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Superintendent’s ‘working document’ plans improvements for schools

 

September 5, 2017

File Photo AS SUPT. TOM YAHRAES, left, observes, teachers confer last winter in a leadership team meeting at Hawthorne School focused on improving student performance in the district.

The Sweet Home School District spent the past school year making changes to turn around falling test scores during previous school years.

Those changes have set the stage for the 2017-18 school year, and the district will keep changing, adjusting as educators examine data and apply what they learn.

Supt. Tom Yahraes has a list of his priorities and action plans, but they’re constantly evolving.

“It’s a working document,” Yahraes said as he found the latest version on his desk. “I’m constantly reworking, updating it.”

That’s a microcosm of his priorities for the district during the next school year. Educators will constantly analyze student performance data, adjust their teaching and reassess students in a cycle that will continue on through the year.

“I’m using the same framework this year as I did last year,” said Yahraes, who is beginning his second year as superintendent here.

Four priority areas make up that framework based on the superintendent’s mission, to “give every student every chance to become a thriving citizen and achieve their potential,” and vision, to “develop educated, thinking, creative individuals equipped with the skills to be thriving, productive citizens ready to contribute to the work force, our communities and our country, ultimately prepared to chase the American dream and personal happiness.”

His priority areas are to “improve academic achievement,” to “develop thriving citizens,” to “cultivate positive community culture,” and to “execute continuous facility maintenance and upgrades.”

The priority areas remain the same as last year although the wording of the third changed. It had been to cultivate a culture of organizational wellness and effectiveness. The goal there is really to develop the relationships and partnerships among staff, parents and the community. One of his hopes is that the staff and community work together to retain teachers.

Yahraes presented a list of achievements to the School Board during its Aug. 14 meeting.

They include:

- The district adopting new updated science curriculum in every grade, which help students meet the new state standards in science testing.

- A district-wide switch to a Google-based email and cloud system, allowing improvements in communication and access to learning apps.

- The district dedicated additional resources to Student Services for students with disabilities, and implemented an athlete drug-testing policy.

- Voters passed a $4 million bond that leveraged a $4 million grant to renovate Sweet Home Junior High and make infrastructure and security improvements in buildings across the district. The district also won $6 million in grants to upgrade buildings to better withstand seismic events, making them safer.

- The district joined its first job fair for recruiting, hiring and retaining teachers, and the district added three new teachers at the ele-mentary level to reduce class sizes.

- The district added physical education at the elementary level, creating three teaching positions to cover all four schools. The district is phasing P.E. in ahead of state requirements. With the new PE classes at the elementary level, teachers will have for the first time in a long time a prep time during the day, Yahraes said.

- More directly tied to academics, returning to a five-day school week, the district added 35 professional development weekly sessions to refine instruction and 23 days of additional instructional days for students to develop skills, find purpose and be inspired to achieve their potential.

- The district created an academic leadership team to build instructional best practices for student learning.

“Our principal focus needs to be on academics” and increasing student skills, Yahraes said.

Test scores fell during much of the five-year period before 2016-17. Test scores for 2016-17 aren’t available yet, Yahraes said. The state Department of Education is finalizing the information, which will be released this fall.

Last year, the district needed to do some things systemically to set the stage for improvement, Yahraes said. That resulted in the creation of the academic leadership team and returning the district to a five-day week. Students have more instructional days as a result, while teachers will have professional development opportunities weekly after early releases on Wednesdays instead of bi-weekly.

“That gives students 23 more days next year to find purpose, learn new skills, to find a positive influence in the school, to develop character, to find hobbies that make them happy, things that sing to their soul,” Yahraes said. “The three-day learning regression (over a three-day weekend), we’re minimizing that. That’s going to have an impact system-wide on student achievement.”

With weekly professional development, teachers can make quicker adjustments in the classroom, Yahraes said. With two a month under the four-day week, they may work on something in October and not see it again until February.

Under the weekly schedule, with 70 to 100 minutes available to analyze student assessments “every Wednesday, we can go back and look at our assessments where kids are at,” Yahraes said. That data will inform their instruction and help map things out for staff as a team to determine the next steps in instruction in an ongoing cycle.

The district began using professional learning communities several years ago, and those will come into play more again this year as they sift the academic data from testing.

“We’re going to connect our PLC teams as much as we can to grade level across the district,” Yahraes said. The idea is “creating a more standard language regarding our instructional techniques.”

Educators will talk more this year about the “craft of instruction,” he said.

Last year, the district focused on learning from “pockets of success,” Yahraes said, pointing to specific classrooms and groups of students who tested well. “Next year, we’re going to be able to delve deeper into these areas.

“Everyone here will have something to share to help our organization improve.”

The outcome, Yahraes said, will be student achievement.

Last year, the district highlighted the idea, the priority, of “thriving citizens,” Yahraes said. That term refers to student behavior and activities that fall outside of academics, both of which contribute to higher academic achievement.

At the high school, administrators developed a new employability index and are promoting extra-curricular activities. Foster and the Junior High have Be Kind programs. Holley teaches students to become self-managers, while Oak Heights has a “Pride” program. The programs emphasize character, perseverance and service to others – and other, associated behavior and skills. They create values that improve academic performance.

“We laid the foundation, and it really resonated in the schools,” Yahraes said.

These kinds of programs have been in place in the past, Yahraes said. He asked his administrators to name the programs; find a way to attach a number to it to measure it and set a goal; and create a plan to achieve a goal.

A few years ago, Sweet Home was around the state average in academics, Yahraes said, and he cautioned that it will take time to achieve those performance levels again.

“We are on track, positioned, for continued improvement in all areas,” Yahraes said. “It is an exciting time to be in Sweet Home.”

 
 
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