feel smaller and more personalized. We plan to name the houses and hold healthy competitions this semester to boost school/house spirit.

At Obsidian we also have “positive referrals,” where all staff members can “catch” students doing good work, such as standing up for another student, helping a staff member or cleaning up the campus.

The student receives an Obsidian Middle School hoodie and can take the positive note home to share with parents. These hoodies are gaining popularity and students are working hard to earn them.

We have so many reasons to feel encouraged. We are proud of the progress our students are making. We intend to continue to help them set realistic goals and to celebrate when they reach them.

So, although our California Department of Education dashboard may not look amazing (yet), we’ll keep motivating our students to achieve. Our goal is progress, not perfection.

Becky Salato is superintendent of Konocti Unified School District in Lower Lake, California.

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