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Benchmarking the Road to College

This school reverse engineered key college predictors to help students start to reach their ultimate goal as early as fifth grade.
By Mike Lucas

As a social studies teacher, a reading teacher, and now as a school leader, I’ve been part of Baltimore’s KIPP Ujima Village Academy since it opened in 2002. KIPP Ujima is a public charter school in Maryland that serves kids in fifth through eighth grades, and we’ve got our eyes on the prize: excellence without exception in every area of our students’ lives.

We serve just more than 500 students, 99 percent of whom are African-American and 85 percent of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. In the past 12 years we helped our students achieve some of the highest scores in the city on Maryland’s state assessment, a tremendous achievement by any scale. But that focus on state test performance diverted us away from our mission. We realized, as we saw our kids struggle to succeed in high school, that we weren’t giving them what they needed to determine whether or not their academic performance and behavior in school were putting them on track to enter college.

Research shows that middle school, the time when children enter adolescence and undergo profound developmental changes, can be treacherous. Kids report higher stress levels, relationships with family become tense, and on average we see a drop in school achievement and engagement. To counter these trends, we’ve put supports in place to meet the learning needs of all of our students. We’ve done this in two important ways: by creating a grade-level team-teaching structure that builds in planning time while fostering teacher collaboration; and introducing our Made for Maryland program, which helps us assess whether students are where they need to be in order to be college-bound.

We knew it was important to find a new way to support educators systemically in their grade and curricular area in order to serve students best. When our school opened in 2002, we had 90 kids per grade with five teachers and one special educator on a grade-level teaching team. We expanded and last year doubled to 180 kids per grade level. This increase in enrollment meant that we could now have two teaching teams at each grade level, with 90 kids each. This growth allowed us to structure our school day so that each teacher is afforded two built-in planning periods, plus lunch, for a total of three hours of planning time every day. With two teams per grade level, every instructor has a partner teacher who is covering the same subject.

Having time to collaborate with a planning partner allows teachers to constantly learn from one another to improve their practice and better support students in the classroom. Goal-setting is an important aspect of teacher collaboration for us. While each grade has its own goals, teachers are responsible for creating and implementing the plan for student achievement relative to those goals. For some, this can be as simple as grouping students. Our classrooms are heterogeneous, so teachers have to do their own grouping. Using assessment data for instructional differentiation, teachers are able to work together to make helpful comparisons among students that accelerate learning.

Beyond supporting great instructional work, we needed a workable frame for understanding whether or not our kids were on track to succeed in high school and college. This is the core goal of our Made for Maryland program. To build such a framework, we looked at the value of a place like the University of Maryland. This university is an affordable public school with a high graduation rate, including a 73 percent minority graduation rate. The University of Maryland is a great local target for our students, but it is also very difficult to get into, with a 47 percent acceptance rate. To gain entrance, students need proof of academic achievement.

With the University of Maryland as our target, we wondered how we could measure whether a student was on pace for acceptance, even as early as fifth grade. We created a three-part initiative that we called Made for Maryland.

First, we emphasized the importance of students’ everyday academic performance, as measured by grade point average. We know test scores help get you into college, but GPA is a much better predictor of college success. If students want to go to college, they have to get good grades in the years leading up to college. We set our bar at 80 percent for the honor roll. To be Made for Maryland, however, students must earn an 87 percent overall average.

Second, we have traditionally sent home a character report card at the end of each quarter. Like many KIPP schools, we teach and measure seven character traits that we believe are the key to academic success: grit, zest, optimism, curiosity, self-control, social intelligence, and gratitude. Students learn about each of these traits in homeroom every day. Teachers score students on a ten-point scale at the end of each academic quarter. Any student with an 8.0 overall average is Made for Maryland.

Finally, we wanted test scores that mattered. We needed test scores that went beyond the proficiency information we got from the state assessment. We found what we were looking for with the computer adaptive Measures of Academic Progress assessment from Northwest Evaluation Association. MAP provides immediate feedback to teachers about student learning by pinpointing where students are ready to advance and where they need help, regardless of grade level. Students achieving growth in the 75th percentile and above are deemed Made for Maryland, meaning that they are on track to be accepted into a highly competitive public university like the University of Maryland. Students in the 50th percentile or above qualify as “college-bound.

Because we now have ample information about where students are in their learning and how they are behaving, when a student has fallen behind or made a series of bad choices, we can demonstrate how these actions impact a specific part of the equation. This data helps us to clearly explain to parents where kids are, what their college outlook is, and what needs to change to get them on track.

“My daughter needed a school that was challenging and better than the average middle school. I was sold on the slogan Knowledge Is Power—and the commitment to prepare her for high school and college,” said Janet Alford, parent of a seventh grader.

We believe students need to be prepared in all three of these areas to be truly college- bound. So every fall, each kid looks at last year’s MAP scores and sets growth goals for the months ahead. We have conversations with kids about where they are and where they need to be in eighth grade. When we take MAP for a second time in winter, our kids are really excited. They defy the stereotype of the typical disengaged middle schooler. When you walk around our building during MAP testing week, 100 percent of the kids know their score and their goal. They earn stickers that say “I’m Made for Maryland,” “I’m college-bound,” or “I made my growth goal.” Our kids are achieving in a way that will get them into college, and we know it. That’s powerful. 

Mike Lucas is principal of KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a public charter school in Baltimore serving more than 500 students in grades 5–8. At KIPP Ujima, students attend school for up to 8.5 hours a day, as well as three weeks in the summer. 

Image: Jose Luis Pelaez/Media Bakery

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