Over the past 10-15 years, the student population at our school has been steadily increasing. This past year saw our numbers increase to an all-time high of 1,610 students. As you can imagine, a building intended to hold a maximum of 1,100-1,200 gets quite interesting when you add 400 extra pre-adolescents. Thankfully, our district has been planning for how to deal with this increase for a number of years as well. Beginning next year, our sixth grade staff and students will report to a new school designed to house the sixth grade from both sides of the district. That will leave us with roughly 1,050 seventh and eighth grade students for us to plan schedules and interventions to support.
Our eighth grade runs a slightly different English/Language Arts program than our current seventh and sixth grades. In the lower grades, Language Arts is split into two classes per team. One addresses Writing and the other Literature. We then plan our interventions in those areas by scheduling around these classes. In eighth grade, there is one English class that teaches both of these topics. I have never really been able to get a straight answer as to why this happened, but it does leave us with a challenge for scheduling the new school. Actually, I prefer to view it not as a challenge, but an opportunity. We have a chance to change the schedule in order to create symmetry between the two remaining grades as we move on with our middle school of seventh and eighth grade. This will then provide us with a common framework to use when it comes to scheduling interventions in both grades. Our current plan essentially has three different plans for intervention, one for each grade. As students move through the school, trying to provide an individualized system of support for varied learners becomes a challenge when each grade offers different courses.
Since it was highly unlikely the district could afford adding four more teachers in order to split the program in eighth grade, the most logical plan was to change the split Writing and Literature courses in seventh grade and have them reflect the combined English course taught in eighth. As we met with our sister school to discuss what this would look like across both “7/8” buildings, it became clear that we had an opportunity to address an area of weakness. Upon examination of our PSSA scores, we realized that our results reflected strength in Math and Reading (roughly 90% proficiency). However, there was a significant drop when it came to our writing scores. As we talked about it, we realized that we had multiple levels of interventions in Math and Reading, but only one level of intervention in Writing. Students who were identified as needing writing goals were provided with direct instruction on that topic. I covered how this is done in a previous blog post, A Multi-Tier System of Supports for Writing. The problem is that there is no tiered support. Either you receive direct instruction or you are in the regular writing class. For us, this was an “a-ha moment” that needed to be addressed.
Our proposal was to take the eight current teachers of Language Arts in seventh grade (4 Writing and 4 Literature) and reduce this to four English teachers. That would leave one for each team like we have in eighth grade. The four remaining teachers would become Writing Specialists. From our perspective, we have reading and math specialists, why not writing too? These teachers could be used to identify and target students who were struggling with the regular writing program in both seventh and eighth grade English. These kids could get additional writing instruction to extend what was already happening in class. We have almost this exact plan already in place for math students and it has been very successful. As we thought about it, we also realized that these teachers could be used to provide more challenging writing instruction to some of our best writers. These kids would have the opportunity to continue to grow rather than plateau. As expected, our plan was met with mixed results but, once we answered most of the questions, our staff was on board with moving forward. The plan was approved to begin the 2015-2016 school year. We delayed it a year because we wanted to spend significant professional development time this year identifying the teachers for the new positions, investigating similar models and setting up our plan. In my next entry, I will talk about changes that we are going to make to our interventions to reflect this new model.
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