Victory in Victorville: A replicable model for school improvement

TTClickerSixth Street Prep School is a K-6 charter school in the Victor Elementary School District in San Bernardino County, Calif. Linda Mikels became Sixth Street’s principal in 2001 and was immediately challenged by the school’s three-year history of declining test scores, a large Title I population, and a relatively young teaching staff. In the years prior to her appointment, the school yielded less than acceptable test results–17 percent proficiency in English/language arts and 30 percent proficiency in mathematics.

Sixth Street Prep could have easily made excuses for lagging scores considering its economically disadvantaged population is 85 percent–nearly double the state’s average of 44 percent–clearly qualifying this school as high-need.  Furthermore, 50 percent of students are English Language Learners, and two-thirds of the teaching staff have five or fewer years of experience.  However, Mikels maintains that her school’s demographics should never be an excuse for lack of achievement.

“What concerns me about excuses is that it is all about efficacy. Rather than teachers and leaders perpetuating excuses, we pledge not to make excuses or blame kids if they do not achieve,” she said.

Facing an uphill climb, Mikels spent two years building a sustainable change model designed around research-based pedagogy and a dedication to professional development. The core of this model included data-driven instruction, assessment for learning, student engagement, and immediate feedback. The model, referred to as the 10-A-Day program, centers around a “prove and disprove” strategy that involves daily questions embedded in instruction.

Grade-level teams create questions with resources such as their grade level power standards, pre-released test questions, and previous and subsequent grade levels standards.  Teams then carefully select the distracters (wrong answers) that include the most common student errors.  Distracters are critical to the proving and disproving process.  Through this method students learn not only how to solve a problem but also become skilled in identifying what mistakes to avoid.

The school began its 10-A-Day program as a paper and pencil review/preview process, but school staff realized technology could greatly enhance the efficiency and efficacy of its program.

When Mikels read about Turning Technologies’ student response systems two years later, she recognized a match with Sixth Street Prep’s current efforts.

“We purchased student response technology to better enable the methodology rather than the opposite,” said Mikels.  The technology lets teachers electronically record each student’s response to every question and provides immediate graphical results. Teachers and students can instantly view results, providing an opportunity to review when necessary. Teachers are able to analyze individual student performance with optional reports included in the software.  This data helps with monitoring student progress and also when planning follow-up instruction.

Mikels and her staff said they selected Turning Technologies’ student response system for its ease of use and the ability to engage each student in the learning process.

Its ability to work seamlessly with other technologies, such as interactive white boards and PowerPoint, were also critical in the decision to standardize on the product.  Mikels  personally created the first 100 question slides.

Sixth Street Prep’s implementation model included, on each student’s desk, a miniature dry-erase board, markers, an eraser, and a Turning Technologies student response clicker. Students answer each question on their white board but do not input their answer using their Turning Technologies clickers until they have proved or disproved every answer choice.   In this way, students engage in higher level thinking, build deeper understanding of the content and, no longer merely drill for the big test.  Whether it is part of the daily review/preview process or within a lesson, the teacher uses the clickers as a method to collect significant learning data relevant to each student.

Mikels’ no-nonsense approach to removing excuses, establishing non-negotiables, and building expectations for both students and faculty has been the foundation to Sixth Street Prep’s success.

“It does not happen overnight, but individual teacher results made believers out of others,” she said.

Together Mikels and the teaching team listed the non-negotiables that should occur each time students used the response devices for the 10-A-Day program.  With the agreed-upon criteria, Mikels monitored the implementation with daily walk-throughs.  Results data are shared on a regular basis and in conjunction with Sixth Street Prep’s monthly benchmarks.

Chris Soto, a fifth grade math teacher at Sixth Street, said the 10-A-Day program enables her to give students instant feedback, adjust her teaching in the moment, and allows her to teach all standards 180 days of the year.

“I generally include three questions from previously taught standards and three questions that are preview questions for upcoming standards in my 10-A-Day slides,” Soto said. “This allows me to reinforce concepts all year long.”

“Our students have developed a healthy attitude toward assessment and do not fear answering incorrectly because they realize teachers use questions to help them understand the materials,” said Mikels.

Josiah Battles, like other students, is highly engaged in math lessons and uses his whiteboard, marker, and student clicker as Soto instructs and prompts guided practice. He seems unaware that his teacher is conducting periodic formative assessments. When asked how often his teacher gives the class a test, Josiah responded, “Well, maybe every two weeks.”

Josiah explained that he “likes learning math, and using the whiteboard and clicker help us to learn better.”

Since implementing the 10-A-Day program, Sixth Street Prep’s math proficiency scores have climbed from 30 percent to 94.2 percent, reading proficiency increased from 17 percent to 80.3 percent, and science proficiency jumped from 14 percent to 92 percent, all from the 2001 school year to the 2008-09 school year.

Sixth Street Prep gained well-deserved recognition for its results.  The school received the Title I Academic Achievement Award in 2006-2009, the 29th Annual Golden Bell Award from the California School Boards Association in 2008, was named a Star School by California Business for Educational Excellence in 2008 and 2009, and received the National Blue Ribbon School Award in 2009.

Despite prior research suggesting that students’ socio-economic background pre-determines their likelihood of excelling academically, schools such as Sixth Street continue to dispel these findings and provide renewed hope. Through the combination of quality teaching methods that maximize on researched practices and current technologies such as TurningPoint student response systems, all schools, regardless of demographic composition, have the opportunity to make a difference in students’ academic achievement.

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