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Monday, July 30, 2012

Smart ways for smart communities to help produce smart kids

Smart communities are involved in collaborative, supportive and needed efforts with their local school districts to improve student achievement. That only makes sense.

What are some ways communities can help their schools provide a great education for their students? According to former Arkansas Teacher of the Year Kathy Powers, whose research we featured last week, Arkansas's data suggests the following:
  • Offer summer programs for children who are from disadvantaged homes. The gap in learning that occurs during the summer months when school is out is tremendous, she said. Children from families with more income tend to be enriched during the summer through camps, vacations and other experiences that keep their minds active. This disparity in summer learning leads to an increasingly larger achievement gap for students that grows with each grade. By providing quality summer enrichment experiences for youth, communities can help all children stay on grade level.
  • Provide books for kids to read. The number of books in the home is repeatedly shown to be a predictor of student success. Community groups could easily donate books or money for books (from teacher-approved reading lists) to children to enjoy at home during the summer or long breaks. Another idea is a mobile library that frequently visits those neighborhoods where students may have less access to the main library, especially during summer months.
  • Lengthen the school year. This is what some of the more successful charter schools in the state do. State Senator David Johnson has worked on legislation to get this concept kick-started for everyone else. A major hurdle is that it's such an expensive proposition. Powers said that even if school days are not added, altering the school year to include shorter breaks throughout would minimize the problem. There's be opposition from some segments, no doubt, but it shouldn't cost that much more.
  • Provide support for single-parent families. Powers' research shows this as a major risk factor for student acheivement. Childcare, transportation, having enough food -- all these are issues that single parents may face as they raise their children.
Obviously, there are so many ways communities can work with their school districts to improve the outcome for students. First Class Communication strongly believes that these efforts must be made in partnership with the school districts, and that they are most effective when they are planned and implemented in support of school district improvement goals.

If you have examples of smart community-school partnerships, we'd love for you to share them with us. Either respond to this blog or email me at julie@firstclasscommunication.com.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

That's what we're talking about!

What do you know? We're in the midst of writing about the importance of community and parent partnerships with their local schools, and a letter in the newspaper nails the point.

Education is the key to succeess, Little Rock elemenary school teacher Beatriz Miyares Kimball wrote in the July 25 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Especially for children like those she works with, who are considered to be "at risk." She's obviously doing her part, but as 2011 Arkansas Teacher of the Year Kathy Powers showed through Arkansas-based research, teachers alone can't make the difference that's needed.

Kimball pleads: "Our communities need to do all they can to support our schools, our teachers and our students. It doesn't take a lot. If you have an extra hour a week, come to a classroom and listen to children read. If your business can afford it, let your employees volunteer in a nearby school for an hour a week. You will be investing in the future and pointing a child along the road to success."

First Class Communication will take that latter bit of advice to heart. What about you?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Student Achievement: Risk factors, Protective factors and Non-factors

A while back, we mentioned the impressive research presentation by the 2011 Arkansas Teacher of the Year Kathy Powers to the Arkansas State Board of Education. The topic? School and community factors in Arkansas that could help or hurt student acheivement.

First Class Communication had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Kathy further about her research, which she performed with husband Ed, a sociology professor at the University of Central Arkansas.

We were even more impressed.

In looking at five years worth of county and school data for Arkansas and correlating that with Arkansas Benchmark literacy scores, here's what they found. Some of it confirms conventional wisdom and national research, some of it is more surprising. But it goes to show that the community-school link is tightly woven. Improving the community will improve the school, and vice versa.

  • The biggest county factors in Arkansas that are associated with lower test scores, what the Powers call risk factors, are:
    • The percent of female-headed households
    • A county's concentration of economically disadvantaged
    • Overall poverty of a county
    • Unemployment rate in a county
  • The biggest school risk factors are:
    •  Lack of student attendance (though she said the data on this seemed somewhat spotty; still attendance is sort of a no-brainer indicator for performance)
    • The percent of low-income students
    • If a school was more segregated than the community it was in
  • The biggest county factors in Arkansas that are associated with higher test scores, or what the Powers call protective factors, are:
    • Population growth in a county
    • Median income
    • The percent of residents with a high school diploma
    • The increase in Hispanics (this may be a by-product of the positive effect of the overall growth of a county
  • Protective school factors:
    • The more teachers with master's degrees, the better the students' Benchmark scores. This is surprising because it conflicts the findings of national research. Powers, however, says that it seems logical to her that teachers who are interested in learning are more likely to convey that appreciation for education to their students.
    • School size -- larger schools tended to produce higher test scores.
And as for non-factors, which were the most surprising:  whether the community was rural or urban, the percent with college degrees and the percent who didn't speak English in the home.
    Powers would love to see communities and schools work in closer partnership with each other to address the weaknesses that have such a significant impact on them both.

    We'll follow up with a later post on what some of her suggestions for doing so are, so stay tuned!

    Friday, July 20, 2012

    Rethinking rural schools and distance learning

    As much as I at one time would have hated to say it, a lot of life can be lived digitally.  It's made me rethink the teaching and learning possibilities for students in our rural districts.

    In just the last two weeks:
    • I've had a wonderful visit with my daughter in her DC abode, via Skype.
    • I've had productive face-to-face meetings with my business partner at 9 o'clock each morning, each in our home offices, again via Skype
    • I've been contacted by a new client who found me through LinkedIn. Since then we've made our work arrangements via email and cell phone.
    So listening to superintendents' casual conversations at this week's Arkansas Rural Education Association persuaded me that the possibilities for providing quality teaching of all the required 38 courses -- not to mention some stimulating courses that aren't required -- through "distance learning," or the digital classroom are more easily achieved and, in many cases, make more sense than closing down a school. 

    My only qualification to that statement is that it must be done right.

    A visit to the Arkansas Department of Education's Distance Learning Center in Maumelle a few years ago, where I watched an intense Calculus class in action, convinced me then that good teaching can be delivered virtually.  This, obviously, is already being done. Quality high school courses already are provided by several centers around the state.

    Superintendents of small campuses say distance learning options help them because:
    • They can find quality teachers who will lead their classrooms though they live elsewhere.  
    • It saves them money because they aren't duplicating teachers for small classes at each of their campuses. 
    • Students can engage in learning in familiar settings without making the long bus rides that are becoming more and more the norm for this state. 

    Right now, Arkansas law mandates that school districts must be shut down after two consecutive years of enrollments below 350.  I was a strong supporter of that law, simply because students at larger districts often have so many more opportunities both in terms of classes and extracurriculars.  But the more digital this world becomes, the less sense I think that arbitrary number makes.

    The key is making sure this distance learning in small districts is the best thing for the students, not simply for the school staff or the community.  So, in addition to making sure the class is taught by a first-rate teacher who knows how to make lessons sing on the airwaves:
    • Teachers must have an appropriate teaching load so they can communicate individually and frequently with their students via email, Facebook, phone call, etc.,  in addition to the on-air class time.
    • Schools must provide facilitators who coordinate with the teacher so they can assist with the learning as well as the technology.
    • The technology has to be first class -- none of this "can you hear me now" stuff.
    • School facilities must be well-maintained (this does get tougher when enrollment numbers are low)
    • Teachers must make periodic personal visits to each of the classes. Life can't be totally digital!
    This last is important. While classes can and should be supplemented by lessons from say Harvard professors or Smithsonian Museums staff, I believe the full-time teacher must be someone familiar with the community.  Another recent experience illustrates this point:

    I was trying to make a reservation for a hotel on State Line Avenue in Texarkana. I couldn't remember if the hotel was on the Arkansas or Texas side, which totally baffled my overseas-based hotel representative. He never did get the concept of a street that could straddle two states. In fact, he insisted that it must be in Texas and tried to put me into the chain's hotel in Marshall, Texas, at which point I became irritated and ended the call.

    I can imagine a student getting just as frustrated with a teacher who didn't know the lay of the land. All learning could stop at that point.

    No doubt, there are other ways distance learning could fail to engage students as much as a warm body leading the classroom.

    But, in terms of policy, Arkansas could and should do more so the rural people of our state who value their way of life can maintain it without sacrificing the quality of education for their children or putting them on a school bus at dark-thirty in the morning for a too-long ride.

    Thursday, July 12, 2012

    We'll take it as good news ... but help's needed

    Read some sort-of-good news in today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In 2010, 39.3 percent of U.S. citizens between the ages of 25 and 34 possessed associate's, bachelor's or graduate degrees. That was a half percentage point higher than the previous year.

    No doubt, a half percentage point gain in one year is a healthy jump.

    Unfortunately, our nation still lags way behind other countries when it comes to higher education degrees. We're ranked 16th, for goodness' sake!

    In Korea, 63 percent of that age group has earned college credentials. We're also behind Canada, Japan and Russia.

    In Arkansas, only 19.1 percent of the 25 and older crowd held bachelor's degrees in 2010 (compared with 27.9 percent nationally). Thankfully, Arkansas educators and policy-makers are hard at work trying to increase the number of young people who enter and graduate college.

    But it will take all of our efforts -- students, parents, community members, civic and business leaders -- if we want Arkansas to be a state where education is valued and a college degree is the norm, not the exception.

    So figure out what you can do to help, and, by all means, do it.

    Monday, July 9, 2012

    Where the heck are those scores?

    Last week First Class Communication gave a shout out to Arkansas students and educators for the gains made on this year's state Benchmark Exam scores. But when we we later went to look for those scores, we had a heck of a time finding them.

    Historically, they've been housed on the Arkansas Department of Education website. When we couldn't find them there, we called ADE's Communications Office and were told the scores had a new virtual home.

    Now you can find them at the Arkansas Research Center's Quick Look's page.

    The presentation is visually attractive, and offers a lot of added context to the scores.

    You'll have to look through charts one grade a time by school or district. Or you can use the nifty option that let's you compare two districts or schools at a time. You can also follow the progress of a cohort of students as they move up the grades over time.

    The site is definitely worth visiting, especially for parents or others interested in looking at student performance in schools where their children attend, or may attend in the future.

    The Arkansas Research Center was established in 2008 by an Institute for Education Statistics grant. It serves as collaborative effort for several Arkansas state agencies.

    Psstt...One thing I still haven't found is a chart showing the aggregate statewide scores, though it may be there somewhere. If it is, someone please let me know where.

    If not, that'd be a nice addition to a great site.

    Thursday, July 5, 2012

    Great addition made to State Board of Education

    Governor Beebe announced today that he has appointed Dr. Jay Barth as the newest member of the Arkansas State Board of Education.

    Jay is a well-known political science professor at Hendrix College who has a great grasp of education policy issues. He's also performed significant research regarding challenges and solutions for Arkansas public schools, and he has a sincere concern for our state and our students.

    No question ... he will be a wonderful addition to the State Board!

    Monday, July 2, 2012

    Create a Website that works and wows


    You know that your school district website has a big load to carry.

    But if you do your website right, you can inform, involve and invigorate your students, parents and community members to levels not reached before.

    A website that works keeps your patrons informed about the important news, events, policies and regulations that impact your everyday workings.

    A website that wows creates a sense of pride in your schools. What’s more, it provides venues for patrons to be a part of the school community.

    First Class Communication knows how to design, write for and organize a school district web site that will make it a regular go-to site for all of your patrons.

    When First Class Communication designs or re-designs website, we first work with you to pinpoint your communication and interaction needs.

    Once we’ve determined how best to meet those needs, we meticulously map out your website, taking into account such critical elements as intuitive navigation, writing style, page content, design consistency and cohesiveness, and frequency of updates.

    First Class Communication will guide you through the important planning phase and then provide Web design, content and template services. We also provide content management, on a regular or temporary basis. 

    Contact us at (501) 626-6960 or at info@firstclasscommunication.com. We'd love to put the WOW factor in your website.