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Knocking down barriers to success: black students

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The staff of Pleasant Valley High School were honored for their work with black students. Nearly 90 percent of black students at Pleasant Valley are proficient in reading and math.

Left to right: Mike Zimmer, Kim VerHeecke, Janel Worlein, Sherri Britz and Jamie Homb.

Students present unique challenges to teachers. But those challenges can be exacerbated among certain groups of students who historically have underperformed.

Those groups – ranging from students whose native language isn’t English to those on the lower spectrum of the socioeconomic scale – are a part of what is called the education gap: the academic difference between white students who aren’t from economically challenged families and the students belonging to the historically challenged subgroups.

The Iowa State Board of Education recognized that closing the gap is critical for students – and the state’s long-term success. So 16 years ago, the board created the Breaking Barriers to Teaching and Learning Award, designed to recognize schools that have worked to overcome the education gap.

This year, five schools were honored for their work over the 2016-17 school year. One of them is Pleasant Valley High School  from Pleasant Valley Community School District.

Pleasant Valley High School was honored for its work with black students in which 89 percent of those students are proficient in reading and math. That compares to the statewide average of only 50 percent.

So what is Pleasant Valley High School doing? Principal Mike Zimmer explains.

What is your school doing?
Guided by our educational philosophy, Pleasant Valley High School (PVHS) evaluates student performance through Measuring Academic Performance (MAP) testing, Iowa Assessments, and classroom performance to determine what educational program each student should receive to facilitate learning. National and state standards remain the foundation for all curricular decisions. Taking the time to establish a guaranteed and viable curriculum remains a constant work in progress; it is the bedrock for establishing specific learning targets. Teachers are developing targets that go beyond low-level recall and push students to think more deeply regardless of their academic level. Every teacher at PVHS will complete three peer observations that focus on providing feedback related to a specific instructional strategy. Each teacher selected an instructional strand pertaining to their preference in Productive Struggle, Meta-Cognition, or Project-Based Learning strategies.

What is the guiding philosophy of your school?
Pleasant Valley Community School District (PVCSD) is guided by a very simple philosophy, “We will have the finest academic and extra-curricular programs in the state, not in some areas but in all areas, not for some students, but for all students.” While laudable in language, it is the action behind the words that drive us to constantly evaluate student academic performance to determine if they are receiving the proper supports to maximize learning.

What particular challenges does your school face?
Author Jim Collin’s best describes PVHS’s biggest challenge of moving from Good to Great. PVHS has always recorded good Iowa Assessment, MAP, ACT and AP scores. It became natural to sit back and accept that some students are just not going to get this. At a time when less than 10 percent of the jobs require a high school diploma, it is imperative that all students be provided the opportunity to learn and succeed at a high level. We truly understand that “No Child can be Left Behind” if we are going to maintain a competitive work force. Our challenge is to go beyond a student being labeled proficient and accept that we need as many students as possible to be career and college ready in both reading and math.

What, specifically, is your school doing to push all-student advancement?
John Hattie ranks teacher efficacy as one of the highest educational practices towards improving student learning. At PVHS, teacher efficacy truly begins with a group of reading and math teachers believing that all kids can learn if provided the proper curriculum and instruction by caring adults. In reading, our staff is not only trained in the reading strategies developed by Dr. Bev Showers through Second Chance Reading (SCR), they also provide this training to other teachers. Our 7-12 Reading PLC reviews the effectiveness of reading strategies on a daily basis within each building and weekly as a whole group. Between MAP and Iowa Assessment testing, students are subject to a wide variety of reading strategies and depending upon the student, provided weekly reading probes or formative assessments to measure academic progress. This data is shared by the team with in-depth discussion regarding appropriate next steps. While a similar research-based math program has not been as readily accessible to date, PVHS has used similar approaches for improving student learning in math.

What, specifically, is your school doing to push the advancement of black students?
PVHS does not distinguish between subgroups. Each student is provided an educational plan based upon what the data indicates. Likewise, students are moved immediately upon achieving their goals from one reading class to another. Reading courses are scheduled within the same period to allow for movement based upon their need versus an arbitrary timeline. We often refer to reading support as “double dosing;” non-proficient readers are placed in both an English and reading class when attempting to achieve more than a year’s growth.

What advice would you like to share with your contemporaries?
Like many schools, PVHS has discovered that improved student learning cannot be found through one-to-one computers, downloading an app, or adopting a prescribed canned program. Improved student learning comes when teachers believe that all students can learn and are provided the training, resources and collaborative time to talk about instructional practices, research-based strategies, and the results of targeted assessments that scaffold from low-level recall to higher-order analysis/prediction. This is not easy or quick work and requires patience by both instructor and student. Most important, it is the trusting relationship developed between the teacher and student that allows them to believe they can and will improve in both reading and math.

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on February 18, 2018 at 8:27pm.