Review of Common Concerns & Ideas
Overview of the Sessions
Over the last ten weeks, Dr. Michael spent time visiting schools to conduct Staff Listening Sessions. The sessions were designed to allow staff members the opportunity to talk directly with the superintendent—to celebrate successes, raise concerns, and discuss new ideas.
For those of you who were able to attend one of the sessions, or filled out the online questionnaire that was sent to all staff members, thank you for your feedback. Between both opportunities, more than 600 people participated.
In response to the feedback, the articles below will answer and acknowledge many of your questions and thoughts. This is just a snapshot, and WCPS will continue to highlight other items periodically. There will be additional opportunities to share information on various topics in the future, and you are encouraged to discuss thoughts any time with your supervisor, principal, CES staff, or the superintendent.
What's Next for the Digital Learning Plan?
WCPS just finished its first full year with the Digital Learning Plan. Building from strong instructional practices that were already in full swing in our classrooms, the implementation of the plan in its first year has been received well. Like any new initiative, there are both successes and challenges from which we will learn and grow.
The school system has been evaluating the program internally throughout the year and is in the process of receiving feedback from teachers and students that will inform next steps. The impact of technology on our students and staff will be measured carefully as we contemplate the next phase of digital learning. It's safe to say that technology will be part of our students' classroom experience and their future going forward. We are looking forward to the rollout of Digital Learning Plan 2.0, in an effort to enhance learning and accelerate learning further.
Student discipline will remain a top priority, for both the safety of staff and students and so that we can provide a stable, consistent learning environment.
While the change in discipline legislation has limited school systems’ ability to suspend students for certain actions, WCPS still remains committed to our core discipline policies, regulations and practices. Teachers should continue to hold students to the highest standards for behavior in classrooms, and school administrators will follow through according to WCPS protocols.
Student discipline will be an ongoing topic for WCPS to resolve in an effort to enhance our learning environment.
During the last 20 years in public education, class size has been a debate that seemingly has no perfect formula that matches the unique qualities of school populations. WCPS is not immune to the challenges of class size, and it is an area in which we are constantly looking to improve.
During the listening sessions, several staff members raised concerns again about large student numbers and often referenced schools that traditionally have smaller class sizes. WCPS hears your concerns, and we will continue to monitor the enrollment numbers throughout the summer.
Because of the unique school population demographics across the system, some schools will face challenging class sizes while others will not. This is simply the ebb and flow of enrollment, which has lately been impacted greatly by Washington County's transient population, in addition to more multi-family homes. Working with your principal and CES staff members, the district will focus on adjusting class size so that students and teachers have the best possible learning environment.
Cell Phones in Classrooms
Cell phone use in schools has become a hot topic in the last two years, following a 2015 adjustment in Board policy that allows students to use phones when permitted by teachers and administrators. Now that two school years have passed, we have learned plenty. For starters, the introduction of iPads in our classrooms was just an idea in 2015. Now that nearly every student has one, it greatly reduces the need for students to use phones in class for instructional reasons.
We will continue to evaluate the use of smartphones in the classroom. In the meantime, everyone is encouraged to review the policy. While it clearly invites the use of smartphones in WCPS classrooms, it does state that the use of these devices is at the direction of a teacher or administrator. This will be reviewed with principals this summer and revisited with teachers, students, and families before the start of school next year.
There has been an ongoing discussion about kindergarten readiness in Washington County for several years now. The numbers have fluctuated over the last three years, and most recently it was found that only one out of every three students is starting kindergarten ready to learn. This is a very serious problem across the state, particularly here in our county where we have ranked in the bottom five consistently.
We recognize that this is not solely a WCPS problem to solve. Community groups have banded together with WCPS to face this problem head-on, but there is still much work to be done. In addition to everything that our Birth to 5 and Early Learning departments have been doing, a more concentrated effort on this issue must become a priority among community leaders and organizations. The "OnTrack" initiative is the most widely known community effort at this time. This group is partnering with others, in addition to our own early education committee, and steady improvement can be expected. More information about these initiatives will be discussed throughout the summer and into the next school year.
Collaboration and Planning
The work of professionals during and beyond the confines of the student day is critical for the success of students. Collaborating during formal and informal planning sessions, teaching professionals routinely assess student growth, analyze data, act on data and adjust instruction based on student need.
Many teachers provided feedback that the Essential Curriculum and the employee portal were helpful resources for planning to meet the needs of students during the past year. As teachers and supervisors continue to work together this summer to analyze the module feedback and make adjustments, our goal will be to continue to provide one clear, concise and useful place to access resources and support for creating learning plans. Working together collaboratively and sharing learning plans across schools and the district is a great benefit to students and teachers.
Summer Learning Opportunities
Several staff members raised concerns about the record-long summer ahead and how it might affect learning loss, which is something that inherently happens with some students every summer.
The CES instructional team is working with schools to roll out an aggressive summer learning plan to keep students engaged across many levels. Students will have the option to check out iPads this summer, which will have a specially designed web link that allows students to select reading materials appropriate and balanced for age and Lexile scores. The link will also feature math, science and social studies curriculum resources that should help students stay engaged and prepared for next school year.
For families that do not have regular internet access, the reading, math, science and social studies materials can be downloaded at the school or at any free WiFi location. Information about this program is being distributed by each school.
Additionally, traditional summer school will be offered again, and many schools are doing various summer learning activities and events from June through August.
Meeting the Personalized Needs of Students
A group of principals, school leaders and supervisors from special education, advanced programs and content areas formed a Guiding Coalition to study current instructional practices in WCPS. This group considered new or alternative practices to better support schools in fulfilling the WCPS vision of addressing the needs of every learner in a personalized way. The Guiding Coalition was also tasked with ensuring that the same high-quality education experience and supports will be available throughout the school district. Three main strategy areas were identified by six pilot schools: Strengthen teacher practice through feedback and personalized training; use data to inform instruction, and, provide additional time from content experts for struggling students.
Teachers need additional support, flexibility and strategies for understanding and meeting the various learning needs of students who require individualized instructional programs. With the increased health, behavioral, safety and other severe needs of students, paraprofessionals are essential for those students who require additional adult support. A comprehensive, integrated system of support is being developed to ensure that responses to student learning, or lack thereof, are inclusive of strategies for social, emotional and behavioral support.
Making Hands-On Learning Accessible
According to some of the feedback, staff members are concerned that Washington County Technical High School (WCTHS) programs are not available to the very students who need hands-on learning. Staff continues to look at Career Technology Education (CTE) program viability in all schools to increase opportunities for hands-on learning and transfer of skills.
Enrollment status and potential for growth of all CTE programs will continue to be analyzed. For WCTHS specifically, staff will be exploring modern, authentic programs that are necessary in our community and not easily replicated in comprehensive high schools.
Elementary Report Cards
WCPS transitioned to standards-based report cards for elementary schools four years ago. This was a significant change for teachers, students and parents, and with each passing grading period the process has become more widely understood and accepted. But there is still work to be done as we align the report card with the WCPS Essential Curriculum.
There is a team of educators working on the next iteration of the elementary report cards, which will have many similarities along with some changes that should help parents and students understand the report card better. At this time, only a handful of schools will be piloting the new report card. Additional communication will be shared with staff and parents at the start of the school year to help with the adjustment at the pilot schools.
Medical Insurance Costs
As all of you are aware, medical insurance costs for all employees and the Board of Education are increasing this year. This has been communicated over the course of many months, and staff members from the Benefits Office have been visiting schools to discuss how to better utilize the system to lower costs over time. If you were not able to attend one of the information sessions, a copy of the presentation can be viewed online. Please contact the Benefits Office if you have any questions.
In addition to the discussions that have been taking place, a health care committee comprised of WCPS staff, including teachers, ESP and administrators, will ramp up meetings over the summer and throughout next school year to continue studying health care costs. By establishing a better understanding among staff members on how to reduce costs through usage, in addition to the constant review of our programs, WCPS is committed to managing any future increases while maintaining the highest level of service to employees.
Again, please contact the Benefits Office if you have any questions or comments.
Apex Digital Learning
Used properly, Apex (digital learning tool) has proven to be both a successful credit recovery and original credit option for our high school students. The process for earning credit through Apex courses has evolved over the years. More specifically, the standard that WCPS expects is that students will take the entire course as opposed to parts of courses, which had been past practice. New this year is the integration of tutorials into curriculum modules to help teachers differentiate above and below the standard as needed. Teachers can also use Apex tutorials to supplement initial instruction or allow students to repeat a unit of study (real-time recovery) while the students are still in the course. The licensing for the tutorials is now unlimited, which will allow schools to meet the needs of all students.
Message from Dr. Michael
I appreciate the feedback from our Staff Listening Sessions, surveys, and questionnaires. Most importantly, I'm overwhelmed by the number of positive comments that many of you submitted. It's great to learn about what's working for students and staff and what you are celebrating. These are the successes that we can capitalize on across the system.
At the same time, there are concerns and new ideas that we need to continue discussing as we move forward. It's only through honest dialogue that we will be able to serve students and our families better. Please keep the comments and ideas coming. We may not be able to answer every question or solve every problem, but you will be heard. In the future, you can expect periodic updates on other topics.
Best wishes for a great summer.
Dr. Boyd Michael