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Madison School District reviewing middle and high school academics

Madison School District reviewing middle and high school academics

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The Madison School District is reviewing courses offered in its high schools with the goal of equalizing access students have to academic opportunities, and improving the chance that students will graduate and be successful in college or careers.

The review, which started in 2013-14 and and continues this school year, could result in changes to course offerings, increased rigor in middle schools and changes to how school counselors help students, among other things.

It is in part driven by a persistently large gap in academic achievement between white and minority students, illustrated by the fact that 88 percent of the district’s white students graduated in four years in 2013, compared to just 54 percent of black students.

“Not all of our students (are) getting access to the range of coursework that would prepare them for multiple (college or career) options upon graduation,” said superintendent Jennifer Cheatham.

Access to foreign language, arts and advanced coursework needs to be equal across the district, and students must have proper guidance and academic support in order to successfully complete them, said Cheatham.

Improving the guidance in choosing a career or a college is an aim of the review, too, in order to best inform students’ course choices in high school, she said.

Students also could be better prepared for the rigor of high school while they are in middle school, according to preliminary results of the study, which showed struggling and failing grades of ninth-graders might be a result of what officials call a “misalignment” of curriculum, and mismatched homework expectations between middle and high schools.

The district’s study of high school coursework also found access to advanced world language and arts courses is largely determined by what middle school students attend, and that access to Advanced Placement courses and scores on AP exams varies “considerably” by school.

All four traditional high schools offer the same seven AP courses, but AP courses in English, composition, U.S. and World history and biology are not offered at every school.

The study found that only about 5 percent of black students are taking AP classes compared to 27 percent of white students.

“I would imagine there would be a baseline of AP offerings we would insist upon and there might be flexibility beyond that baseline,” said Cheatham. Lack of equal access to AP courses is an “institutional barrier” that “simply needs to change,” she added.

Successful completion of AP courses can qualify students for college credit.

Proposals also include creating a curriculum designed to span sixth grade through senior year of high school to ensure middle schools and high schools aren’t inconsistently rigorous, and ensuring equitable access to advanced courses and foreign languages.

Just 29 percent of black students who score well on an eighth-grade standardized assessment are enrolling in at least one honors course in ninth grade, compared to 59 percent of white students who score similarly well on the same test, the study found.

The changes to course offerings are not yet defined. Cheatham said it’s likely schools will end up all offering a core set of courses, and have “clear parameters around the kinds of opportunities we expect every student to have beyond those core classes,” which could look different at each school. The schools will likely be able to retain their choice of electives, she said.

Additional “core” courses that are not being offered, but should be, include financial literacy, media literacy, personal technology literacy and courses in finding a job, said Cheatham.

“It’s important every school gets to retain its unique qualities, and one of the wonderful traditions at West (High School) is the robust offering of electives, and we don’t want to stifle that, but we do want to guarantee access for every child,” said Cheatham.

Cheatham said the disparity in high school graduation rates was one problem she noticed after she was hired in spring of 2013.

“Our graduation rates overall are decent and getting better, but our graduation rates for certain groups of students are dismal,” she said.

That’s happening, in part, because of a lack of engagement in high school, likely because of a lack of relevance students see in their time there, said Cheatham.

If students don’t see a connection between what they’re learning in the classroom — or feel permanently behind — it’s hard for them to “maintain the stamina needed to graduate” if students don’t see a connection with their futures, Cheatham said.

Kristin Klopfenstein, a University of Northern Colorado professor who has studied the AP program and how high schools offer advanced courses, said districts should ensuring students who are exposed to AP courses are prepared for them and help them along the way.

“For those kids who are not getting the kind of education before they get to high school that prepares them to be successful in that kind of rigorous curriculum — it’s kind of too little, too late to just offer AP courses when they are 16,” she said.

“You should offer them only when you can ensure you have high quality-experience,” she added.

Alex Fralin, who helps lead the Madison district’s study and is its assistant superintendent for secondary schools, said schools will start with being very clear about options for students, and providing the proper support for counselors and teachers to have conversations with students about their options.

“I think it really starts with our guidance systems to make sure those course electives are (clear to students),” said Fralin.

Whether that means increased hours for school counselors or how many work in schools is unclear, said Cheatham. It’s most likely their duties will be more focused on giving students one-on-one support, she said.

District spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said counselors focus their support on students’ academics, social and emotional issues and career plans.

“However, we know that they are sometimes pulled away from direct service to do other duties within the school,” she said.

The varying amount of time each counselor spends with students is influenced by the needs in each school, she said, which is “part of why we are looking at a more comprehensive model for school counseling.”

Board member Michael Flores said the inequity of access for students is a problem that needs to be fixed, especially for students of color. Flores said the number of counselors is another way to combat the problem of failing, lost or struggling students.

“The numbers we are looking at here is astounding,” he said.

The average student-to-counselor ratio in Madison’s middle schools are a few hundred students per counselor. For example, Black Hawk Middle School’s counselor sees 395 students. At Sennett, it’s 606.

High school counselors have a lower ratio, ranging from 249 to 295 students per counselor. Some expressed concerns to district officials during the study about bearing sole responsibility for nearly 300 students’ academic and career plans.

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Professional development, new curriculum materials, new Common Core-aligned lessons, teacher teams and beefing up intervention and tutoring are strategies the district is deploying to make algebra and other courses with high rates of failure less of a barrier for Madison students.

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