At a regular Board of Education (BOE) meeting Monday evening, Three Rivers Community Schools (TRCS) principals and administrators discussed current performance amid ongoing pandemic measures. Through a series of presentations led by TRCS Curriculum Director Nikki Nash, principals from each of the TRCS buildings discussed where current performance measurements stand among students, and what measures they are taking to improve student engagement and results.
Under pandemic reporting requirements, TRCS must perform a comprehensive evaluation three times a year, once each in the fall, winter, and spring. Monday’s conversation was the result of the fall evaluation, during which baselines are established for subsequent measurements. Also, after a 30-day interval, TRCS must reconfirm its COVID-19 Extended Learning Plan, under which the reporting requirements fall. Following the presentation by Nash and the principals, the BOE approved the reconfirmation.
For performance metrics in grades one through 12, Nash said TRCS uses a system called NWEA, which is the product of a nonprofit called Northwest Evaluation Association based in Portland, Oregon. NWEA’s system is one wherein assessment of each student is designed to measure what they are ready to learn next in reading, language development, and math.
The system is designed to evaluate what those next steps should be regardless of whether a student is performing at, below, or above their grade level. To accomplish this, it establishes scores based on the averages of their peers. The goal is to have the highest percentages of students possible performing at average, high average, or high scoring levels.
By that kind of system, Nash and several principals said, both individual and collective scores tend to climb over the course of a school year as well as a student’s entire time in school from one grade to the next. In fact, Nash said, the system enables TRCS to track a child’s performance profile and make adjustments to meet their needs over the course of their entire student career.
“Young five” and kindergarten students are measured according to a similar system called DIBELS, which stands for Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy. The DIBELS system does not include the three separate subject categories as the NWEA system, but it uses similar scoring. It rates performance into categories called “intensive,” “strategic,” and “benchmark.”
According to a chart Nash presented Monday, 45 percent of young five and 28 percent of kindergarten students are performing at the highest, or benchmark, levels. Another 39 percent and 25 percent are at the strategic levels respectively.
For students measured under the NWEA system, there are three performance categories. They are “low,” “medium,” and “high.” The combined totals of students in the medium and high categories for the fall establish performance benchmarks.
On Monday, Nash showed a chart wherein 62 percent of students districtwide are in the benchmark categories for reading. For language development, 56 percent fall into benchmark scoring categories, while for math, the number is 52 percent. Nash said the lower performance in math is unsurprising given the sudden and unexpected closure due to the pandemic last spring. Nash presented further statistics that broke the numbers down by grade level, and each principal followed with a presentation that further detailed statistics by grade level and various other categories.
Each principal also discussed ways they are using the data to inform instruction and student interaction. Three Rivers High School Principal Carrie Balk said her staff uses the system “in the classroom to inform instruction, and we’re seeing positive results because of that.” Three Rivers Middle School Principal Peter Olson said the data provides an opportunity for biweekly meetings with department heads, who can then go to teachers with data to make adjustments.
The data, Olson said, shows exactly which skills and benchmarks students are having difficulty meeting, and department heads and teachers can focus on those areas or provide alternative ways to address them, such as through intervention classes. The improvements that are measurable over time are “a testament to the district-wide progression of learning,” Olson said.
Elementary school principals said similar things about the sytem and its application, and also detailed some of the measures they are taking to address performance issues. Ben McIntyre of Andrews Elementary said his staff is performing biweekly progress monitoring and using small group instruction in the classroom. Park Elementary Principal Cindy Newell said her staff are doing the same thing.
Dave Soderquist at said Hoppin Elementary is also engaged in biweekly progress monitoring, and is scheduling students for time with instructional coaches to assist their performance. Jennifer Graber of Norton Elementary said her school is focusing on family engagement through biweekly student assistance strategies that are sent home to parents, bolstered by direct follow-up from the school.
Virtual Platform Challenges Discussed
Earlier during Monday’s meeting, Nash provided BOE members with an overall update on Lincoln Learning along with TRCS Superintendent Ron Moag. Moag said out of 369 students engaged with the platform districtwide, 277 are fully on track through two-way interaction with the schools and completing their courses. Another 87 students are not on track due to weak interaction, insufficient course progress, or both. Nash said about ten students districtwide are fully disengaged.
According to the various reports on Monday, the schools are attempting to provide ways to mitigate disengagement and address other performance issues. At Three Rivers High School, Nash said there are morning and afternoon sessions set up for students to come in and interact with mentors.
During their NWEA presentations, the principals discussed ways in which they are attempting to address disengagement by some students who are enrolled for the fall semester in the Lincoln Learning online, virtual instruction platform. Disengaged students are those from whom the schools have had no communication, and who are not attending online courses or submitting work.
McIntyre said Andrews staff have not yet succeeded in connecting with three disengaged students despite attempted home visits. Soderquist said six Hoppin students are completely disengaged, although two of them are due to medical exemptions. He said the number actually fluctuates from one week to the next, and only two students are consistently disengaged each week.
Graber said two Norton students are disengaged because they live in a place with no internet access, but since their families are planning to move to a new area soon, they expect to have better access. Newell said 18 out of 53 Park students enrolled in Lincoln Learning are currently disengaged or underperforming.
During the Lincoln Learning update, BOE President Erin Nowak said she noticed almost half of the Middle School’s Lincoln Learning students are not on track, and asked Olson why. Olson said he is “not sure there is a definitive explanation,” and that the school’s mentors are available and performing well. Mentor hours are available to middle school students after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
BOE member Anne Riopel said she is concerned students working from home could have trouble getting to the school during those hours, when parents might still be working. She also said having students come to the school negated the purpose of having a platform designed to otherwise isolate them from potential pandemic exposure.
Aside from the potential for mentoring challenges, Olson said art classes in particular have a high failure rate on the Lincoln Learning platform, even among otherwise well-performing students. Otherwise, Olson said he attributed underperformance issues to students who engaged in little or no two-way communication with the schools because they “like to work on their own.” Nowak asked Olson to look into the issue further and seek solutions with Moag and Nash’s assistance.
In comments near the end of Monday’s meeting, BOE member Kevin Hamilton said he found it problematic that roughly 90 percent of Lincoln Learning students are failing at least one course. Nash said that number is actually closer to 75 percent, and that it does not represent course failures only but also engagement rates.
To measure satisfaction with the Lincoln Learning platform and evaluate what to expect next semester, Nash said TRCS is currently polling parents regarding their expected enrollment choices. She said roughly 1,000 students or families have responded. Nash said 98 percent of those who are currently attending through face-to-face or hybrid instruction options plan to return to the same format.
Among those currently enrolled through Lincoln Learning, 56 percent intend to remain with the platform, while 41 percent plan to return to face-to-face or hybrid instruction. Nash said that number equates to 132 students on top of those who are already in TRCS buildings this semester. BOE member Julia Awe asked if there is sufficient space to accommodate them amid social distance protocols. Nash said that is “one thing we have to address,” to which Awe said, “that’s concerning.”
Riopel, who has asked on several previous occasions previously why TRCS administrators did not consider a live-streaming, virtual instruction option using TRCS teachers, inquired about that subject again on Monday. Riopel and Hamilton, said other nearby districts with which they are employed are live-streaming instruction successfully, sometimes with fewer resources than TRCS has. Riopel said TRCS should consider the issue before it is “hit with another multi-hundred-thousand-dollar bill.”
Nash said the choice to use the third-party platform is largely a question of mitigating teacher workload. She said live-streamed instruction significantly increases the amount of work teachers and other staff must do to ensure students are engaged and have the resources they need to participate in classes.
In other TRCS business:
- Athletic Director Matt Stofer provided a comprehensive update on TRCS fall sports programs. Out of 380 high school student athletes, 185 participate in fall sports. Boys and girls cross country teams, as well as girls golf, performed well, Stofer said. He said this was the first year of middle school football. Boys’ soccer performed well, as did volleyball, in which the Junior Varsity team was 17 in one. Newly-broadcast football games from Armstrong Field had 2800 viewers.
- During a state-mandated closure of schools for the next three weeks, Moag said plans are in place to distribute lunches to students. He said breakfast and lunch for all students are funded for the remainder of 2020.
- BOE members voted to approve a contract to hire Natalie Hosbein for a Special Education Teacher position at Park Elementary.
- The second of two special meetings held to conduct Moag’s performance evaluation will take place at 6 p.m. this Thursday, November 19.
Dave Vago is a writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.