Superintendent Jason McCandless said the district improvement plan had been overhauled with more specifics to address issues shown through the MCAS data.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — On Monday mornings, the second-grade teachers at Morningside Elementary School gather in a conference room. Their classrooms are being managed by support staff.
Together they all look at the week's lesson plans. The veteran teachers weigh in on what they've seen children struggle with and what they've found that works. They anticipate problems that could occur.
The newer teachers bring an energy and new science behind education, suggesting changes here and there. They plan out the objective of each day. They share plans on how to make sure a struggling student is getting help without slowing everybody else down. They know where they want their students to be, and when they want them to be there.
"Teachers come in, work for 45 minutes really deep and really hard on developing lesson plans," Principal Jennifer Stokes said.
On Tuesday, another grade level. On Wednesday, another. And on and on. The principal and administrators make sure to get into the classrooms and assess what is happening and report back to the teachers, who collectively make changes.
"We go in, see what is working well, what needs some tweaking, and we provide that to the teachers," Stokes said.
It is all a new initiative, part of a turnaround plan to improve test scores. Morningside has been one of the district's, and the state's, worst performing schools when it comes to standardized testing. Pittsfield submitted a plan to the state to get those numbers up.
Crosby Principal Aaron Dean has only recently taken over the job there. The former music remembers teaching students notes, and then scales, and so on. But then some students would completely understand the notes but struggled to perform it when the full song came together. The same thing is happening with Crosby's English classes.
He looked at the English data and realized that the school was doing strong in teaching the subskills. But, those skills weren't connecting with the test. He said there were 114 different assessments to check on those subskills but nothing really bringing it all together.
"At the end of this year, I really want to have a manual together saying this is how we approach reading," Dean said.
His focus is on crafting a more focused plan for individual students. Because right now, he is finding 38 percent of first-graders at risk, 44 percent of second-graders, 52 of third-graders, 68 of fourth-graders, and 44 percent of fifth-graders.
"We have our work cut out for us and we are taking steps to meet those challenges," Dean said.
Dean has even gone so far as lifting Morningside's schedule and plan to bring that additional focus to the classrooms.
"We saw two schools in two different ways do nothing but empower the educators," Superintendent Jason McCandless said of the turnaround plans.
And frankly, the district needs it. Just last week, McCandless received the most recent data from the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System and the numbers aren't good.
"We have a misalignment of what we are teaching and what the commonwealth is testing for," McCandless said. "I certainly take this as a personal challenge."
To preface the release of the scores, McCandless said the test is significantly more difficult than prior ones. The state had one MCAS system in place for years. In the last three years, however, it started to work on a new system -- the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers -- but after more than a half million spent on piloting it, it was scrapped.
What is now called MCAS 2.0 was developed, which mixed a bit of the PARCC and the old MCAS.
"These were really all new tests. They looked like, they felt like PARCC test," McCandless said. "DESE itself is saying this is a much harder test. It was a harder, more rigorous examination at the end of our student's academic year."
The testing is coupled with the state adopting new standards for education.
Nonetheless, the students achieved poorly on last year's test. One of the most striking numbers is that zero students hit the "exceeding expectations" level in English among eighth-graders. And those meeting expectations were just 22 percent -- compared to the 49 percent of students statewide who met or exceeded expectations.
"One would expect some variation from a district like Pittsfield and a more suburban district. But this is, I wouldn't say crisis level, but significant," McCandless said.
Part of the reason may be because of a shift in curriculum. McCandless was adamant in recent years about updating the curriculum in the schools. The district started with English and then moved to math. Last year was the second year with the new English curriculum and it was one drastically different than the middle school teachers were used to.
"I don't think it is a kid problem. I think it is a grown-up problem, and I include myself in that," McCandless said.
The seventh-grade numbers aren't much better. The district had just 26 percent meeting or exceeding expectations compared to 50 percent of students statewide. Pittsfield had double the amount of students not meeting expectations than the state, at 22 and 11 percent repetitively.
For McCandless, the data shows there needs to be a stronger focus on reading. He said more and more often children are getting to the middle schools and are not able to read at grade level. The teachers at that level want to teach literature and a love of the language, but the students aren't ready to fully comprehend what they are reading.
"We have too many students leaving elementary school without being grade level readers," McCandless said, saying English teachers are different from reading teachers, and the latter is needed more right now.
He said if the district can get children reading up to par by the end of the fifth grade, it will solve a whole host of problems.
"It is staggering to consider what problems that will solve from [Grades] 6 through 12," McCandless said.
And the data tells the superintendent that the switch to the new curriculum has not been handled well. He said there needs to be more professional development on the new curriculum to make sure it is being delivered properly.
"We have not executed that transition terribly well," McCandless said.
The overhaul of the curriculum has been a multi-year process. The district is ushering out the teaching programs of old.
The elementary math numbers, base on the older curriculum because the new one is being implemented this year - aren't as drastic as the middle school English. But, they are hardly something to boast about.
In third grade, 43 percent of students met or exceeded expectations, compared to the state average of 49. Those exceeding expectations were level with the state at 7 percent for each. There is a dip in scoring in the 4th grade but the numbers creep back up in the 5th grade and then slide again in the sixth grade. The scores stay fairly consistent through middle school and by 10th grade, the math scores rise again.
While silver linings are few and far between with the data, one bright spot is snow in the fifth-grade growth rate. The state has found that Pittsfield's fifth-graders are learning math at a much quicker rate than the rest of the state that year.
"This data tells us many things about our own individual practices and it also indicates many things that are we are on the right path in this district," McCandless said.
School officials have long had objections to the state's system. Schools with a more impoverished demographic tend to score worse than the rest of the state. Pittsfield has some of the highest poverty rates, and many children coming from broken homes, in the state and that requires teachers to not only teach the lessons but also teach social and emotional skills that are often lacking. McCandless said if it were a race, many Pittsfield students are starting a mile and a half behind.
That story is true in gateway cities across the commonwealth. McCandless said it is likely that those cities are looking at similar MCAS numbers there.
Despite the comparisons and objections to the way the state assesses schools, McCandless said the focus of the district needs to be on educating the children in the district and the data can reveal specific areas of focus.
"I think we are going to have some very challenging conversations about doing some much deeper lesson planning than we are currently doing," McCandless said.
The superintendent said the district needs improvement in all areas. The scores aren't necessarily the key data points, McCandless said, but rather where there are dips in student growth.
And he doubled down on the curriculum. He said it isn't just buying new curriculum but making sure the teachers are implementing it in the best way, which includes professional development on it.
"In the past couple years we have really tried to not treat the end of the curriculum process as being the purchase. We see that as a step," McCandless said.
The administration has also honed in on its district improvement plan in the wake of the new scores. That calls for school-based implementation teams; staff will track academic objectives aligned with the state standards; instructional staff will increase monitoring and assessments, analyzing it at least three times a year; focus even more on the behavioral and social-emotional interventions; and continue to focus on cultural competency by hosting programs, hiring more teachers and administrators color, and making policy examinations that result in equitable policies for grading, attendance, and discipline.
"We think we have the team. We think we have the teachers. We need to operate in strategic ways to get to where we need to be," McCandless said.
The MCAS data is sobering for a lot in the district. The city has been working for the last few years on a more deliberate approach to combating such scores.
"I feel just a little bit bummed out because of the whole thing. Not because of the scores but because it can be demoralizing. Everybody is working so hard to do the best for the student and this undermines all of it," Mayor Linda Tyer said.
School Committee member Anthony Reillo said he's seen dramatic changes in the education in recent years, positive changes that aren't measured by standardized testing scores. He has confidence in the direction the committee is going.
"It is going to take some time for this thing to happen but I see it happening," Reillo said.
And the teachers from Morningside who stood before the School Committee Wednesday night can agree as they raved about how the collective group is improving the work of each other. The turnaround plan has just begun.
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