Literacy data to get Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan teachers ‘on the same page’

/ 12 August 2012 / eunice

Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, August 12, 2012 – Emily McGinn will get to know more about her students’ skills this year than she ever has before.

The special-education teacher at Eagan’s Northview Elementary School is one of roughly 1,000 kindergarten to fifth-grade teachers in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district trained this summer on a new instruction tool that may transform how literacy is taught and success is measured in the state’s fourth-largest district.

“I’m really excited,” McGinn said. “It’s for the benefit of all students who will be assessed using the same system. We’ll all be on the same page, speaking the same language.”

Starting Aug. 21 and 22, teachers across the district will begin individually assessing students’ literacy skills before the start of school and then will closely monitor their progress throughout the year. The idea is to give both teachers and their students a head start on the school year.

“Having it to start the school year will be an incredible benefit,” McGinn said. “We will start the year knowing exactly where students are and where they need help.”

The data teachers such as McGinn collect will be entered into a system built to track achievement and help teachers identify where students are struggling, so they can intervene more quickly to get them back on track.

“We are trying to set up a program to identify and intervene early and make sure we are targeting students’ specific needs,” said Steve Troen, district director of teaching and learning.

“That mindset has always been there, but we haven’t always had the tools and the systematic approach.”

District officials hope the new system will mean improved achievement across the district with few struggling students. The program is designed to help students before they fall behind and need referrals for special services.

A number of districts in Dakota County and across the Twin Cities are moving toward more data-driven, personalized instruction that addresses each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses. Increasingly sophisticated technology and software make it possible to log detailed data on student performance and track progress.

It’s an approach supported by Brenda Cassellius, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education, who attended part of a training session in Eagan last week. Cassellius noted that teachers working together with detailed information about achievement can make a strong effort to increase student achievement.

“I just think it is phenomenal,” Cassellius said. “Getting that kind of information to teachers is so important.”

The Rosemount literacy program also is in line with the “Read Well By Third Grade” initiative championed by Cassellius. Students who develop strong literacy skills in their early years do better in school overall, research has shown.

Rosemount schools received $1.6 million last school year through the program, and similar funds expected this coming year will offset the costs of materials, software and training of teachers.

Most of the new assessment materials will replace teaching supplies the district routinely purchases and updates. Overall additional costs of implementing the program are expected to be small, Troen said.

The new online data-management system will cost the district about $6 per student, and the new assessment material kits run about $330 per teacher, Troen said. These costs will replace other online tools and assessments the district used in the past.

In addition to the new system for assessing students, the district is building a network of support for teachers that includes team-teaching and coaches in each building. A select group of teachers will lead “response to intervention” efforts at the district’s 18 elementary schools.

These leaders, such as Katie Junko, a third-grade literacy coach at Echo Park Elementary, will help teachers in their building make the most of the data they collect and devise the best ways to intervene with struggling students.

“To be able to help teachers be more effective and help students, to be a resource to everyone,” Junko said. “It’s exciting.”

Beth Swenson, a lead literacy teacher, brought the “response to intervention” approach to Rosemount from Brainerd schools, where she worked with the model to improve achievement and help reduce referrals to special education. District officials hope a similar approach in Rosemount will result in long-term savings.

The efforts focus on keeping struggling students in traditional classrooms whenever possible and bringing interventions directly to the students, rather than pulling them out of class for additional help. The interventions are guided by small, micro-assessments of specific skills.

“We are going to use more of a one-room schoolhouse model and push into classrooms,” Swenson told teachers at the recent training session she led. “Interventions will happen inside the classroom. We can’t pull them out and assume what they are learning will ever help them catch up to the rest of the class.”

The new program also comes with some sacrifices. Students will lose five instructional days so teachers have two days to assess each student and three additional days throughout the year to analyze student data and collaborate with other teachers.

District officials believe the time lost to data gathering and analysis will be more than made up with improved instruction. Troen said the coming school year will act as a baseline for implementing the new assessment system district-wide.

“We are all going through the same language, so we will all be speaking the same language,” he said.