By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
From new books to new safety measures to new requirements for staff members, Havre schools will be different when they open again Aug. 27.
Many of the changes are the result of work done by teams of teachers, administrators and trustees as part of the District Educational Work Plan, a yearly to-do list the school board compiles every summer as it sets its goals for the next school year.
In July of 2002, the board approved seven projects to tackle in the 2002-2003 school year. The projects ranged from revamping the district's reading and math curricula to changing how the district decides which students to send to the next grade and which to retain. The most daunting of all the animals the school district must tame: implementation of No Child Left Behind, President Bush's federal education plan.
After a year of meetings and hundreds of hours of work by the teams, here are a few of the changes coming to Havre schools this year:
No Child Left Behind
The sweeping education policy requires, among other things, that all teachers have proper certification and endorsements for their subjects by 2006 and that 100 percent of students test at or above proficient in reading and math by 2012. The problem for school districts is how exactly to comply with those demands.
The project team reviewed hundreds of pages of documents from the U.S. Department of Education, the Montana Office of Public Instruction and other education agencies and organizations. From there it established criteria for meeting the requirements, sent information to the schools and began to chart the district's progress toward implementation.
Some aspects of No Child Left Behind will be implemented for the first time this year:
Parents may request the professional qualifications of their child's teachers, and the school district must provide information about the teaching license and degrees held by the teachers.
If a child has been taught for four or more consecutive weeks by a teacher who is not considered highly qualified, a letter will be sent to parents notifying them. To meet stricter training requirements for paraprofessionals like special education assistants and lunchroom supervisors, the district has selected a new computer-based basic skills test that will test reading, math and language. Prospective employees without a two- or four-year degree will have to pass the test before they can be hired.
This year's project team will move on to try to implement other aspects of No Child Left Behind. Team leader and Assistant Superintendent Dennis Parman said the team will focus on each regulation in turn as the state hands down its plan for compliance to the districts.
He said new standardized reading and math tests will be applied to grades four, eight and 10 this year and will eventually be taken by grades three through eight and 10. The percentage of students in a grade at or above the proficient level must increase every year. No Child Left Behind also requires schools to track the effectiveness of technology used in the classroom and of drug prevention programs to make sure they are affecting learning and behavior.
"We have to show that we're making a difference with the dollars we're using," Parman said.
The goal of this team was to maintain a safe school environment in Havre schools. The team reviewed the district's standard safety procedures like fire inspections and emergency evacuations, and it also investigated three new ideas.
The team looked into the effectiveness of surveillance cameras on school grounds and buses, and found that while cameras would help reduce delinquency in Havre schools, the cost of installing the equipment outweighs the benefits at this time.
A computer survey was built to determine which staff members have different types of emergency skills like cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and which have emergency equipment like generators so they can be contacted in case of a community disaster.
The group implemented a system of visitor's badges on a trial basis, to be worn by most visitors to Havre schools. The committee decided the badges should be adopted permanently beginning this fall.
One item not dealt with specifically by the team but which will be introduced this year is that all new employees and some volunteers must pass fingerprint background checks.
The district plans to review at least two subject curricula every year until 2012. Last year, teams examined the district's reading and math curricula. The communications arts and math teams reviewed every aspect of the curricula, from the district's learning goals for students at each grade level to the materials teachers have in their classrooms. The communications arts team chose new textbooks for grades K-8 and designed the new mandatory reading classes for the middle school. Team leader Parman has called the changes "the largest amount of instructional change that I've seen in the six years I've been here." The math team phased out an alternative high school math curriculum known as integrated math and approved a new pre-algebra textbook.
In the work plan that was approved by the trustees in July, three new curriculum review teams will proceed in a similar way, this time examining how Havre schools teach health enhancement, science, and technology.
Retention policy review
This team examined the district's policy regarding retention - holding students back a grade. This was in part a response to figures that showed that the vast majority of students the district had recommended be retained in fact went on to the next grade because of their parents' wishes. The new policy removes a provision allowing parents to override the decisions of the retention conference team. Parents still have recourse to an appeals process, team leader Karla Wohlwend said, but ultimately the decision rests with the principal and the student's teacher. The committee also added stricter attendance standards, expanded the list of factors considered when reviewing a student's performance to include environmental factors like poverty, and added a provision requiring an achievement strategy for every retained student, including things like tutoring and parental involvement.
"We wanted parents to have an understanding that they will always be involved in decision making, but schools do have great responsibility and we perhaps needed more say than we'd had in the past," Wohlwend said.
"The ultimate hope is that we don't have to use (retention)," she said.
The goal of this project was to evaluate the implementation of a group of eight educational enhancements that were approved by the trustees in April 2002. Those included reducing elementary school class size, adopting a full-day or alternate- day kindergarten, requiring staff members to attend professional training sessions, and requiring bus registration for students in grades K-3.
A few of the team's findings were:
All the K-5 classrooms in HPS had classes sizes that were equal to or lower than the state standards for class size.
A new full-day, three-day-a-week kindergarten schedule made it more difficult to bus students and feed them breakfast but allowed more instructional time and helped students learn better.
A district plan setting criteria for professional development and paying teachers a stipend for taking courses was highly utilized by both teachers and paraprofessional staff.
The district's new bus registration procedure for K-3 students has ensured that bus drivers know students' names and stops and that teachers know which buses their students take.
This team developed a five-year comprehensive education plan as a way to lay out the district's longer-term goals and chart its progress every year. The plan includes a district profile, which includes information about program offerings, enrollment demographics and student achievement data. It also includes the district's mission and vision statements and outlines the work accomplished by the project teams each year. Finally it sets goals for professional development and standardized test results.
New Montana accreditation standards passed in the last two years require the plan, but Superintendent Kirk Miller said the district has worked that way for some time.
"In the past seven years Havre Public Schools has operated in the manner that's outlined in this five-year education plan," Miller said. "It's just the way we do business because it's right for kids."
The district plan was approved by the school board in April, and the individual schools also have their own five-year school plans.
The six teams for the upcoming school year are the No Child Left Behind Implementation team; the three teams in charge of reviewing the health enhancement, science, and technology curricula; and two new teams. Team leaders have already been chosen.
Instead of reviewing a single policy like last year, this year a project team will be in charge of a complete review of school district policies. The Montana School Boards Association will be hired to do the review, similar to a financial audit, and make recommendations for revisions.
"It's a good practice to always review your policies," team leader and district clerk Ric Floren said. Floren said the reviewers will go through two books of school board policies line by line to make sure they do not conflict with state law and that any changes in state law are reflected in the policies. The association will then make a recommendation of changes, which the school board will have a chance to act on. Floren said the review should be completed by June.
A final team, headed up by Miller, will try to incorporate extensive research to find ways of improving student performance.
"We're not going to stick our heads in the sand and say, 'Well, we're doing pretty good,'" Miller told the board at the June meeting where he pitched the idea to the trustees.
The team will focus on developing the best instructional strategies for teachers to help students achieve. Given No Child Left Behind's emphasis on standardized tests, part of those strategies will include making sure teachers can read test scores and use them to identify students who need help with specific concepts. They will also involve giving teachers clearer expectations of what must be taught, and making sure that teachers pursue professional development that improves instruction. Miller said a good example was a reading institute held this June in Havre to prepare the teachers who will be teaching the new reading classes.
Miller also emphasized closer supervision by principals of their schools' classrooms and on making decisions based on data - like the tests students take and the exit surveys seniors fill out before they graduate from HHS - rather than gut feelings.