PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Thanks to a $900,000 state grant, Herberg Middle School is poised to vastly improve the academics in the building.
Herberg has had low scores on state assessments leading it into "turnaround status" and Principal Martin McEvoy and Assistant Principal for Teaching and Learning Lisa Lesser crafted an ambitious plan to change those results. Earlier this month, the state not only approved the plan but also awarded $900,000 over the next three years to implement it.
"One of the main things we are focusing on is investing in teachers and building capacity to be able to reach all learners that come to our school," McEvoy, who just completed his first year at the school, said.
Much of the work is going to be focused on taking a deeper dive into student data, identifying areas for improved teaching, and giving teachers new skills and tools to more effectively teach those areas of concern.
"We are always thinking of teachers and their time. They are always scratched for time. A lot of this work is going to be giving them the opportunity, to give them time, to have those discussions about what's working and what's not working, and making a specific intervention for kids who really need it the most," Lesser said.
The plan has some 15 specific strategies for improvement and all are based around four practices: leadership, shared responsibility and collaboration, intentional practices for improving instruction, student-specific supports, and school climate and culture.
One aspect of the plan will take a closer look at data. The school collects a lot of data from the students throughout the year. But the mounds of data take time to sort, identify shortfalls, and then make a change. Lesser will be doing that with new data leadership team.
"We have mountains of data but now we have to build action plans around that data to respond to the data rather than just letting the data just exist and not do anything with it," McEvoy said.
The data team is facilitating meetings with teachers about content and bringing in best practices to teach the content. The school already has content time in the schedule but the data piece will make that time more effective and will add more time after school for teachers to further collaborate. The school is taking even small steps such as reconfiguring the classrooms to be by subject to allow teachers to more easily interact with each other and talk about student progress.
"We are making the lesson plans, creating assessments, and using specific protocols to look at the data we are getting from the students to really steer the teaching," Lesser said.
McEvoy said the data team and a leadership team consist of teachers already in the school but give them more time and resources to do the work.
"It is not top-down, it is built from the ground up to build capacity in the people working with the students," McEvoy said. "It is giving us the resources to invest in teachers and build their skill sets. We are building capacity across the building."
The plan creates a much more intensive process of constant evaluations of what's happening the schools -- more "checks and balance" to see where the teachers and the students are at throughout the year.
The grant will also bring in some outside sources to provide teachers with new skills and best practices.
"We needed some help from outside partners like Research for Better Teaching. The grant is allowing us two things: one is Research for Better Teaching is coming in to do the skillful teacher course just for us, which is a very intensive but very effective course given. We have like 35 teachers in the first year along and in subsequent years we are going to send everybody. We are going to build a common language, common expectations across the building which will be huge for us," McEvoy said.
"Also it will allow us to have Nancy Love come in. She is a very well known person who is going to train us to use data more effectively."
The effort is an intensive one to help teachers keep up with new best practices in education and ways to reach different types of students.
"We can't teach the same way we did even 10 years ago. It is just a different world," McEvoy said.
McEvoy said the timing of the grant is fitting because the school has added a number of new teachers this last year and the process will help get all of them on the same page and speaking the same language.
The plan also looks to create a new school culture. The goal is to become more "growth mindset" focused and on accountability.
"It is a shift to a learning culture both with the adults in the building and the kids in the building. It is collective accountability. Everybody is accountable for their own learning in a sense. As adults in the building we are accountable for raising that student achievement level," McEvoy said.
That will include adding things like more clubs and after-school academic time for students. It will include more student showcases and community nights.
"We want the kids to feel connected to Herberg Middle School beyond the school day and this will help support that," McEvoy said.
The culture is also one that is aimed to make sure all students are welcomed and supported. The principal said processes will be put in place aimed to ensure every student has a close connection with at least one adult in the building.
"I think it is a deeper focus on the student, teacher relationships and making that connection to understanding what's happening in that student's life before we go any further," McEvoy said.
It will also build the restorative justice peace, which McEvoy said holds the students accountable for poor behavior and giving them a chance to make it right, which has been proven to be a more effective means of discipline.
The school is also expanding its interventions for children who fall behind. It has a new reading and a new math intervention that it just piloted, a new science intervention, and an updated version of its English intervention.
The turnaround plan began to be crafted at the beginning of the school year. Lesser said it included numerous meetings with faculty, a root cause analysis to help identify specific areas of focus for Herberg and input from parents and students. Lesser and McEvoy said even that process has yielded benefits in revealing some areas of concern that may have been missed otherwise.
"The teacher voice throughout the process was very important as was parental feedback," McEvoy said.
Lesser said the teachers have shown to be "eager" for the additional resources and focus. She said many teachers were particularly interested in the data piece and happy that the professional development pieces are being brought directly to the school instead of having them drive to Worcester or Boston where the classes are typically offered.
"I think people are really eager to discuss what's happening with their students and if there is a better want to do a certain technique or topic, they seem open and eager to do it. It is good timing right now. They feel supported because they are getting the professional development piece, and with my role, there is somebody in the building they can immediately go to if there is a problem," Lesser said.
McEvoy called the plan ambitious but feels it is doable because the 15 strategies all "fold into" each other. The grant is available on Sept. 1 but Lesser said this summer staff will be spending a lot of time immediately digging into the latest round of student data, pulling together the content facilitators and leadership team, and planning with the consultants.
"We want to be able hit the ground running in September. We don't want to waste any time," Lesser said."I think everyone is feeling this urgency to get going."
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