November/December 2016

Practical PR: Raise the bar for equity, achievement

By Jennifer Bialobok and Brian Waterman
Jennifer Bialobok is community relations coordinator and Brian Waterman, Ed.D. is principal at Lyons Township High School District 204.

High expectations in school lead to high performance. High expectations move students forward; in fact, it’s the very act of striving for a high expectation that brings about progress. Even if stu-dents don’t reach their goals, they are better for the effort.

Lyons Township High School District 204 piloted an Equity and Achievement program that raised expectations for a cohort of socio-economically disadvantaged students, who, under nor-mal circumstances, may not have been challenged to take courses that are more rigorous. The district discovered that their more affluent counterparts, who scored similarly on standardized tests, opted for higher level courses, and achieved success. So, LTHS raised the bar for a cohort of economically disadvantaged students, and they not only reached, but in many cases, surpassed the bar. Over time, this program will help narrow the achievement gap.

An important part of the program included anonymity. Students were not aware they were in a cohort and their teachers, while chosen to participate and the recipients of special professional development to address the specific needs of the cohort, did not know which of their students were part of the program. The secrecy allowed all students to be treated the same, without preju-dice or different expectations. The program was hugely successful and has made a small step to-ward reducing the achievement gap. While still in its infancy, this program can be replicated and applied to most any district. It calls for advocacy, professional development, mentoring and, of course, anonymity.

In October 2014, an equity and achievement team was formed to explore the realities of minority students at LTHS and to brainstorm programs and initiatives that could provide an equitable chance of success for all students. The team began to analyze data and found that the majority of financially advantaged students earning a score between 13 and 15 on the EXPLORE test were placed in higher level freshman classes than their EXPLORE scores initially dictated. And, they were succeeding in these courses by earning a grade of B or higher. Data analysis also indicated that free and reduced lunch students, who earned the same EXPLORE scores, accepted their ini-tial class placements, instead of opting for a higher placement. As a result, free and reduced lunch students were being placed in classes that were less rigorous and were unlikely to put them on track for taking an Advanced Placement class in high school.

The equity and achievement team explored methods of encouraging more socio-economically disadvantaged students to take Advanced Placement courses at the junior and senior level. It be-came apparent that it would be necessary to encourage a more rigorous course sequence begin- ning in the freshman year. To that end, it was noted that socio-economically disadvantaged fami-lies are less likely to advocate for more rigorous level courses during the course placement proc- ess. As a result, the team created a 42-student cohort beginning with incoming freshman, the Class of 2019. The students were encouraged to select the following courses at higher levels than their placement scores suggested: World History Prep, English I Accel, Algebra I Accel, and Bi- ology Prep.

The team’s goal was that all students in the cohort would earn semester grades of C (75 percent) or higher in the four freshman courses taken, and by the time they graduated, 40 socio-economically disadvantaged students would take, and pass, at least one AP Exam.

The cohort consists of 42 students selected from the Class of 2019. The cohort is comprised of five African-American students, 27 Hispanic students, nine white students, and one multi-racial student. The parents of the students were contacted in order to provide them with information about the program and to encourage participation.

A select group of teachers was chosen for the program, and the students were scheduled into specific sections of each of the designated courses with these teachers. The teachers participated in professional learning related to Ruby Payne’s “Poverty Framework” and John Hattie’s “ Visi-ble Learning” research. Ruby Payne’s work offers practical, real-world support and guidance to improve effectiveness in working with people from socioeconomically disadvantaged back-grounds, explaining the pitfalls and barriers faced by the poor. Visible Learning identifies the educational practices that yield the highest rates of learning, as well as 10 mind frames educators need to possess in order to effectively impact student learning. In an effort to offer additional support, a seat in the Instructional Coaching Program was extended to each of the 11 teachers. These teachers had the opportunity to meet with an instructional coach every two weeks and work collaboratively to achieve a predetermined “SMART Goal” concerning formative prac-tices.

Throughout the school year, each of the 10 members of the equity and achievement team moni-tored the progress of approximately four students to ensure the students maintained at least a C average. In the event a student began to demonstrate difficulty as evidenced by his or her overall grade, the faculty member met with the student to develop study skills, strategies for advocating for help, an action plan for improvement, support room referrals, and other supports to assist the student.

With the exception of being enrolled in classes taught by specific teachers, who received profes-sional development designed to address the specific learning needs of students from lower in-come families, the Equity and Achievement students were not treated differently than their freshmen peers. It was the belief of the equity and achievement team that if the teachers fostered a growth mindset in their classroom, the 42 students could achieve success in these four courses just as their financially advantaged peers have experienced.

After the first year of the Equity and Achievement cohort, approximately half of the 42 students met the goal of earning a 75 percent or higher in all four classes, and more than half of the stu-dents in the cohort are on-track to take an AP class in high school. Approximately 80 percent of the students in the cohort earned a 75 percent or higher in three of the four classes. The courses that proved most difficult for students in the cohort were also the most difficult for students not in the cohort.

The team’s ultimate goal of exposing students to a more rigorous course sequence that would not have otherwise been possible was realized. As the original cohort of students enters sophomore year, 34 of the 42 students will be moving on to a comparable course sequence in all four courses. The remaining eight students will be moving forward in at least one of the courses.  

Overall, struggle for students in the cohort was minimal and success was widespread. As the second year of the cohort begins, students will continue to be monitored. If a student’s grade falls below a 75 percent, then he/she will again be mentored and offered additional support. Twelve new teachers were welcomed to the cohort for the sophomore course sequence, and 49 students from the Class of 2020 begin a new freshman cohort during the 2016-17 school year.

The team believes that the academic trajectory of all students within the cohort was changed by advocating for higher expectations. As the cohort enters the second year, the equity and achievement team is currently discussing the following issues:

  • Balancing mentoring assignments;
  • Providing guidelines for what mentoring entails in order to ensure consistency; and
  • Emphasizing the importance of having consistent learner qualities in all classrooms.

District 204 remains committed to having continual conversations in an effort to improving stu-dent academic outcomes.