Middle Schools Push for Achievement

Middle Schools Push for Achievement

Thoreau and Kilmer work new programs into daily operations.

As Joyce Kilmer and Henry David Thoreau middle schools prepare to guide another class of Vienna-area sixth-graders from the elementary school environment to one of bells, lockers and multiple teachers, each is working on its own methods for continuing to improve its performance.

In an example of the private/public partnerships becoming more common among county schools, Thoreau has been working with the defense technology company Northrop Grumman to develop the “eAssessments” program it will try out this year, said Principal Mark Greenfelder.

Schools around the country have been experimenting with different means of “formative assessments” in order to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, he said. Formative assessments are frequent and often are not graded, as opposed to summative assessments, such as final exams, which test learning only after lessons have been completed. The idea is to remedy lagging studies before they become poor grades.

The eAssessments program is designed to be Web-based but can also be used to produce pencil-and-paper tests, said Greenfelder. “It’s a very, very exciting opportunity for our school and for the county,” he said of the program’s test run, noting that it places Thoreau on the cutting edge of academic assessment technology.

Northrop Grumman has been working to build the technological platform for the program for the last two years, while the school has been creating the content. The system will be simpler and user-friendlier and will offer teachers more flexibility and control than the school’s last online assessment program, said Greenfelder. It will be used to test students’ learning at least once every four weeks in the four core subjects — math, English, science and social studies — and the results will shape future instruction.

The school will continue its “Time to Soar” program, a 30-minute period that offers a chance for students to get one-on-one help from teachers, particularly if assessments have shown they are lagging. It is named for Thoreau’s eagle mascot.

“We piloted Time to Soar last year, and it was really very successful,” said Greenfelder. “We think we have a much better program this year,” he added, saying students should have more opportunity to get the assistance they need.

Thoreau is also working to expand and refine its after-school program, named Screaming Eagles, and this year created the position of after-school program coordinator, which is being filled by former special education teacher Jen Polk. Screaming Eagles offers academic assistance and sports activities. Greenfelder said the school is assessing students’ needs and reaching out to the community to determine changes that need to be made in the program.

THE COUNTY AWARDED a Teacher Leadership Development grant to Thoreau to pay for extended contracts for about 15 teachers, who put in time over the summer to work on teaching strategies.

The school’s enrollment is again about equal with its capacity, hovering at approximately 750 students, still the smallest stand-alone middle school in the county. “I think it gives us the opportunity to get to know each other and the students a little better,” Greenfelder said of the school’s size.

Turnover in staff, he said, was minimal, with a few new hires due to program expansions included in a total of about half a dozen new members on the school’s approximately 70-person teaching staff.

Although no official data is out regarding the results of last year’s Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) testing, Greenfelder said Thoreau appeared to have about a 98 percent pass rate in every subject except seventh-grade math, which was a new testing area. Thoreau came in around the 80th percentile in that subject.

The school will also have a new assistant principal this year. Dana Walker “brings a rich and diverse background to Thoreau,” said Greenfelder.

“Middle school is my passion,” said Walker. “It’s what I’ve always taught, and it’s what I’ve always trained.” Hailing from Chicago, Walker began teaching in Illinois, he said. He then trained middle school teachers for the National Middle School Association. After moving to Fairfax County, he taught science for 10 years at Rachel Carson and Liberty middle schools. Most recently, he was an intern assistant principal at Francis Scott Key Middle School.

He said he regards middle school as a critical transition period in a child’s development and enjoys the challenge of influencing students’ decision-making for the better during that time. “I just know middle school’s a hard time,” he said. “But I like to be in that mix.”

Walker will be in charge of the seventh grade this year and will stay with the class when they become eighth-graders next year.

Back-to-School Night at Thoreau will be Sept. 12 at 7 p.m.

KILMER’S BACK-TO-SCHOOL NIGHT, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 7, will feature a promotional video with the theme “Extreme School Makeover,” said Kilmer assistant principal Michael Fentress. He noted that the school made some major changes to its teaching methods last year, after he and Principal Deborah Hernandez arrived. Also, he said, parents enjoy seeing footage of their own children being well treated at orientation, where the video will be filmed.

The biggest change last year was the initiation of the Writing across the Curriculum program, wherein all students write a paper in every subject each quarter. The county has been placing an emphasis on writing because reading and writing skills are important to all disciplines, said Fentress.

A student’s papers are graded for content in the classes for which they are written, but they all find their way back to his or her English teacher so the teacher can assess the student’s overall writing progress. Students are also taught editing skills in their English classes, and each paper is peer-edited, as well as being reviewed by two teachers.

“It’s been a pretty complex process to put into place, but now it’s like clockwork,” said Fentress. Following last year’s implementation of the program, he said, the school jumped from the 92nd to the 98th percentile on the writing portion of the SOLs.

Another highlight of the Back-to-School Night video will be Kilmer’s system, put into place last year, for e-mailing progress reports to parents. Every two weeks, parents get an e-mail from each of their child’s seven teachers, giving a “snapshot” of the student’s performance, said Fentress. “It’s really had a very huge impact on achievement in the school,” he said, noting that more students are making the honor roll. Kilmer is the first school in the county to employ the bi-weekly reports.

Few new changes are planned for this year, he said. “We’ve put some major things into place over the last year, and now we want to continue to fine tune them.”

There will be some minor changes. Like Thoreau, Kilmer will also be looking for ways to expand its after-school program, Cougar’s Den, in order to incorporate more activities for more students.

New this year will be Cougar’s Paws, a 26-minute period for as-needed student-teacher interaction, similar to Thoreau’s Time to Soar. As part of the effort to make room for the period, school will start five minutes earlier, at 7:35 a.m.

For the second year in a row, enrollment at Kilmer has jumped by about 100 students, bringing this year's expected total into the neighborhood of 1,070. A set of “learning cottages” — four trailers connected under one roof — arrived at the school a couple of weeks ago and will be put into use this year. Kilmer was already using two trailers, which were added last year.

Fentress said one reason for rising enrollment is an increase in the number of GT (gifted and talented) students in the region. As a GT center, Kilmer draws such students from the surrounding area.

Five new teaching positions were filled to accommodate the growth of the student body, and Fentress said there will be a total of about 20 new staffers at the school.

With last year’s SOL testing data still unofficial, Fentress said the school was “pretty positive and happy with what we’ve heard to far.”

The school did not put any teachers on extended contracts for the year.