FINCASTLE—The way Jason James sees it, great patience is required as government officials, administrators and teachers work to reform the American public education system.
“Our challenge is that, as a society, we want microwave results and real, substantive change in schools that require crockpot answers,” said James, a fifth-grade math teacher at Valley View Elementary School.
“We are in the process of deeply studying our own issues, what we’re good at, where data says we are lacking and having in-depth discussions as a faculty on how we can instructionally meet the needs of our students. It’s not unlike surgeons meeting on a patient. You study the greatest need and discuss how best to meet that need.”
Since 2010, there has been no change in TCAP academic achievement at Valley View, with C’s in math, reading and science for grades 3-5. The only exception last year was a slight decrease in academic achievement for grades 3-5 in social studies. Like many schools systemwide, Valley View made modest gains in math but not much else.
Principal Jason Dotson and assistant principal Pam Hill, both first-time administrators at Valley View, are laying the groundwork this year for what they hope will soon be one of the most improved schools in the county.
“We had a plan coming in,” said Dotson, a former middle school basketball coach. “The first thing we did was sit down with every teacher and ask them ‘what is the one thing we need to improve on?’”
Dotson said he and Hill implemented three things to get the ball rolling. The first thing they did was distribute students in classrooms based on the previous year’s testing data.
“We looked at our data to see what areas we need to improve, and we moved around some teachers,” said Hill, a 25-year veteran educator. “We’ve done a more in-depth analysis with data boards where we can track all our assessments all year long.”
“It was based on test scores and test scores only. Just looking at test data is one thing, and looking at the personalities (of teachers) is another,” said Dotson.
The principals also began weekly, grade-level meetings with all teachers.
And thirdly, they worked up data boards to help teachers be accountable and chart student progress.
“We’ve done a more in-depth analysis with data boards where we can track all our assessments all year long,” said Hill. “We’ve tried to provide teachers with the materials, tools and professional development they need in order to help our students be successful. Jason and I are committed to putting this school back on top. It was one of the highest performing schools in the past. We have a highly qualified staff that cares about the students.”
Dotson said he and Hill complement each other very well.
“They couldn’t have got me anybody better than Pam,” said Dotson. “Where I need to improve, she is really strong, and where she needs to work on things, that’s my forte.”
James, who has every subject except reading, is pleased with the effort the Valley View administration is making at improving the school.
“Mr. Dotson and Ms. Hill are doing a superb job in looking at the deeper challenges that not only we face, but all Tennessee schools face,” said James. “The challenges I face are being faced by every teacher right now, and that’s responding to the challenges of Common Core (raised standards in math and language arts). It’s a different bar to hit.”
Dotson said one of the requirements of Common Core is that all students must make gains no matter that their academic status may be. To meet that demand, schools are beginning RTI (Response to Intervention) programs.
“Our teachers are really apprehensive about it,” said Dotson. “It’s not mandated by the state until next year, but we’re doing it now.”
According to Dotson, there are three tiers of the RTI square model. Tier 1 is simply teaching class. Tier 2 is specifically targeting students who are on the verge of being proficient in the core subjects. “It’s finding out where they are and then giving them an extra 30 minutes [of tutoring a day)]” said Dotson.
Tier 3 is giving those same students, who are on the bubble, another 30 to 45 minutes of intervention every day in order to meet their growth goals.
“Excellent classroom management is an absolute must, because you have to keep those kids on task,” said Hill.
As for higher performing students, Dotson said it’s actually more difficult to improve their scores, because there’s not as much room for growth.
One of the main objectives for Dotson and Hill is to improve the relationship between school and the surrounding community.
“We want to make our school feel more welcoming,” said Dotson, who stresses accountability for students, parents, teachers and administrators.
He said the school recently hosted the county basketball tournament for the first time, held a breakfast for students and their grandparents, re-established a Parent Teacher Organization and raised funds to increase the school budget by 600 percent.
“We want the community to be involved and make them stakeholders in this process,” said Dotson. “We’ve worked hard at making schools more secure and safe. Pam greets them every morning, and I send them off in the afternoon. The first thing they see when they come to school is an administrator, and I want an administrator to be the last person they see when they leave. I think that’s important to the parents.”