This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Filing into a second-grade classroom at Oak Hill Elementary School, Kelvin Adams and others settled into child-sized seats at the back of the room to watch students play a guessing game. They quickly became the object of the kids’ curiosity.
The students were asked: Which one of the visitors – including a reporter and several employees of the St. Louis Public Schools along with Adams – is the superintendent, aka the “big cheese”?
The consensus got it wrong – the choice was the district’s PR director because he was wearing what was deemed a presidential-looking suit – but the lesson was on target. The students were learning about predictions and inferences based on the answers to questions and their own observations.
And Adams was making observations of his own. As part of a front-office push to improve the academic achievement at the city system’s lowest-performing schools, the superintendent and other top members of his staff have each taken a list of schools that they visit regularly, sharing their opinions of what they see and following up to make sure changes are made.
Adams chose the district’s worst performers for himself, schools that have been receiving federal funds called "school improvement grants." For the most part, the so-called SIG schools failed badly in the state’s latest evaluations, and when he discussed the results earlier this year, Adams’ patience was clearly wearing thin.
So Adams implemented a plan he says was in the works even before the disappointing results for the city schools were announced in August. He would focus on 18 schools, and his front-office colleagues would do the same, making regular visits – some announced, some surprise – to check out what kind of teaching and learning is taking place and keep close track of the data that go along with it.
What is he looking for? In a hallway outside of the second-grade classroom, he gave the Beacon a brief list.
- First, Adams said, he wants to make sure the students are engaged. “If kids are bored,” he said, “they’re not going to learn.”
- Second, he wants to make sure they are gaining a depth of knowledge, going beneath the surface.
- Third, he wants to make sure teachers have a definite lesson plan, to determine ahead of time what they want their students to learn, then stick to it.
Adams noted that in the second-grade class he had visited, charts and other indicators were posted on the walls to show the progress the kids were making. Their reading level was gauged by letter, from A up to Z, with a goal of N. Each child’s ranking was marked by colored pencil. Most of them had a way to go.
Teachable moments and risks
In her third year leading Oak Hill, principal Karessa Morrow said that the “guess which person is the superintendent” exercise hadn’t been planned in advance. But when she saw the second graders involved in a lesson about predictions and inferences, she sensed a “teachable moment that I thought presented itself.”
And, she noted, the class seemed to enjoy trying to figure out just who the big cheese was.
“All of the students wanted to participate and take risks,” she said.
Adams appreciated the engagement in the classroom, which included students reading aloud clues to what objects were represented in closed paper bags they held.
What could the visitors and others in the class infer from the clues? What is big, fat, round and hot, something that can burn people and sometimes prompts people to don special glasses? The correct answer – the sun, for those of you playing along – earned thumbs up from the class.
Adams and colleagues discussed in the hallway how the lesson could be extended. Maybe they could limit the clues or make other rules to change things around and keep the kids engaged.
The superintendent seemed pleased with what he saw, even though his PR assistant was tagged as the real leader of the district. And he made the point that if he has questions or concerns, he deals directly with the principal involved, not with the teacher, because the staff is the principal’s responsibility, not his.
Compared with the generally positive tone of Adams’ visit last week to Oak Hill, his earlier meeting with Principal June Berry and other staff around a conference table at Fanning Middle School had more of an edge.
Berry had prepared a folder full of material detailing what the school was doing to bring up scores in the areas that count most in the state’s annual evaluations, like student test scores and attendance. The state awards evaluation points for districts where 90 percent of a school’s students are present at school 90 percent of the time.
Fanning has weekly attendance team meetings, Berry said, and phone calls home for students who are chronically absent. If parents can’t be reached by mail or by phone, home visits are the next step.
“If we can’t find a kid and the parent doesn’t respond to a letter,” she said, “we go to the house.”
Berry said the school has also tried incentives, including ice cream socials, pizza parties and dances, to cut down on suspensions and improve attendance. Talking about a recent banana split party, she said: “Even with the smallest things, they’re happy with that.”
On suspensions, the effort appears to be working. Berry presented numbers that showed 47 suspensions from August through November of this year, compared with 74 during the corresponding period last school year.
After hearing about a series of programs designed to improve performance – STAR reading and math, Catapult Learning, Urban Futures – Adams zeroed in on specifics.
Fortifying himself with a Tootsie Roll Pop taken from a stash on Berry’s desk, the superintendent noted that one big problem is that while the student tests mean a great deal to the school and to the district, they don’t make much difference to the students themselves.
“It’s not that they can’t read on grade level,” he said about one crucial area. “It’s that they don’t care about the assessment.”
For one area after another, as Berry and colleagues presented their views and statistics, Adams asked the same general question:
“How do you know?”
The more pointed queries came quickly.
“Tell me what this says, so I can understand.”
“What do we need to do collectively?”
“What specifically is working schoolwide for comm arts and mathematics?”
“What skills are you requiring students to work on that you are monitoring every 10 days.”
At one point, when Berry showed a prediction for a score of 249 in English when the district target is 300, Adams seemed particularly frustrated.
“This is depressing to me,” he said. “If we can’t do better, we should just close up shop and go home right now.”
He praised the work that Fanning had done to improve attendance, but he was concerned about test scores. He suggested that Berry and others go to the district’s website, sending her a direct link with his smart phone, to see what Langston Middle School is doing, concentrating on the types of questions that have been on the MAP tests for the past few years.
“If you use it, great,” Adams said. “If you don’t use, fine. But it can give you a road map.”
Diving deep into the data
Interviewed later, Adams said he didn’t necessarily come away with a negative feeling about the numbers from Fanning, but he wanted to make sure the staff there was pushing hard to make next year’s evaluation more positive.
“I wasn’t disappointed,” he said. “I was pushing them to think deeper.”
Going into the numbers in a more granular way, he said, helps schools figure out what and where the problems are, then devise ways to fix them.
“This is what the data say,” Adams said, “but this is where we want to be. I do want them to stretch themselves.”
The final slide in Berry’s presentation was a 10-day action plan on how to improve attendance, discipline, test scores and other areas. Adams plans regular return visits for all 18 of the schools for which he has taken responsibility, and he expects other front-office personnel to do the same.
Compared to many of the duties he has as superintendent, Adams said he particularly enjoys the school visits, even if he isn’t too happy about the evaluation numbers that prompted them.
“I love all parts of the job,” he said. “I like being in schools more than being at board meetings.
“You interact with the kids. You interact with the real world. This is the real world.”
And just to make sure the staff at Fanning and elsewhere don’t forget that this is a sustained effort, Adams left them with these words:
“I’ll be back in 10 days.”