First, a word of advice: If you’re aiming to solve a big problem, try not to have a pandemic in the middle of the process. That said, sometimes the biggest challenges — like reversing a schoolwide trend of falling math scores — produce the most significant and satisfying results. That’s been our experience at the Avon Grove Charter School in West Grove, Pa.
Our journey to improved results took three years and involved the purchase of a dedicated math program. When we started, just 50% of AGCS sixth-graders met Tier 1 math learning targets. Discouraged but not defeated, our staff and students went to work to make academic improvements, despite the added pandemic complications of remote and hybrid learning. Our most recent testing shows that since we first kicked off this project, we’ve gained 30 percentage points, with more than 80% of sixth graders achieving Tier 1 benchmark expectations.
While it had always been our objective to boost both benchmark and Pennsylvania System of School Assessment standardized testing scores, we didn’t fully anticipate the schoolwide culture of math achievement that would develop along the way. Visit any of our classrooms now, and you’ll see motivated and engaged students, confident and supportive teachers, and personally involved principals.
Here are some of the challenges, strategies and successes that contributed to our accomplishments and inspiring new culture.
Implement MTSS and coaching
ACGS accepts K-12 students from 13 surrounding Pennsylvania school districts for an enrollment of some 1,900 learners across a variety of demographics. Although our school community valued academic performance, we had to confront the harsh reality of consistently low PSSA scores. In spring 2018, just 29% of our fifth-graders scored as proficient or advanced. Benchmark scores were no better.
To begin, we made several basic decisions:
- We would take an evidence‐based approach to raising math achievement, relying on hard data in our selection and use of solutions and processes.
- With limited resources, we would initially focus efforts where the most students needed the most help: our fourth- and fifth-graders.
First, we implemented a multitiered system of support process along with a coaching program for fourth- and fifth-grade teachers. At this stage we had to approach the challenge through a Tier 1 lens; otherwise, we simply would not have been able to support the number of students identified as needing intervention. Our first steps were to:
- Create an MTSS manual, specifying multiple data points to determine tiers, set Tier 1 expectations, and outline Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports.
- Use the MTSS process to determine gaps and intervention services.
- Incorporate new curricular materials more closely aligned to PSSA core standards.
- Develop an intense coaching program that included observations, co-teaching and co-planning activities.
Our early success was encouraging. From spring 2018 to spring 2019, the percentage of fourth-graders scoring as proficient or advanced jumped from 49 to 57 and fifth-graders from 29 to 54. The following year we expanded the coaching process to include grades K-3 and developed new K-8 curricular framework documents. We also evaluated math-intervention solutions to address continued gaps in our students’ foundational math skills that our core math programming was not resolving.
Perseverance is key
Then came COVID. Like everyone else, we struggled to maintain achievement during quarantine, beginning the school year with virtual instruction and eventually moving to a hybrid teaching environment. With the support of funds from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, we purchased a math-intervention solution.
Grounded in research that indicates the need for both conceptual and procedural knowledge, SpringMath provides tools for data-based intervention, paired learning and foundational fluency.
Although teachers were still working overtime to manage hybrid instruction, we moved ahead with a limited roll-out of the new program. It was a big ask. Some staff resistance and pushback can be expected with the introduction of any new program. But the added burdens of the pandemic absolutely exacerbated the challenges of staff buy-in.
Our saving grace? Early test scores. Computational benchmark scores actually increased from winter to spring among students whose teachers embraced the program. As the good news spread, program uptake and participation increased.
During the next year, we completed implementation across grades K-6. Computational scores increased so much overall that we expect to add an accelerated math class at the sixth-grade level.
Share strategies and sustain motivation
Recently the Pennsylvania Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development invited us to speak at their annual conference. Here are some of the keys to success that we highlighted for sustaining a schoolwide culture of math achievement:
- We started by developing a comprehensive implementation plan.
- We leveraged onboarding and ongoing support for initial teacher training.
- In the classroom, teachers designated 15 minutes in the daily math block to a researched-based, classwide Tier 1 instruction and an additional 15 minutes for small-group math. Teachers set clear expectations with classwide and individual goals.
- Teachers used positive behavioral intervention and support points to help motivate students.
- We sent praise emails to teachers as they met goals and encouraged them to be cheerleaders for their classes.
- Staff held frequent data meetings to review results. All progress conversations centered on data and the rationale.
- Faculty implemented peer coaching and created professional learning communities that publish newsletters with tips and tricks.
- Principals committed to multiple classroom walkthroughs throughout the year, using a Fidelity Checklist to compare against successful implementation criteria.
- We committed to continuous improvement, ongoing program evaluation and sharing of results through staff meetings and conferences.
Teachers talk about feeling more confident in their abilities and are moving through student skills more quickly. Kindergartners — some of our most reluctant math learners — openly boast that math class is their favorite part of the school day. Across the school, our students are eager to learn, and there is no greater compliment to an educator than that.
Kim Treml serves as the Avon Grove Charter School curriculum coordinator. Jen Weaver is the AGCS federal programs coordinator and director of teaching and learning. Founded in 2002, AGCS consists of a campus for grades four through 12 and a separate early learning center for grades K–3. District-independent, Avon Grove Charter School is governed by a board of trustees accountable for the goals outlined in the AGCS charter. The school uses SpringMath.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.