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A closer look at MDUSD’s plan to increase graduation requirements, without bringing back summer school

By Theresa Harrington
Monday, September 16th, 2013 at 2:32 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district.

At its Sept. 11 meeting, the Mt. Diablo school board unanimously agreed to phase in more stringent graduation requirements, partially restoring cuts made more than three years ago. When the district cut requirements from 230 to 200 units in 2010, the rationale was that it would save money because it wouldn’t need to offer summer school to students who failed previously required classes, including a third year of math.

But even though the district will soon expect students to add 20 units to their courseloads — including a third year of math — it does not plan to bring back summer school.

I spoke to a few outside experts about whether this is a sound idea and received a variety of responses. As quoted in my story about the increase, Contra Costa County Office of Education’s Associate Superintendent for Educational Services Pamela Comfort said the district should look at ways to help students meet the new requirements.

“Summer school would not be the only way you could do that,” she said, “although there’s been research showing that well-designed summer school programs help students to achieve.”

She stressed the importance of trying to ensure that students are successful the first time they take a class, but added that districts should offer alternatives, if students fail.

Similarly, Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, said in an e-mail that the value of summer school may depend on its quality.

“The evidence is unclear as to whether it motivates restless adolescents to require more hours tied to desks in conventional classrooms, as opposed to facilitating internships and real-world experience,” he said. “If the old option of summer school was mainly remedial, forcing more seat time could backfire, undercutting their motivation. But if students are challenged with higher level or innovative classes, this could advance learning, even their readiness for college.”

Michael Kirst, professor of education at Stanford and President of the state Board of Education, said the district should look at its priorities across the board as it reinstates cuts.

“My guess is they’ll put the summer school in as (the requirements) hit,” he said. “You’d have to know what all their priorities are on the ground. But it seems that they know that it’s related to summer school and you have to be able to make up credits.”

Rose Lock, assistant superintendent for Student Achievement and School Support, explained in an e-mail that the district has devised other ways to help students succeed with the stricter requirements. Here’s what she wrote:

“As you heard the Board discussion at the last Board meeting, we have to begin with high expectations for all our students. For the past two years, our district has been strategically focused on developing a comprehensive system of support for all students to achieve at the highest level. Our staffs are continuing to refine their practice as professional learning communities where our shared values are collaboration, powerful first instruction, use of common assessments, and directed intervention.

During the 2012-13 school year, principals and teams of teachers from all of our schools participated in 4 full days of Response to Intervention (RTI) professional development. They gained information and learned strategies that are helping them to formulate and implement a systemic process to ensure every student will receive the time and support needed to learn at high levels. Many of our schools have identified time during the school day for students to access additional support. In addition, teachers are using benchmark and formative assessments to determine what skills and concepts students are not mastering so the support is targeted. This response system will help us focus on students specific needs immediately and not wait until they fail.

Also in 2012-2013, we provided training in an overview of the Common Core for every district teacher in the district. We also had ongoing training throughout the year on the Common Core for secondary math and English teachers as well as elementary teacher leaders. Almost 1200 teachers took courses in our district’s Summer Learning Academy this past summer. Many of the 52 courses focused on implementation of the Common Core.

For this school year, we are preparing to expand the professional development for all teachers in Common Core. The goal, of course, is to ensure that our teachers are prepared to implement the CCSS and shift instructional practices that support more rigorous content and higher and deeper level thinking for our students.

This past August, the district’s RTI professional development continued for all principals and their school teams with a focus on behavior interventions and maintaining a positive learning environment. During this school year, all secondary and many elementary school teams will participate in the next phase of the district’s professional development plan focusing on the best first instruction. The training is based on Dr. Robert Marzano’s research on the most effective instructional strategies.

Hundreds of our high school students are enrolled in academies in all five of our high schools. We continue to explore adding academies and strengthening the existing ones. Students in academies have shown to achieve at higher levels including higher graduation rates. MDUSD is part of the AB790 Linked Learning Pilot Program that will help to strengthen our academies and increase participation.

We will continue to provide Cyber High for students who need remediation and to make up credits. We will also continue to explore other online curriculum for our students. Our adult school has also been able to offer limited summer school classes for some seniors and juniors to make up credits for graduation.”

When I interviewed incoming Superintendent Nellie Meyer about the district’s plan to increase graduation requirements, she said students need need someone who pushes them, someone who monitors what they are doing, and a relationship with an adult who cares, in order to succeed. She was surprised MDUSD does not have academic counselors who meet regularly with students to guide them through their four years in high school.

If students fail to thrive under Lock’s plan, they could end up transferring to alternative high school programs to make up credits, which are far more expensive than comprehensive high schools.

Do you believe MDUSD students will be able to meet the increased graduation requirements under the district’s plan, as outlined by Lock?

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