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6/12/2012 10:08:00 AM
GCS officials look for new ways to improve student performance
Class schedules, curriculum, and parent-faculty communication all addressed at the first of several summer parent meetings
Grand Canyon Schools Superintendent Sharyl Allen responds to a parentís question during a June 6 meeting held to discuss coming changes in the middle school and high school programs. Clara Beard/WGCN
Grand Canyon Schools Superintendent Sharyl Allen responds to a parentís question during a June 6 meeting held to discuss coming changes in the middle school and high school programs. Clara Beard/WGCN

Grand Canyon School parent Andy Pearce asks a question during a meeting held June 6 to address changes at the school for the coming school year. Clara Beard/WGCN
Grand Canyon School parent Andy Pearce asks a question during a meeting held June 6 to address changes at the school for the coming school year. Clara Beard/WGCN

Clara Beard
Williams-Grand Canyon News Reporter

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - Even though school's out for summer, faculty and administration are still hard at work getting ready for next year.

During a June 6 parent meeting, school officials discussed significant changes for the Grand Canyon School (GCS) 2012-13 school year following their decision to discontinue the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (MYP), focused on 11-16 year olds.

Sixth graders will still be working with Spaulding and Singapore curriculum for reading and math. Seventh and eighth graders will study the Core Knowledge curriculum, which includes math, language arts, science, history, music, art, and PE.

Superintendent Sharyl Allen said she would be better able to answer questions parents had regarding the new system on July 12 when new principal Toby Melster will be present. Until then, parents had questions concerning seventh and eighth grade movement to and from classes, bullying, drugs and alcohol use, the school year trimester versus traditional semester and adequate communication with parents.

Elementary school progress report

Beyond MYP team member Brad Houston started off the meeting with the school's progress to date.

According to test result data, even though elementary students at the school are below average in math, Singapore Math is allowing for some improvements in that area with first and second graders. Third grade has not experienced much of an increase.

"This will pull up our math performance in elementary as it continues to roll out," Houston said.

Reading is at benchmark, meaning elementary students are performing to state standards. Through the Spaulding Method, which focuses on sound rather than letters, the elementary school has made substantial progress.

Allen reported to parents that, starting next year, the Arizona Revised Statutes require a third grade student be held back if they fall behind in reading as indicated on their AIMS test.

"It used to be 'may,' now it is 'will,'" Allen said. "So, the students need to be approaching or meeting those standards in order to have the opportunity to move forward. Kindergarten through second grade parents will be impacted by this change in the state legislature."

The Grand Canyon School District will receive about $12,000 for the elementary teachers to put together a plan for students who fall far below to help improve their reading scores, predominately focused in first and second grade.

Why third grade? Because when students reach fourth grade, Allen said they are no longer learning how to read, they are learning how to apply it.

"We need your help on this, parents," Allen said. "The teachers can't do it without parent support, which means attendance. If they send work home, it's because your child needs practice and what practice does is develop something called automenticity, which is when you no longer have to stop and struggle through words, but it's at a level of recognition so your brain can focus on the next level."

A parent asked how that would affect children with learning disabilities.

"It depends on whether it's an IEP team and whether or not it's a reading disability," Allen said. "English language learner (ELL) students who used to be exempt are no longer exempt."

Spaulding teaches that kids need to have their vocabulary one year above grade level so they can read fluently at grade level.

"Summer reading, reading with your kids, those things will help," Allen said.

Middle and high school report

In math, seventh and eighth grade performance is strong, although 10 graders have faltered with their scores in that department, ending up well below average compared to state level. That's not the case though with their reading and writing and biology, which Houston said is well above the state standard.

"Another thing we look at in high school is how many college courses our high school students have passed. We have a nice trend going in the number of courses completed by GC students. Matching that and our AIMS data. Their ACT tests are consistent with the state average. In math and science they are ahead of the state average," Houston said. "So all in all, high school is looking to be pretty good."

Graduation rates and student attendance are down, however. At GCS, one student out of four fails to graduate.

Changes for 2012-2013 school year

Recently, the GCS Board approved the "Beyond MYP" recommendations that included Mastery Learning. Allen explained that Mastery Learning means a student cannot progress until they master the learning goals at 80 percent or higher, in every course.

Beyond MYP team member Deb Taylor told parents changes will come over time and it will take the school a little time to get all the changes done - around three years is their estimate. Next year, the high school will have rotating classes, more AP and CTE courses, along with advisory periods. Accroding to Taylor, the middle school will operate more like a middle school and less like high school. Sixth grade will stay in one classroom throughout the day, and electives will move to the end of the day. Art band, PE and Spanish will offered.

The six period schedule will remain, but instead of labeling the periods with numbers, they will be with letters. For example, Period One will now be called, Period A, etcetera.

Also in the mix will be a "Phantom Period" or "Period P." This class will meet once a week, every Monday in the second hour. This class period has been set aside for assemblies, pep rallies and meetings. If students have no meetings or assemblies, they will have the opportunity to meet with whichever teacher from which they need extra help.

Teachers can also use "Period P" to overflow their class time if they require it.

"One of the things we know about teenagers is that morning is not their best time," Allen said. "If you study the research around teenage learning, if you start school around 9:30 a.m. for teenagers that would be better. What happens as well as if you move the schedule in this cycle, it allows students to have different times of day that they can engage in different classes.

Phantom Period advisors will monitor six to eight students each.

High school will run from 8:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. with hour-long class periods. Middle school will also start at 8:30 a.m., but will continue 45 minutes longer than high school.

The length of middle school classes will depend upon the teachers.

"They can flex their time pretty much like they do in elementary school," Taylor said. "They can say we have a project here, we have a movie here we can stay in English in this long and then you can go onto math."

For this to happen smoothly, Taylor said the two middle school teachers, humanities and language arts teacher Lori Rommel and a math and science teacher, yet to be hired, would plan out their collaboration in advance.

"Sometimes in the classroom you have those "ah ha" moments, where students are just getting those concepts at the end of the slotted time you have planned. At our current system they have to get up and walk out the door," Taylor said.

Parent Andy Pearce asked why the administration made the decision to have only two teachers in the middle school.

"In order to unhinge the middle school we needed to do that, so that's the reason," Allen said. "It truly becomes more of a middle school focus than a six through 12 grade high school."

Administration is also leaning toward having the teachers rotate classrooms instead of students, as a solution to recent challenges with "hallway movement."

"The goal is to keep kids as safe as possible," Allen said, addressing the behavioral issues the middle school students have encountered in the past.

A parent asked how the new system will adequately prepare students for high school if they will be kept in their classrooms.

"We don't have the answer to that yet," Allen said. "We've been having the discussion what does eighth grade transition look like, just as the challenges as to what sixth grade transition look like. We know we have to figure out how to address those transition points."

For all these changes to successfully to take place, Taylor told parents the district needs their help and support.

"Above all, academic achievement matters, and that's why these changes are taking place," she said.

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