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Class delay may boost performance

Dubbed Wacky Wednesday by anonymous students, the one-hour delay in starting classes in Mason County public schools twice a month is anything but silly in the eyes of the superintendent.

Rather, Suzanne Dickens points to the dramatic improvement in student performance on standardized tests and other assessments since she returned to the county administrative offices in 2010.

She had retired in 2005 but five years later was asked to return as superintendent to deal with a $2.8 million debt.

But it wasn't just the debt that shocked her.

"I was here 30 years; we were always in the top 20s in the state. When I came back, we were 48th academically," she said.

The county now ranks 27th in reading and language arts and 32th in math.

"I sought to find what the best schools in the country do," Dickens said.

The outcome of her search was the initiation of the professional learning community or PLC model, one that requires time for faculty at each school to meet to review data on student performance and share strategies for improvements.

By adding a few minutes to the school day, Dickens could bank time to meet state student instructional hour requirements while scheduling two hours monthly for the faculty effort to improve student learning.

Establishing the hour at the beginning rather than the end of the school day was deliberate, and not just to avoid afternoon staff appointments out of the school.

"I want the community to know this is important work," Dickens said. "It doesn't cost a penny to do. It's a tool for instruction."

Despite the schedule adjustments that families must make two Wednesdays each month, no parent has complained to her office since the plan was instituted at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year.

Nor has John Lehew, director of special education, heard from any disgruntled parents.

"We've had parent meetings . . . no complaint," he said.

Apparently some teachers did have doubts.

Without naming the school, Dickens said the faculty that now has the most developed professional learning community had to be convinced.

"They were successful because they thought I was wrong. They were non-believers," she said.

While each school implements the concept somewhat differently, Dickens and Lehew said the focus is on instruction. At the meetings the professional staff look at data, at student progress and problems, discuss teaching strategies and plan appropriate changes. That may involve team teaching, or shifting a teacher with high success to working with low achievers, accelerating some students, or "reteaching" others.

In addition to overall improvement in the county, Lehew said once-poor assessment test scores for special education students have come up. "They are now above average," he said.

The collaborative approach is time consuming, and Dickens laments the fact that the school calendar doesn't allow the option of weekly Wednesday morning sessions like Lincoln County introduced this school year.

Principals in Lincoln County schools proposed the professional learning community model after learning of it at a state education conference, said Patricia Lucas, superintendent.

Counties arrange for collaborative teacher time in various ways; Like Mason, Lincoln chose to establish it with a delay in the start of the student school day and its banked time supported weekly delays.

"We already had enough time," Lucas said.

"I do believe that it is beneficial thus far," she said. "We have had some really good collaboration."

 And as in Mason County, she's had no negative responses from parents to the schedule changes. 


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