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Barbara L. Salisbury⁄The GazetteSchools CEO John Deasy contemplates a question put to him by The Gazette editorial board as he described the sweeping changes parents can expect in the new school year.
Deasy said parents will be aware immediately of some of his innovations. He has already instituted an accountability plan that will track the academic progress of each region, school and student, with specific improvement targets that will be posted.
Parent liaisons will help parents understand how schools work and how they can advocate for their children. Principals will no longer be just building managers but instructional leaders who will observe and support their teachers more in their classroom duties. And teachers will have more time to watch master teachers so they can improve their craft.
‘‘We’re changing culture, practice and expectation all at the same time,” Deasy said in an interview with editors of The Gazette on Monday. ‘‘This work is four to eight years minimum for a system of this size.”
The improvements he is promising will extend even to the High School Assessments, the tests that will become the standard for graduation starting in 2009 but on which many Prince George’s students have done poorly.
Deasy is preparing to start his first full year heading the 133,000-student system Aug. 21, when the fall semester begins. He said he is determined to engage parents in the educational process and restore their faith in public schools.
‘‘There are no throwaway kids. That’s not acceptable,” Deasy said. ‘‘Adults have to be unified in their expectation that all kids will be successful.”
Help on standardized tests
Deasy said the High School Assessments were a necessary step to graduation and that system had much work to do to improve student performance, but the work was entirely possible.
‘‘I will not be recommending moving away from the HSAs,” Deasy said. ‘‘These are a floor, certainly not a ceiling. This is a minimum standard students should be able to master. These are not insurmountable.”
Deasy plans to institute free ‘‘twilight academies” that will assist students who missed passing one or more of the HSAs by 15, 30 or 60 points. In algebra, for example, a student would receive extended day help with specific parts of tests they missed without having to take the entire class over again.
High school students took the exams in May and the results are expected in the next several weeks.
‘‘As a student, it doesn’t do me any good to take the class over when I passed 80 percent of algebra,” Deasy said. ‘‘We’re supporting [the academies] and the students should be able to [re]take the tests in January.”
Students who are struggling before they take the tests will also receive work packets tailored to their specific deficiencies so they can improve quickly.
‘‘We’re going to be working with kids who are likely to struggle, and that’s something we haven’t done,” Deasy said. ‘‘We’re going to help kids before they fail instead of waiting until after they fail.”
Deasy has heard the concerns of parents about falling graduation rates if students don’t make significant gains on the HSAs. Only 15 percent of seniors passed all four of tests they took in May 2005. Passing all the tests will be a graduation requirement for the Class of 2009.
One way for students to make sure they have the academic base to pass the HSAs was to take more Advanced Placement courses that afford college credit.
Deasy said he plans to start a core of eight Advanced Placement courses in each high school with 200 teachers specially trained by The College Board, the company that administers the tests, to teach the courses.
The state has recently said that passing grades on certain AP tests could be used as substitutes for the less rigorous HSAs.
‘‘This can’t be just about kids who are struggling,” Deasy said. ‘‘This has to be about raising the bar for all youth.”
Tracking every school
Deasy said the school system has created a new accountability system that tracks the progress of each school as well as every student. Each school will have specific improvement goals to meet in reading, mathematics or any other curriculum area in which they are deficient.
Deasy said that 22 schools have been identified as ‘‘chronically struggling,” and each would receive teaching and administrative coaches to help bring the school back to standard.
Every six weeks, faculty and staff would gather to discuss student progress to make sure students were proceeding apace.
Parents will be able to request information about the goals a child’s school was expected to meet as well as information on the child’s academic progress.
Deasy said the system would monitor a student’s progress throughout the school career. ‘‘I need to track each cohort [group of children] as we go,” Deasy said. ‘‘Growth over time is a value-added component.”
Deasy also wanted parents to understand they would be an integral part of the learning process.
Parent liaisons, parents trained in how a school works and able to assist others with their problems, were a key to his plans.
‘‘This is based on the model of parent liaisons in all our schools as well as bilingual parent liaisons in schools where that is appropriate,” Deasy said. ‘‘Literally, their job is to help parents navigate the process so they can actually get into the schools and be really strong parents.”
These liaisons could advise parents on what questions to ask in parent-teacher conferences, how to talk to principals and even how to challenge disciplinary actions against students.
Principals take the lead in making teachers better
Principals will ‘‘clearly be shifting to improving instruction,” Deasy said of the new way the system will do business.
They won’t be expected merely to manage their buildings, Deasy said. Instead, they will also check in on their teachers regularly to make sure the curriculum is taught thoroughly.
Deasy is also confident that teachers will get better through constant review of their teaching techniques and watching master teachers.
He also wanted to encourage teachers in the best performing schools to switch to struggling schools to improve the level of performance there.
Recruiting and retaining teachers will also be easier with a better compensation package and more incentives for experienced teachers to come to Prince George’s, according to Deasy.
Prince George’s has become known as a training ground for teachers to perfect their techniques and then move on to counties with higher pay and benefits.
Deasy said the goal is to become the district with the highest pay and best working conditions for the region.
‘‘It’s an incredibly important issue,” Deasy said. ‘‘But it’s absolutely an issue we can do something about.”
With so many changes coming so quickly and with so much at stake, Deasy realized that some in the system and even in the community might balk at his reforms.
‘‘I expect some resistance,” Deasy said. ‘‘But I imagine that’s out of fear of failure, and that’s good if we’re afraid to fail because that shows that what we’re doing is important.
‘‘But this is about continuous improvement, not about failing or succeeding. We’re asking adults to do the same thing we expect of children in kindergarten, which is to improve every year. We have to be dead serious about the belief that there are no throwaway kids.”
E-mail Guy Leonard at email@example.com.