A school with 2,300 students might seem an unlikely place for individual voices to stand out.
Still, 13-year-olds Abigail Pena Lopez and Jenny Tello Montejo feel encouraged as they discuss the possibilities for proposing a mural to emphasize how the school accepts people of all nationalities. Their research counts students representing 42 countries at Moore High School in Louisville and its attached middle school. They know the situation: Abi’s parents are both from Cuba. Jenny’s mother is from Mexico and her father is from the Dominican Republic.
The work is part of an eighth-grade class that provides time to develop “passion projects,” where students apply their interests to a current issue. Abi and Jenny decided that informing everyone about the diverse background of the student body and demonstrating a welcoming school culture needed emphasis.
“You want people to feel more included,” Jenny said. “If your family is new in this country and you see this mural, it will help you to know you are accepted.”
In the same room where Jenny and Abi sketch a mural design with dozens of national flags and cultural symbols, other students work on projects for sharing suicide-prevention information, organizing a collection of stuffed animals to donate to charity, researching formulas for hair-care products with more natural ingredients, and more.
This “passion project” time is one example of how Moore is nurturing students’ ability to identify and build personal interests while making academic material more relevant. The goal is higher quality work, stronger achievement and skills that better prepare students for success after high school.
Principal Rob Fulk said that the school began to focus time for projects that apply academic material — an emphasis often referred to as “deeper learning” — after internal discussions about what a diploma should deliver and what kind of learning experiences Moore was providing. That introspection moved the school toward the idea that students needed a greater voice and stake in everyday learning.
“I truly believe the more often we look at experiences that we can provide for our students, the higher yield we will have in both what they will learn and their outlook on school,” Fulk said in a recent message to the staff. “I encourage and support you to get messy, loud and experiment with strategies, projects and ideas that put the work in our kids’ hands.”
Discussions about what a diploma should mean caused teachers to take the lead in making academic material more relevant and designing opportunities for students to identify and build personal interests. The goal is stronger achievement and preparation for success after high school.
Since last year, a core group of teachers has explored new approaches. A quick, surprise win came when the school transformed its open house into a showcase of student work for the community. An evening event to build support for the exhibition night drew a packed house, and the showcase of student work and performances last December drew more than 600 people.
Building a reputation for meaningful student work involves designing more classwork that connects with real-world issues, organizations and students’ own suggestions.
“As teachers, we wrestle with the question of ‘How do I reach them?’ ” said Josh Konczal, a sixth-grade math teacher and early member of the deeper learning team. “This is a huge way to do it. That has made teaching and learning more exciting for me as well.”
“The challenge is creating work that kids can be proud of,” Fulk added. “It’s hard to be proud of a worksheet.”
In Moore’s work building deeper learning, central elements involve encouraging students to clarify individual interests and strengths, explore their point-of-view, and develop a strong sense of purpose and voice. The school’s efforts over the past two years draw a clear line between engaging students and personal empowerment. Stronger learning is a tool for individual growth and achievement, and the deeper learning team of teachers is now focused on defining quality as the approach spreads.
At a school that has been identified among the lowest performers and needing concentrated assistance for a turnaround, the emergence of deeper learning is seen as a jolt to equip and challenge students in fresh ways.
‘The challenge is creating work that kids can be proud of. It’s hard to be proud of a worksheet,’ said Principal Rob Fulk.
The emphasis fits with the new Backpack of Success Skills initiative across the Jefferson County district, a focus of Superintendent Marty Pollio. As the district seeks to significantly boost academic results and close achievement gaps, it has also expanded its definition of experiences all students need for the world beyond high school.
Academic achievement defines the district’s first goal: for each student to become a prepared and resilient learner. Beyond that, the “backpack” — an electronic portfolio where each student can store top classwork as evidence — calls for exploring community and global issues, experimenting with and fine-tuning solutions, writing and communicating to clearly conveys ideas, and collaborating in ways that show listening and participation as part of teams and groups.
“We know we’ve got to move the needle here on math and reading,” said Carmen Coleman, the district’s chief academic officer. “We also can’t keep students on the sidelines. What we really want to leverage is a better experience for kids. If all students are going to have the artifacts the backpack requires, they need experiences that are going to lead to that.”
Recently, Irma Bektic’s freshman seminar students worked to define a problem they wanted to work toward solving. Examples ranged from recipes for pizzas both healthy and tasty to new ways to use waste that could be diverted from landfills.
Bektic said that making students’ interests a starting point for learning produces more focused work. “This gets me buy-in,” the math teacher said. “When they see they are powerful and that school gives them time to do stuff they care about, they get more involved.”
Moore’s emphasis fits with the Jefferson County district’s new Backpack of Success Skills initiative, an effort to improve results and close achievement gaps while redefining the essentials that all students need.
Moore senior Ariana Tulay said that the school’s deeper learning emphasis has been a welcome change — opening opportunities to make connections in the community and explore issues that have helped clarify her goals beyond high school.
“Schools can be so constricted, and so fearful of getting out of a box,” Ariana said. “This allows students to learn what we have to offer. I think our school is still taking baby steps toward deeper learning, but we are seeing the positive effects of giving people a way to put themselves into their work. It creates small leaders who are more informed. When people know who they are, it creates strength. That makes the world less scary.”
Ariana is involved with creating a student-led organization in the school to increase civic participation and encourage students to become voters. Through that work, she has also connected with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a Louisville group with similar aims for the community.
English teacher Matt Kaufmann said that watching the growth in students over the past two years has been inspiring. The new approach of “expanding the stage for kids,” he said, has propelled the school into promising new community partnerships and service projects.
The deeper learning team of teachers at Moore remains a relatively small group seeking to grow. Fueled by impressive student engagement and obvious tie-ins with the district’s expanded goals, Principal Fulk is eager to see the movement expand. However, he also believes that requiring the approach is not the best way to ensure that it thrives.
“This has to live at the teacher level,” Fulk said. “I don’t think it can live as a mandate. Teachers have to buy in on their own. I want to encourage it, and it is obvious that our community likes it a lot. Many of our parents didn’t have a good school experience, but they like walking around our school and seeing the awesome things their kids are doing.”
ISSUES IN DEEPER LEARNING
While efforts to reduce achievement gaps often focus on test scores, the issue grows from the opportunities and environment offered to all students. Allowing students to understand and develop personal strengths and interests can be an important way to build relationships that can fuel achievement. Using class work to understand and address relevant applications of academic content can also motivate students to become more invested in learning. Some questions that might spark a local conversation:
\\\\\ How does your school connect academic concepts with real-world examples? Is this approach seen as an “enrichment” opportunity, or are all students exposed to relevant ways to apply learning?
\\\\\ In what ways does your school or district examined whether the requirements for earning a diploma connect to the skills needed to succeed in life and the adult world?
\\\\\ How are local teachers supported in exploring and implementing new learning approaches or learning more about skills that employers or postsecondary educators say are needed to succeed beyond high school?
In addition to test scores, educators need to focus on the forces that create — and can reduce — achievement gaps. At Moore High School, for example, student engagement and challenge is now viewed as a fundamental force for academic improvement. “Ground Zero of equity is expectations for kids,” said Rob Fulk, the Moore principal. “Raising the level of the quality of work demonstrated gives students ownership that becomes an accountability piece because it matters to them and to their peers.”
\\\\\ An early and still prominent force in the drive for deeper learning has been the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The group describes deeper learning as a set of six interrelated competencies: mastering rigorous academic content, learning how to think critically and solve problems, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, directing one’s own learning, and developing an academic mindset — a belief in one’s ability to grow. Teaching Channel offers a series of videos showcasing deeper learning as a concept and in practice.
\\\\\ The Jefferson County district has created a four-person department to spread deeper learning across schools and support teachers such as those at Moore. The department works with teachers on understanding new approaches, making strong connections between projects and academic standards, and implementing deeper learning and personalized learning in more classrooms. “We believe this is the way we have to go to reach and engage every student,” said Jo McKim, a deeper learning resource teacher. To learn more about Jefferson County’s Backpack of Success Skills initiative, which formally launched this school year, a short video explains the basic tenets. Another video explains how students will electronically collect evidence of school work demonstrating each success skill.
Each month, the BRIGHT SPOTS blog showcases impressive learning in Kentucky schools.
IN NOVEMBER \\\\\
AN INTENTIONAL CULTURE at Murray High School
ABOUT MOORE MIDDLE/HIGH \\\\\
ENROLLMENT: 2,300 in grades 6-12
RACE: 60% minority
INCOME: 76% eligible for free/reduced price meals
\\\\\ Low scores on state tests caused Moore’s middle school program to enter the state’s Priority School status in 2015. It remains one of Jefferson County’s “accelerated improvement schools,” meaning it gets extra attention and support from the district. In a diagnostic review released in January 2018, the firm AdvancED rated the learning culture’s success at developing learners’ attitudes, beliefs and skills needed for success as “emerging” and the school culture’s promotion of creativity, innovation and collaborative problem-solving as “needs improvement.”
The report noted improvements in leadership since Fulk became principal, in particular for instilling “a culture of inclusiveness and fairness.” The review team also noted that “teachers expressed a shared belief that they wanted every student to succeed and were eager to improve student learning.” In the 12 categories rated for learning capacity, the review team rated four in the “needs improvement” category, three as “emerging,” and five as “meets expectations.”
\\\\\ Based on 2017 state test scores, Hispanic students performed at or near the same level as white students at both the middle school and high school levels, while significant achievement gaps existed for African American students and pupils with disabilities. In all areas, however, the school scored well below state averages. Based on 2018 results, the high school was designated for “transitional support” based on disability and English language learner scores. The middle school’s scores again qualified for the state’s most intensive “comprehensive support” status, meaning that achievement fell in the bottom 5 percent of the state.
\\\\\ Despite significant, long-standing achievement issues, Moore is focused on changes to its culture and academics. Among recent noteworthy accomplishments: Moore was well represented among student presenters at the 2018 Jefferson County Public Schools Idea Festival in February, a day of conversation-starting speeches by students. In April, a Moore student was one of eight students from Kentucky and southern Indiana whose original short play was selected and produced as part of the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 2018 New Voices Young Playwrights Festival.