January 20, 2015 // Local

Communities rally for academic success for past struggling schools

By Lisa Kochanowski

SOUTH BEND, ELKHART — The African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child, is very true when people talk about the amazing academic success of St. Vincent de Paul School in Elkhart and St. Adalbert School in South Bend.

Both grade schools found themselves in academic trouble with the Indiana Department of Education’s A-F grading scale in 2012 and 2013. To correct the problem, community wide programs were launched within each of the schools that led to an “A” grade in 2014.

“To the academic success I definitely credit the dedication, innovation and hard work of our teaching staff, who have taken it upon themselves to make sure that an academically excellent education is provided. That’s been our No. 1 priority since the state found us to be a failing school three years ago,” said St. Adalbert Principal Andrew Currier of the success. “That’s been a top priority alongside ensuring there is a very solid faith education being provided to the children.”

“First and foremost, I would attribute it to the fact that God is good and trusting in Him is paramount,” noted St. Vincent de Paul Principal Tom Gropp. “Secondly, we accomplished what we did because of the dedication and hard work of staff, students and parents.”

Each school put instructional changes in place to ensure that students were learning and growing academically. Teachers have participated in professional development and personalized training to reach out to students and families.

“We worked very diligently to take a look at our core subject criteria,” said Currier. “We had to make sure that adequate time was given to core subjects to make sure that we prioritized math and language arts. We found that we weren’t taking enough time with those subjects especially with children who are acquiring English as a new language.”

“Our math was really struggling, too, so we put in a number of supports instructionally,” he said. “In fact we hired another teacher to support math, and we hired a person that helps support math instruction throughout the school and also tracks academic data for the whole school.”

In 2012, St. Vincent began working with Doepker Educational Consulting. Through this relationship they learned about data driven instruction, changing the way the school assessed students. This model aided the school in understanding and meeting the needs of the students. It has been an ongoing process for the past three years. Each year specific goals are made and met to help the school stay on track for continuous improvement. Gropp noted it has been a learning process and is appreciative of the dedication of everyone involved with the school.

One of the big changes was using data to group students according to needs. Data derived from the formative and summative assessments helps drive the instruction from week to week and ensures that what is being taught is aligned to the state standards.

Through the transformation process of each school, time has been noted as one of the greatest obstacles to achieving success.

“The biggest obstacles are finding enough time to get as far as we really need to academically,” Currier said. “Timing is crucial.”

“We’ve put into place an extensive after-school program that a majority of the school participates in, and we also have a lot of help from Notre Dame tutors that come in and work with the students after school as well,” said Currier. The program runs four days a week for an hour and 20 minutes.

Gropp noted, “As we have made the change to the data-driven instruction, it became overwhelmingly obvious that more time is needed to collaborate. Through collaboration is where data can really be laser-focused and teachers can drill it down together and then share strategies, best practices, etc. This in turn allows the teachers to make adjustments as needed for groupings and differentiation. We have tried to overcome this by instituting two late start days a month where collaboration can take place.”

Each school has a large Hispanic population requiring the need for some accommodations for students.

“What’s key to success here is that we don’t see culture or language as an obstacle but we celebrate it and see it as a real benefit and a real opportunity for the children to grow both in English and Spanish,” said Currier.

St. Adalbert created the “Madrinas y Padrinos” group as a way to empower parents to leadership and visible presence in the school community. Modeled after the strong social networks of “madrinas” and “padrinos” in the Latino community, this program embraces “parents helping parents as mentors” for the good of the entire community.

The core group of parents serves as mentors for new St. Adalbert School families, work within the HASA (Home And School Association) group to help families with programs and support, help facilitate parent education and serve as ambassadors for the school.

“It has been a fantastic benefit and bonus to the school,” said Currier. Through the program, educators have been able to help teach parents what to look for academically with the children. It has also led to student-run conferences where instead of the teacher presenting to the parents, students are given responsibility and support to show parents how they are progressing toward their goals.

Language barriers can be a struggle for children. St. Adalbert is employing more ENL teachers and almost all teachers are ENL-certified through a grant program from Holy Cross College.

“That has really helped the teachers adapt their strategies and instructional approach to best serve students with Spanish as their primary language,” said Currier. The school is making school life more familiar to the Hispanic students by celebrating Latino feast days, fully embracing Latino cultural celebrations and making changes to the school menu.

Gropp said, “It is a unique aspect but also a great aspect. It is exciting to see our language learners grow in their English language and achieve success.”

Each year St. Vincent ELL (English Language Learners) student are given a language proficiency test. The test determines their language proficiency level and accommodations are assigned as needed for the classroom and on state testing. The school has also added an ELL teacher as an extra resource for students. With supplemental information the goal is to better assess the students’ needs.

Both schools are proud of their “A” rating and have programs in place to ensure continued growth.

“We’re working hard making sure that the systems we put in place can continue to serve the academic needs of the students. I think — even more important than that — we are going to continue to be flexible when needed, adapt to the shifting needs of the children, and shifting expectations at state and diocesan levels,” said Currier.

Gropp said, “One thing is we want to keep perfecting our data-driven instruction and learn how to use the data in a way that will benefit the students as much as possible. Secondly, we want to strive to make the students responsible for their own data. The students are keeping their own data folders in the classrooms and logging their own successes and improvement needed.”

“This will eventually develop into student-led conferences in the future where the students take their parents through their data as opposed to teacher-led conferences. Research has shown that students who are responsible for their own data have a much higher rate of success,” said Gropp.

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