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VOL. 132 | NO. 195 | Monday, October 2, 2017

SCS Sees Summer Academy Success, Mixed Results on Blended Learning

By Bill Dries

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With 90 days to put it all together, Shelby County Schools leaders came up with a set of summer learning academies to battle the summer slide – student retention and academic growth taking a few steps back between school years.

Along the way, the school system also made a statement about the art and skill of teaching that is likely to reverberate in planning for the conventional academic year and beyond.

“We’re just trying to figure out how can we motivate our teachers, all of our teachers,” said Joris Ray, assistant superintendent of academic operations and school support. “Giving them an opportunity to move things out of their way so that they can really focus on instructions – that’s one thing I know the superintendent really wanted us to look at. Figure out the special sauce for our teachers to be on fire for the entire 180 days. If we have special sauce, it’s allowing them to teach and supporting them while they do so. We made that a special emphasis of this.”

Dorsey Hopson

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson initially had an idea of a summer session that wasn’t a camp and wasn’t limited to remedial work for students trying to advance to the next grade.

The school system’s goal at the outset was a 5 to 8 percent increase in literacy and math scores from the start of the summer term.

On average, the students in the program had a mean gain of 19 Lexile points in reading. The measurement is a framework that gauges the difficulty of texts and the reading capacity of students.

In math, the summer students showed an average of 26 percent growth in five weeks, with the fifth-graders averaging 40 percent growth and double-digit gains at every grade level.

SCS will be watching the group of students to see if the growth in math and reading lasts into the conventional academic year.

The evaluation of what happens beyond an attempt like the summer academies has become standard for the school system.

As the good news about the summer academies was being tallied, for instance, SCS was evaluating its recently completed three-year trial program of “blended learning” in 19 schools – some of them the same “critical focus” schools Hopson identified for the summer academies.

Blended learning is the use of digital devices from laptops to tablets in the classroom and at home under very specific conditions tied to curriculum.

Hopson told school board members in September that the results of that attempt were “mixed” – varying from school to school.

“People were afraid of making kids take the devices home,” Hopson said of administrators at some of the schools. He also said there was not enough time in the day at some schools to use the devices.

Yet Cherokee Elementary, Douglass K-8, East High, Levi Elementary, Hamilton Middle, Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, Middle College High and Southwind High each averaged 85 percent usage of the devices and their software during the pilot program.

“We don’t want to oversell it,” he warned. “There are some that struggled. Others had a track record of actually using it and implementing it. … They weren’t afraid to send it home.”

That contrasts sharply with new school construction and additions in the Germantown and Collierville school districts that has included planning for management of digital devices provided by those systems and used by all students on and off campus as a routine matter.

In the summer academies, from an initial idea of 1,000 students taught by certified teachers who would volunteer to teach curricula specifically for the five-week session, the effort grew to more than 6,200 students in 26 SCS elementary schools. There was a waiting list of teachers to teach. Assistant principals the school system is grooming to lead schools were targeted to lead the effort. And Ray believes SCS has a foothold in recruiting parents whose children don’t attend Shelby County Schools. Nearly 300 of the students in the academies were from outside the district including 42 attending private schools, according to Ray.

“We had all kinds of students. We had our top students and then we had students that just needed more time on task,” he said. “That was intentional. We just want our students to be in a safe environment in the summer. … All we wanted to do is provide the opportunity and set the right stage for learning. I think we did that.” Mendy Gaia, the academic operations and support manager for student recruiting and retention, said the summer academies could easily grow in scope next summer if the school system decides to do it again.

Gaia also found a lot of organizations stepping up with little prompting to balance the academic rigor with summer experiences on and off campus, including field trips.

“I feel like this year we could probably easily have 10,000 kids in the program,” she said. “We just didn’t have the capacity this year … to keep the enrollment open as long as we would have wanted to.”

Ray said what happens next summer is a judgment for Hopson and the school board to make with budget considerations.

“But I’m pretty confident that with the results we have and we still need to dig in the data,” he said. “But it will be a very compelling argument to continue this for next year.”

Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love, who pushed for the summer academies, said last week the system should hold the academies every summer and recruit students in need for more consistent attendance.

“Go ahead and have conversations with those parents of kids who are struggling to have more buy-in and commitment than bringing them in Monday and Tuesday and not Wednesday, Thursday and Friday,” she said.

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