Keagin Brooks’ second math class of the day is turning around years of frustration about the subject — not quite understanding algebra basics and growing accustomed to test results that lag behind other subjects. A few hours after her Honors Algebra II class, the 16-year-old junior returns to the same math room for Algebra II Lab, a course the school created to help dozens of students address past math lapses and stay on top of a challenging upper-level math class.
“This allows us to connect at a different level,” teacher Justin Scott explains. “It lets you have targeted conversations — and chase a few rabbits.” The additional time and interaction tailored to specific rough spots gives students a better chance to perform well on the ACT and see a path to succeed in higher math.
For Keagin, the lab time has meant understanding concepts like how to find square roots when the problem wasn’t an exact square. “I knew I needed more help,” she said. “I’ve known all my life that math has been one of my struggles. I love to know how to do things, but sometimes, what we hear in class and just doing paper homework doesn’t click for me.”
At Murray High, a school that produces ACT scores well above the state average and high overall proficiency rates on state tests, school leaders and faculty said that long-term success is a result of prioritizing strategies and supports that help more students fully understand state standards and learning targets.
Lab classes that allow more students to take honors-level core subject classes are one approach. Another is assigning all teachers to honors and non-honors courses, giving all students greater access to strong teachers and ensuring that all teachers recognize the spectrum of learning challenges the school faces. Solid connections between students and teachers promote an ability to quickly intervene when students fall behind or experience personal challenges. Such a culture also builds student ownership in focused classrooms and achievement.
“We want to know how they are doing,” said Teresa Speed, the principal. “We want our high expectations to be clear. We show students that they can exceed what they think they can do.”
Tutoring and personal conferences are readily available. The faculty closely monitors how each student is progressing toward academic benchmarks and where they stand on pre-ACT and ACT testing.
Widening student success is a top challenge, Speed said. Over her 16 years as principal, the school has remained among Kentucky’s highest performing schools even as poverty significantly increased, rising from a free- and reduced-price lunch population of about 15 percent in 2002 to over 40 percent now. Speed said that an intentional focus on meeting student needs, tracking progress, and creating a culture of productive and connected classrooms has been key to getting results.
‘If you’re going to remediate after not meeting benchmark, why not before?’ the Murray High math department asks in a presentation on the lab class designed to place more students into Honors Algebra II and assure success.
Speed leads the way in connecting with students. A fixture at the entrance each morning, she greets and hugs each student — occasionally allowing a high-five for those who would rather avoid an up-close pat on the back. During individual greetings, she asks about recent or upcoming athletic events, how work in a particular class is going, or compliments a sunny morning demeanor.
“Here, instead of just being a teacher, they care,” said junior Hunter Utley. The principal’s outreach is a constant reminder that adults are working to help students. He called Speed unmissable — literally. “If you get by her without a hug, she will say something to you at lunch,” Utley said. “She cares about every single person. When you have that person who is there every morning to give a hug and congratulate you on what you’ve done, that encourages everyone. As soon as you walk in, the day’s already better.”
Speed said that her message is that the school stands with its students. “I give them my cell phone number and tell them that if they have a question about outfit or what’s going to happen tomorrow — they can contact me.” Building rapport also means she can approach students about making a stronger effort or addressing difficulties.
“I want every kid who walks through that door to know they are valued,” she said. “It’s important that they know me and know that even if they mess up, we still care about them.”
Supporting each student translates naturally to academic goals.
Math teacher Scott said the focus has instituted a “backward design” philosophy that produces “a purposeful set of learning expectations that lead to a predetermined destination.” Though he started his career moving strictly from chapter to chapter, his teaching is now planned to reach the desired final level of math knowledge and skills. To that end, his math explanations often connect with students’ activities and interests — how a parabola traces the arc of a soccer kick or basketball shot. The focus on ensuring more on students succeed has also led to greater availability of resources for practicing math, new ways to repeating work on quizzes to build understanding, or opportunities like the lab classes.
‘I want every kid who walks through that door to know they are valued,’ said Principal Teresa Speed.
English teacher Laurie Edminster said that classes are built around meeting students where they are while pushing them to new ideas and information. “We try to prepare students for the next level,” she said. “That means the next course, the next step, whether it’s work or training or college, and building their ability to think, comprehend and connect.
In a sophomore English class where students are reading through “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Edminster discusses the importance of taking memorable notes. She tells students that they can include doodles or graphic ways to remember scenes, characters and conflicts. She explains to students how different learning techniques engage different parts of the brain. A student at the white board in the front of the room is tasked with identifying words worth adding to a vocabulary list as the class reads passages. He jots “aberration,” and finds a short definition, writing “unexpected change” beside the word. The class discusses the plot and notes symbols that may signal the reader to deeper ideas or events.
The following hour, after classes change, Edmister is leading an Advanced Placement Language and Composition class, covering rhetorical strategies in a 1791 letter that free African-American Benjamin Banneker wrote to draw the attention of Thomas Jefferson to the treatment of black people. Edminster asks for examples of comparative diction and accusatory tone. This hour’s vocabulary word for the board is polysyndeton (A literary device using repeated conjunctions to connect a series of examples).
No matter the level of the class, being ready to learn and understand new material is required if students are going to stretch their horizons.
Lizzy Curtis, a senior, said that the teachers talk to students about how they can be ready for honors or AP courses or other dual-credit or career-focused options. Those discussions make planning for challenging courses less intimidating. “I knew I was smart enough, but they’ve helped me know how to get there,” she said.
Junior Keagin Brooks said that less that halfway through the Algebra II lab class, her worries about being dragged down by math were replaced by confidence. “I feel much more prepared that I did at the beginning of the school year, and knowing what to do is something I can apply to other classes as well,” she said. “I am already helping others who are behind.”
ISSUES IN ACADEMIC SUPPORT
To address student achievement and close achievement gaps, schools need a successful strategy for removing “learning gaps,” areas where misunderstanding or confusion about fundamental academic concepts persist and, in many cases, compound to become major subject-area deficiencies. Some questions that might spark a local conversation:
\\\\\ How does your school identify and address existing weaknesses in individual knowledge or skills?
\\\\\ Does your school or district analyze specific areas of academic content where students show weakness, both to identify areas where teaching may need to strengthened for current or future students as well as areas where a large number of students may need review or help?
\\\\\ In courses that students are currently taking, how does your school or district monitor and address areas where students have failed to master important academic content that will influence future learning?
For many schools, the ability to spot and address learning gaps is influenced by how classroom assessments are designed and used.
Data provides an opportunity to not just grade students, but to identify areas needing extra teaching or student work. Clearly defined intervention and support systems should help students address academic weak spots, catch up on meeting academic standards and be positioned to succeed in challenging academic work.
\\\\\ Academic supports can take many forms, from formal in-school intervention time to tutoring, mentoring, before- or after-school study time, online academic instruction. Like Murray High’s lab classes, some schools create instructional time to guide students through material they previously failed to master or to prepare for current or upcoming academic work.
Education author Suzy Pepper Rollins of Georgia encourages schools to emphasize acceleration for students identified for additional help rather than an approach focused on remediation.
“The primary focus of remediation is mastering concepts of the past,” Rollins wrote in her 2014 book Learning in the Fast Lane. “Acceleration, on the other hand, strategically prepares students for success in the present—this week, on this content.” She examines the contrasting approaches to helping students address learning gaps in an excerpt from the book.
\\\\\ Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy which provides online explanation of various academic topics, discussed the importance of mastering fundamental concepts in a 2015 TED Talk. He begins by noting how students with “shaky” skills often dismiss their potential in a subject and how learning gaps accumulate to sabotage some students. While many schools address gaps that students possess, they lack structures or opportunities to address them. In his 10-minute speech, Khan notes that helping students identify and correct academic weaknesses is becoming more important to succeed economically. The Khan Academy also launched a non-profit independent school in California in 2014 focused on student mastery, Khan Lab School.
Each month, the BRIGHT SPOTS blog showcases impressive learning in Kentucky schools.
Read the profiles of the schools featured in 2018.
ABOUT MURRAY HIGH \\\\\
RACE: 20% minority
INCOME: 40% eligible for free/reduced price meals
\\\\\ ACT scores for Murray High stand out, as the school average for juniors reached 22.0 in 2018. Over 74 percent of the school’s juniors met the state ACT benchmark in English, 67 percent in math, and 59 percent in reading — all well above the state average. A breakdown of 2017 ACT scores showed achievement gaps between white and African-American students, but the difference was slightly less than the state average. For example, the average ACT score in English was 21.8 for for white students and 18.0 for African-Americans at the school. Statewide, the averages for the two groups were 19.7 and 15.7. In ACT math, Murray’s white students averaged a 21.7 while African-American pupils averaged 19.4, versus state averages of 19.8 and 17.0.
\\\\\ On state tests, the small number of minority students at each grade level means that Hispanic and African-American pupils are only occasionally reported in disaggregated state results (the state does not report results for groups represented by fewer than 10 students). The small minority population can lead to significant swings in results from year to year. One example was 2017 and 2018. In 2017, state results were reported for African-American students in reading, with 69 percent scoring proficient or above compared to 79 percent of white students. About 70 percent of students whose families qualified for free- or reduced-price meals scored proficient or better. In 2018, as the state moved to a new accountability system, state figures showed 61 percent of all students proficient or above in reading, while 31 percent of African-American students scoring proficient or better in reading. The proficient-or-better rate in reading for students whose families qualified for free- or reduced-price meals was 50 percent. In 2018, state scores for Hispanic students at Murray were reported, showing 45.5 percent scored proficient or better in reading.
\\\\\ Murray earned a Silver Medal in the 2018 U.S. News & World Report Best High Schools rankings of public high schools.