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School system needs to help Hispanics, students with disabilities

According to a recent report from the Tennessee Department of Education, the Washington County School System has two subgroups of students who have failed to meet goals of state-mandated academic achievement.
Tennessee’s new accountability system, which is designed through the state’s waiver from No Child Left Behind, identified Priority Schools — the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in Tennessee — and Focus Schools, which are 10 percent of schools with the largest achievement gaps between groups of students.
While Washington County isn’t listed as either a Priority or Focus school system, it is listed as having two subgroups of students who are underperforming – Hispanic students and students with disabilities.
According to the report, those two groups fell short of achievement goals as outlined in the state’s waiver from No Child Left Behind.
Washington County isn’t alone in its need for subgroup improvement – 54 school systems are on the list.
The local school system is one of 35 needing improvements for its Students with Disabilities subgroup and one of six charged with improving the academic performance among its Hispanic students.
According to Ron Dykes, Washington County Director of Schools, the system needs to help its Hispanic students in math and reading/language arts. The same is true, he says, with the students with disabilities subgroup.
“We have annual measurable objective targets to meet with every subgroup that exists including all students and then all subgroups,” Dykes said. “We’re required not only to meet the objectives – the ones advanced or proficient – by a particular percentage, but each year that percentage increases.”
Dykes said currently 42.4 percent of Hispanic students in grades 3-8 met the target for math. By the end of this school year, the target of proficiency or advanced for those students is 46 percent.
“We have a growth factor of 3.6 percent so if we can meet our target of 46 percent, we would meet next year’s subgroup achievement and close a gap,” Dykes said.
The same is true for children in the students with disabilities subgroup. In areas of math and reading/language arts 3-8, 30.5 percent of students with disabilities tested proficient or advanced in those areas.
“The target for that subgroup needs to go to 34.8 percent by the end of this school year. If we meet that, then again, we have closed that gap,” Dykes said.
Efforts will be focused on those two groups this school year, according to Dykes, to ensure they show the required improvements.
But teaching any of these subgroups is not a compartmentalized activity.
“We share the responsibility all across the system, helping close the achievement gap,” Dykes said.
“We’ve made great progress in third and seventh grade math, but as the bar raises on all students, we have to have a plan in place so their achievement doesn’t decline.”
In order to strengthen and support the efforts to reach the goal, Dykes says that several changes have been made regarding school personnel.
“We have shifted personnel regarding special ed instruction across the board and we have gone from part-time to full-time English Language Learners (ELL) instructors for Hispanic students. We think that will help us tremendously.”
Other changes include the realignment of teaching staff, focusing on the areas of instructional strengths of various teachers.
“For instance, we have found that while a teacher might have been used to teach science, they may have been stronger in math or language arts. We’re trying to concentrate them in their areas of strengths and get them away from having to teach in an area where they don’t have as much expertise.”
Dykes said that administrators have taken a closer look at all teachers’ value-added scores and realigned about 8 percent of the faculty who will now teach at different grade levels or subject areas.
“We’re also trying to fill middle grade slots with teachers who are specialized in a content area,” Dykes said. “Although teachers are K-3, K-6 and K-8 certified, they may not have quite the background in math that we need in a more rigorous environment. For example, we’re looking for math majors, math experts to teach math.”
Teachers will also be continuing to work in professional learning communities during their planning periods, he says, and before and after school to collaborate on instruction among themselves.