Jennifer Cheatham, superintendent, (left) during a Madison School Board meeting at the Doyle Administration Building on May 8.

The Madison Metropolitan School District will spend the summer revising its advanced learner plan with the goal of implementing changes in the 2017-2018 school year. 

At Monday’s School Board meeting, district officials shared with board members five focus areas for improving the program: identifying advanced learners; teaching advanced learners; communicating the needs of advanced learners with parents, within schools and between schools as students transition grade levels; staffing; and overall assessment of the advanced learning program.

Lisa Kvistad, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, kicked off the conversation by asking the board to provide feedback to help the district execute the plan to better serve current and potential students.

“Those ideas (presented) are really centered around executing on the work that will allow access and more opportunity for students of color, more of our underrepresented students, and those who are already identified as advanced,” she said. “We see the advanced learning plan really as an equity strategy because of that.”

The Madison School District developed a new advanced learning plan in 2014 shortly after Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham started. The plan is going through its first revision process, and the district will present a new draft in August. MMSD will implement the revised plan during the 2017-2018 school year, monitor the results, and revise it again in the 2019-2020 school year. The review, implement and revise cycle will continue for the program for the forseeable future. 

In an interview with the Cap Times, Kvistad said the focus on advanced learners started as a result of Cheatham’s conversations with the community on what the district could improve.

“She did listening and learning visits around the district and brought in experts and they (observed), ‘You have a real gap in these three student subgroup areas around policy and plans,” Kvistad said.

The English language learning and special education programs are also on similar review, implement and revise cycles.

Board members provided feedback for the district in a number of areas, particularly identifying and teaching advanced learners.

Kate Toews questioned how the district will measure student potential given the number of assessment methods and the heavy focus on test scores.

“How are we identifying potential and can we simplify (the method?),” she asked. “I guess I am confused. I have seen these fantastically brilliant kids fall through the cracks because we don’t have a way to do that.”

Ethan Netterstrom, who started in April as the director of advanced learning, suggested that lowering the threshold for identifying advanced learners who come from lower economic backgrounds and providing stronger supports for students identified as advanced learners can help bring more students into the program.

“Some of our (identification methods) cut off at the 95th percentile. You are catching very few kids, where as if we moved to the 90th, 85th or 80th — or if we looked at taking kids from lower economic, top 10 percent looking at MAP (scores) — we are going to catch kids that normally we have not been servicing,” he said.

“A big piece of the potential is also supporting kids that we’ve identified in this newer, broader way, to make sure that we are not identifying them and just saying ‘OK, now you’re advanced learning, good luck to you.’”

TJ Mertz followed up with a comment about lowering the threshold for subgroups to increase access to advanced learning, and how having different standards may not be the best way to serve those students.

“Is someone who is overall 15 percent lower than someone else, but in the top 10 percent of their group, from an instructional perspective, does it make sense to treat them the same?” he said. “If it does indicate potential, that’s great, but if it's simply just a way to throw more people into a bucket, and it doesn’t make instructional sense ... we have to be very explicit on our practices around that.”

Board members also pressed the district for more clarity around clustering students of similar ability levels in the same classrooms versus having advanced learners spread across multiple teachers. Mary Burke asked Netterstrom if clustering advanced learning students was a current practice in the district, and he said the practice is inconsistent from school to school.

“(Clustering) to me seems like a basic, common sense, almost, after the identification,” she said. “Would that be one of the top priorities for increasing our level of meeting student needs by having that clustering, at least within the grade levels within each school?”

Kvistad said there are multiple schools of thought around the effectiveness of clustering students, and said teachers need the flexibility to make those decisions based on the needs of individual students.

“From a ‘boots on the ground’ perspective it really does take a flexible group (of teachers) to do that,” she said. “I do think we need to do better support for teachers and teams around flexibly doing that to meet more students’ needs ... a teacher can’t differentiate (instruction) every minute of everyday all the time.”

Mertz added that while he believes in trusting the judgment of individual school teams to effectively group students, he would like more transparency around the process.

“I’d like to understand how we’ve implemented clustering policies and I really don’t know,” he said. “That is a huge black box in this district.”

Toews was concerned about how the district is identifying and preparing advanced learning students beyond the core content areas of math, language arts, science and social studies. Other domains include creativity, leadership and visual/performing arts.

Toews sees the upcoming Personalized Pathways program as a way to offer more options for high school students but would like to see more opportunities for younger students.

“I think Pathways has a lot of potential to support ... particularly around our creative and arts and leadership advanced learners who are really, right now, relying on enrichment-only (activities),” she said.

Laurie Fellenz, who was the interim director of advanced learning this school year, agreed that Pathways can expand offerings at the secondary level, and the district needs to look into more arts opportunities for elementary school students.

“The time, frequency, and dosage in K-5 art and music are very limiting, but if we can start to reimagine how kids can access the arts outside of that as well, that can be instructional and lead to project-based learning,” she said. “There are pockets in classrooms around the district starting to do that work. I am optimistic that will help us address some of that.”

School Board President James Howard, who has been on the board since 2010, said the district has been discussing advanced learning for some time. He said he would like a better idea on how much progress has been made, particularly for younger students.

“It always feels like we are starting over instead of building. Where do you feel we are at in terms of preparing our kids now who are in K-5?” he said.

“It seems as though the pool (for advanced learners) will shrink if we haven’t prepared them early on.”

Cheatham pointed to the academic growth of elementary school students and the use of universal assessments that test all kids for advanced learning in second and fifth grades. She agreed with Howard’s sentiments, but believed developing accountability plans for individual schools will help the district better showcase progress.

“I do feel like we have made progress, but we are having a hard time capturing the progress,” she said. “The school-based plan seems like a small thing, but it does feel like an essential missing piece that has made it hard for us to measure where we are and capture our growth.”

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