9 things schools can do today to improve attendance

Excused absences, unexcused absences, suspensions—all contribute to chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more school days per year. While the causes vary, chronic absenteeism is now viewed as a warning sign that something within a school or student’s life needs to be addressed to keep learning on track.

In Lorain (OH) City School Disrict (LCS), we have set a goal for a 50 percent reduction in the chronic absentee rate. Since I joined LCS in August 2017, we’ve begun implementing several strategies to work toward that goal, including several I had success with in my previous district, St. Louis (MO) Public Schools.

Here are nine actions I’ve tried—that you can implement today—to improve student attendance and make school a place that students want to be.

1. Form an attendance review team to catch problems early
An attendance review team is a school-based task force that monitors student attendance, researches students’ needs to identify why they’re chronically absent, and provides strategic intervention to address those needs and improve attendance. To catch problems early, it’s helpful to establish intervention warning flags for specific numbers of tardies, absences, and class removals and outline action steps for the team to take after each flag. For example, a warning flag of three absences would trigger a parent phone call, and five absences would result in a face-to-face meeting with the parent and child.

2. Provide individualized support
If absences continue, the attendance review team will need to provide more individualized support. In this case, the team should create an attendance action plan that outlines interventions and consequences if attendance fails to improve. The team can then monitor the student’s progress to see if attendance goals are being met or if further action is required.

3. Build a positive school culture
When schools have a positive culture, students become more invested in their learning and excited about attending school. When schools don’t, students disengage and are less likely to have healthy attendance. In 2016-17, 1,037 students were suspended from LCS, which meant that more than 15 percent of students missed at least one day of school. We want our scholars to be in school every day, learning from their choices rather than receiving punishment that keeps them out of the classroom. So, we’re revisiting district-wide discipline policies. We’re rolling out training for staff on strategies to improve their school culture. We’re also shifting our focus to interventions that rely on proactive approaches to resolving issues before they result in a suspension, such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and Social and Emotional Learning.

4. Focus on the most essential behaviors
Indeed, to help students feel safe, welcomed, and supported, it’s critical to teach and nurture the behaviors that create a positive school culture. A new compendium called the Positive School Culture Inventory™ (PSCI) has identified the 19 behaviors that are most essential to creating a positive culture. The PSCI is based on an analysis of more than 152 million student behavior instances collected over seven years by educators in 645 schools. We’re exploring this resource to determine which behaviors we want to emphasize in our schools.


5 best practices for teaching challenging subjects

One of the most effective ways to cultivate skills such as empathy, problem solving, and emotion management is to help students productively struggle through an examination of the real and complex subjects that have and continue to face the world. Conversations on topics like racism, genocide, school shootings, and other forms of violence are not easy; however, honest dialogue can lead to increased understanding and compassion for the human experience.

As a former high school teacher now working with Echoes & Reflections, an organization that helps middle and high school educators build their confidence and capacity to teach the Holocaust effectively, I’ve discovered some best practices for teaching challenging subjects.

1. Prepare academically and emotionally
Teaching complex subject matter without the right tools and guidance can be detrimental to students’ understanding. Teachers can avoid this with equal parts emotional and academic preparation.

To start, become a student again. Commit to learning through reliable and trusted resources. Attend in-person and/or online trainings with subject-matter experts, and read many texts from different credible perspectives. It can be tough to balance your own emotional reaction to teaching atrocity, so challenge yourself to the extent that you can.

Once you’ve mastered the content, explore alternative materials like movies, poetry, and survivor testimonies. These are the stories that ground your teaching practice in truth. The humanities discipline engages the core question of what it means to be human, so seek to find your own humanity before teaching students.

2. Develop support systems
Creating or seeking a professional learning community is paramount to effectively teaching the Holocaust and other difficult topics. Either through your school, district, or professional development opportunities, having a group of people with whom to bounce ideas, brainstorm, and gain knowledge is critical in forming effective pedagogical techniques and teaching rationale.

In our Echoes & Reflections training sessions, we include time for teachers to consider how to answer inevitable questions from students. While it’s impossible to anticipate everything, we explore what might come up and allow educators to exchange and consider answers in a safe environment.


6 things you need to know about digital badges

Today’s classrooms use a variety of learning approaches, some formal like lectures and some informal like watching videos. As a teacher, your learning is no different and your continuing professional development (PD) should provide you with credit for both informal and formal learning. You should get credit for online chats, reading articles, and watching videos because each of these experiences provides you with the knowledge to build your teaching practice.

So, what if I told you that you could show this informal learning to your administration, colleagues, and parents? Well, you can with a digital badge. Think of them like badges earned in scouting, demonstrating a unique skill or accomplishment. You can share digital badges on your LinkedIn profile, your website, and in your email signatures so that your learning is visible for others to see and acknowledge. The people who view your badge can also see the organization who awarded the badge and what you did to earn it.

Like all good students, I’ll bet you have questions. Let’s see if I can answer a few of them here.

1. How does a digital badge work?
Inside each digital badge is metadata, data that provides information about your data. For example, the metadata in a digital photo tells where the photo was taken and when. With a digital badge the types of information stored includes:

  • Badge name
  • Badge image
  • Badge description
  • Badge criteria
  • Earner’s name
  • Course title
  • Issue date
  • Issuer name
  • Issuer description

2. What about the paper certificates I usually get for PD?
Digital badges that are awarded for PD and learning are the equivalent of a paper certificate, but can easily be shared. The metadata within the badge can tell the viewer all about your accomplishment, making it that much better than a paper certificate. And, it’s easier for you to display your accomplishments and take them with you if you decide to pursue another opportunity in a different school, district, or state.


Now is the time to transform how we teach students with autism

America, we may have a problem.

The CDC recently announced new prevalence rates for autism. The increase from 1 in 68 to 1 in 59 children identified as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is significant because we know that 95-97 percent of children with autism are being served in America’s public schools.

With lifetime costs for our current school-aged population of children on the spectrum estimated at between $1.4 and $2.4 million per student, the new numbers present continuing staffing, fiscal, and in some cases facility challenges. However, this does not have to be “doom and gloom” for an already stressed educational system. This is the time for school and school system leaders to shift what they think, how hey think, and ultimately what they do to build the requisite skills, knowledge, and experiences for our students with ASD.

Over the past two years, I have dived deeply into the world of ASD. After a career in education, I was introduced to an innovative use of new technology that creates engagement, access, and opportunity for life-changing impact. When children on the spectrum learn to self-regulate in a humane and civil manner, they are empowered. Empowerment leads to building other skill sets, such as social and emotional understanding, that will assist them their entire life. To truly educate these students, educators must embrace three challenging ideas.

1. Engagement is learning.
Though it may appear as teetering on the obvious, students who are engaged learn. Children with disabilities and those with autism are no exception.


Edtech expands to the stadium

Video scoreboards have long been an important feature of professional and college stadiums and other sports facilities. Now high schools are eyeing these boards as a way to pique interest in athletic programs, make games more exciting, and provide learning opportunities to students.

When the idea of a digital scoreboard was raised at Nazareth Area High School, a campus of 1,500 students outside of Allentown, Pa., school board members and ad-ministrators were challenged to come up with a way to increase the game experience for student athletes and parents, while also using the new technology to provide au-thentic learning experiences for students.

After installing a 15’5” x 26’ digital scoreboard manufactured by Watchfire Signs less than a year ago, students interested in video production and reporting quickly started shooting video around town and packaging “warm-up videos” to run on the board. Student enthusiasm was off the charts and their ideas started to flow in.

Now that we’ve had some time to learn all the capabilities of our digital scoreboard and have a couple sports seasons behind us, I’d like to share some guidance to other schools considering doing the same.

1. Specify the learning objectives for your digital scoreboard.
Operating a video board has many different components, including graphic design, animations, programming, management, pre-produced video packages, live reporting, and advertising opportunities. Determine which areas make sense for student learning and begin with one or two areas.

During our first year of operation at Nazareth, we invited students in the visual media production class to create short “hype” videos to show during sporting events. Since we already had a course, it was a natural fit to work these videos into the curriculum. We decided to allow a district employee to handle the business side of selling ads, with the idea that we would begin incorporating the video board into business, marketing, and entrepreneurship courses later. Our goal is to make the video board as student-driven as possible.

2. Gather ideas and perspectives.
Create a team of administrators, teachers, and students to brainstorm perspectives on the best way to involve students. We even invited the video board director from our local minor league hockey team to meet with school representatives and students to give us an overview of how she plans, organizes, and programs content. This gave us insight into areas we had never even considered and was a great professional learning experience for students. Professional and collegiate teams often have pros on staff who are willing to share knowledge if asked.


Data-driven learning, not instruction, is the future of education

Data-driven instruction may be the popular catchphrase in education, but in a recent edWebinar, the speakers advocated for data-driven learning. The student, they said, should be at the center of all educational efforts, especially when the goal is to improve outcomes. “Using Student Learning Data to Foster a Growth Culture,” featuring Amy Trees Dodson, M.Ed., director of instruction, Cisco (TX) Independent School District (CISD); David Woods, director of curriculum and reporting, DreamBox Learning; and Robyn Sturgeon, professional learning consultant, NWEA, focused not just on the idea of collecting data, but on collecting only the data that is actionable. Instead of teaching to the middle, they said, educators and students can use data to attack learning.

Using the CISD framework as an example, the presenters discussed six key phases for developing buy-in and creating a successful data-oriented learning system.

Phase 1 – Think big
First, do an honest evaluation of your programs. What assessments do you use now? What data do you have, and what are you missing? What problems exist where more specific data would be helpful? This is the opportunity for stakeholders to brainstorm about how they can use data to make a difference.

Phase 2 – Train well…and then train again
While professional development seems like an obvious step, the speakers emphasized that this is a never-ending process. Although some training can be done in large groups, most should be small group work, possibly even one on one. Here, teachers need to understand that what gets assessed gets discussed and learn how to incorporate the information into their lesson plans.

Phase 3 – Action
The point of using data to drive learning is to change what is happening in the classroom. Without action, it’s meaningless. In addition to the teachers looking at the data, students benefit from understanding their own performance. When developing student improvement plans, however, don’t make time the constant and limit how long students have to learn a concept or make progress, commented Woods. In data-driven learning, time is the variable and achievement is the constant, which keeps the focus on individual student success.


The New Librarian: How to build a face-to-face PLN in 3 easy steps

By now the term professional learning network (PLN) is used very often, but much of the time it refers to the virtual type, meaning our online colleagues and networks. Being a media specialist can be a lonely profession and it’s not uncommon to feel like we’re siloed. As I have moved from being a classroom teacher into teacher leader positions, I’ve noticed it can get lonely and I find myself looking for a face-to-face tribe. Although I find this at conferences, they are infrequent and expensive.

So how can media specialists get out from the media center and network with like-minded educators without flying to ISTE or AASL? By getting involved in the “unconference” movement. Here are three different ways to do just that!

1. CoffeeEDU
I first encountered CoffeeEDU as “CoffeeCUE” and thought, “Cool. I like coffee.”

Fast forward a few months and it’s changed my professional life. Because of my current work, which involves working with educators in almost two dozen schools, I have a small peer group. Before moving to this position, I ran across the CoffeeEDU model and decided to attend a meetup—and instantly loved how this meetup, with no agenda or formal presentation, was more like a support group than a professional learning event. Despite that, I learned more in one hour than I had in several all-day formal sessions. I was hooked and soon organized my own local CoffeeEDU meetup closer to my home.

Every month, at CoffeeEDU, attendees get to spend time with area educators in a relaxed atmosphere away from the school and/or office. In this “safe space” we share the trials, triumphs, and tumults of our work with a group that both understands and shares the same mission. Here, I learned to cater training sessions to the trainees, not around the tool. We relish our time together as we regroup and rebuild before going back to our respective fields of battle.

Ready to host your own CoffeeEDU? It’s a great way to build community at your school or to network with other media specialists and educators.


5 school and library applicants weigh in on E-rate

A vast majority of E-rate applicants say the federal funding is vital to their internet connectivity, especially as demand for school wi-fi is surging, according to the latest annual E-rate applicant survey from Funds For Learning.

Eighty-eight percent of surveyed applicants say more students and library patrons are online with faster connections because of E-rate funding.

Roughly half of all networks (51 percent) will need upgrades within three years due to increasing demand for wi-fi, and 88 percent of schools say they prefer a simplified approach that gives them flexibility to decide which campuses receive wi-fi support, according to the survey.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is set to evaluate funding regulations for broadband internet in schools and libraries to consider how connectivity demands align with program utility and efficiency. The survey is intended to provide direct feedback to the FCC to demonstrate how the E-rate can best serve applicants.


A look inside an innovative high school

High school graduation is one of the big milestones of life. Regardless of the destination, the transition is a major one. To ensure the transition is successful, schools must work to give their students the skills and knowledge they will need when they enter college or the 21st-century workplace.

At Atlantis Charter School in Fall River, Massachusetts, we are taking an innovative approach toward education to help ensure that happens. Working with a coalition of partners from higher education, business, and industry, we designed a high school curriculum that addresses the growing skills gap that exists in education today so that students are prepared for what is expected of them in college and beyond. The cornerstone of our high school is five school-to-career academies. They are:

  • STEM
  • Health, Med-Tech & Sports Medicine
  • Arts, Culture & Design
  • Teacher Development
  • Business and Entrepreneurship

How our Career Academies work
The Career Academies are not vocational schools. The classes are taught along with a traditional college-preparatory curriculum, including honors and advanced placement classes. Freshmen and sophomores get an introduction to each academy, and they choose one track for their junior and senior years.

In the academies, students learn by doing. Each academy is designed to give students a hands-on educational experience. Take our Health, Med-Tech & Sports Medicine Academy as an example. A portion of the class is dedicated to instructional time, but students then practice what they just learned on a robotic SimMan. It’s a realistic, adult-sized, wireless patient simulator that teaches students about airway, breathing, cardiac and circulation management. We found the technology on a visit to Harvard Medical School and it was a perfect tool to give our students an advantage as they prepare to enter the medical field.

In addition to classroom learning, our coalition partners welcome our students to their campuses and businesses for job shadowing. Students in the Arts, Culture and Design Academy recently toured the world-class facilities at Berklee College of Music in Boston. The visit was arranged by Prince Charles Alexander, an award-winning record producer and former recording artist who is a professor of music production at Berklee and also serves as an adviser to Atlantis.

Students explored various principles of acoustics, recording equipment and production techniques. They got to see what it would be like to be a student at Berklee. Field trips like this one give our students the opportunity to see how what they are studying in school can be applied to a future job.


5 ways to truly help principals succeed

Principals and districts benefit when principal supervisors move beyond the role of administrator to coach and mentor, according to a new Vanderbilt University report.

It is the first of three studies of The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Supervisor Initiative, a four-year, $24 million effort studied by Vanderbilt and Mathematica Policy Research.

The report, “A New Role Emerges for Principal Supervisors: Evidence from Six Districts in the Principal Supervisor Initiative,” details the implementation of five key components to reshape the supervisor position in six large, urban school districts.

Each district changed the job descriptions and restructured central offices so that principal supervisors could step away from operational, administrative, and compliance tasks to coach, mentor and advise principals to be more effective as instructional leaders.

The six districts are: Broward County (FL) Public Schools, Baltimore City (MD) Public Schools, Cleveland (OH) Metropolitan School District, Des Moines (IA) Public Schools, Long Beach (CA) Unified School District, and Minneapolis (MN) Public Schools.

“Executive coaching is prevalent in high-performing organizations, but it’s not typically done in school districts,” says lead investigator Ellen Goldring, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development. “After three years, we saw substantial change in all districts. They came up with efficient and effective ways to position supervisors so they could fill the coaching and supporting gap.”