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A new choice for schools

It’s what you teach — along with how you teach it — that encourages students to learn. A national program under way in 19 Tulsa schools shows the results.

Joy Jenkins
A new choice for schools

Marilyn Pippin, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Foster Middle School, says that before America’s Choice, getting her students to write a few lines “was like pulling teeth.”

Reading was also a challenge. She says her students were two to three years behind grade level in their literacy skills, and some had never finished reading a book in their lives.

But during the fall 2009 semester, all of this began to change.

That’s because Pippin had learned better ways to teach and reach her students, thanks to the national educational organization America’s Choice and its Ramp-Up curriculum.

Non-readers became bookworms and student reading levels jumped two to three years.

Foster Principal Darin Schmidt says literacy became a school-wide focus.

As part of America’s Choice’s 25 Book Campaign, he and Foster staff encouraged students to read at least 25 books during the school year. They enticed students with movie and end-of-year parties, prizes and public-address announcements from Schmidt describing his favorite books.

In the classroom, Pippin used America’s Choice-developed units, such as a mystery unit and Civil Rights Movement unit, which included specific books and lessons, to engage students. Her students also traveled to Cooper Elementary School to read with preschool students. They chose the books themselves, as well as created story maps and lesson plans.

As a result, Foster’s library more than doubled the number of books checked out to students.

“They just like to read now,” Pippin says of her students.

For America’s Choice leadership, these results are among a growing number of success stories from affiliated schools across the country.

America’s Choice began in 1989 as a program of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization. It became a for-profit subsidiary of NCEE in 2004.

America’s Choice offers “comprehensive, proven solutions to the complex problems educators face in the era of accountability,” according to its website. The organization works with 1,000 elementary, middle and high schools across the country, including Tulsa and Oklahoma City public schools.

Overall the organization works to provide outstanding learning opportunities for students and professional development for teachers, says Ken James, executive vice president and chief operating officer for America’s Choice.

“That’s the key,” he says. “It’s research based and based on the best practices that we’ve found … in the most high-performing districts and countries in the world as we’ve formatted our work.”

Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) first partnered with America’s Choice in May 2009. Financed with more than $3 million in federal Title I funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, America’s Choice is working with the district to implement the Rigor and Readiness Initiative into 19 middle and high schools. The initiative, which America’s Choice developed with ACT Inc., the company that creates the college preparation test, includes the Ramp-Up and Navigator curricula. Offered in math and literacy, Ramp-Up targets students who are far behind grade level and Navigator focuses on honing specific skills in these areas.

Earlier, America’s Choice representatives visited TPS classrooms to observe instructional approaches and share their observations with district leadership, James says.

They then worked with the district to develop a “plan of action,” he says. After schools introduced the initiative in fall 2009, America’s Choice continued to provide support through meetings with district leadership, principals and teachers, as well as regular site visits.

 

“We have strong research behind what we do, but it’s all geared to the fact that it must be implemented and it must be implemented with fidelity if it’s going to be successful,” James says.

“So we do a lot of monitoring, a lot of engagement with our school districts to ensure things are going on, working collectively with the school districts when we see things that may need some tweaking. Then we collectively make those decisions on how best to approach that.”

When America’s Choice first connected with TPS, the district had a 7 percent college-readiness rate, says Kevin Burr, associate superintendent for secondary schools. However, although evaluations of the first year of America’s Choice are still under way, Burr says administrators and teachers have spoken positively of the impact the program has had on their schools.

Burr says he is particularly optimistic about America’s Choice’s ability to make college readiness the “language of expectations” for student achievement — a conversation that must occur beginning in middle school.

“It’s doing something that we know we’ve needed to do for a long time,” he says. “It’s changing the mind-set from meeting the minimum to meeting the maximum (requirements).”

Principal Oliver Wallace says America’s Choice “has become part of the fabric of what we do here at Tulsa Central (Fine and Performing Arts High School).”

In the fall, Central began offering math and literacy Ramp-Up courses for 60 ninth-grade students.

As part of Ramp-Up, teachers frequently benchmark students’ progress and address areas of weakness. Wallace says Central students have already made gains in math and literacy and seem eager to continue their improvement.

“They have this (Ramp-Up) class every day to keep momentum in the classroom, to keep the culture in the classroom vibrant and conducive to learning, and they have to work very hard to keep up with the teacher to make progress,” he says. “It’s pretty intense, and our kids have received it well.”

James says literacy and math are key focuses for America’s Choice and are pivotal to reducing school dropout rates.

“Often in this country, we have students that have passed through the grade levels and, for example, may get to the ninth-grade level with a third- and fourth-grade reading level,” he says. “That’s tough when it gets to that point … Sometimes when they get to the eighth and ninth grade with a third- and fourth-grade reading level, they are disengaged. It leads to that dropout factor.

“So we have to make sure that we’re giving kids the skill sets that they need at the high school (level) because if they can’t compute and they can’t read, they are up against all kinds of increased barriers that will continue to cause them problems as they move forward.”

Central’s teachers have also appreciated the extra training and structure the Ramp-Up curriculum provides, Wallace says.
“This teaching (approach) also allows the teachers to be more effective and more prepared for students’ learning,” he says. “They seem to enjoy the result of their preparation as it relates to kids in the classroom because the program really helps them be creative but also provides the structure for them versus just teachers having to be creative and think of things to do.”

James says teacher preparation is key to improving student achievement and ensuring that they are ready for college-level work.

“Professional development is central to this in terms of the success to ensure that teachers have the skill sets and are equipped with the latest research and knowledge just to make sure they’re doing the right things in the classroom,” he says.

Both Wallace and Schmidt say they are looking forward to continuing and expanding America’s Choice offerings at their schools. Wallace says he would like to expand Quality Core teaching strategies school-wide to improve instructional effectiveness and help students prepare for grade-level academic content. Schmidt says his school plans to offer a full slate of Ramp-Up courses in literacy and math this year, as well as add a series of math and literacy Navigator courses.

And while Schmidt says teachers have become used to watching education fads come and go, America’s Choice’s techniques have already proved to be beneficial.

“These are rock-solid techniques … that really benefit kids,” he says.