Billings middle school implements education initiative
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Riverside Middle School principal Kevin Kirkman wields a barcode scanner like a cashier. But he’s not scanning gifts or produce — he’s checking out students’ grades, which pop up instantly as he scans a student’s planner or ID card.
He asks a student about a C in a class on a December afternoon. The student cites a missing assignment.
“So you’re going to do that over the break?” Kirkman asks as more of a suggestion.
Riverside has rolled out a new academic program aimed at getting students more targeted help this school year, and leaders are optimistic that it will move the needle on academic achievement.
The WIN program (What I Need) is implemented in 30-minute periods, four days per week, focusing on different subjects each day. Teachers can structure periods based on what they think students need — extra help on certain skills, time to work on a project or make up a quiz, or a chance to layer on instruction for high achievers.
The schedule brings the type of instruction that’s typically available before or after school into students’ usual hours.
“It has to be built into the school day,” Kirkman told The Billings Gazette . “We know that our kids don’t stay as much before or after school as we’d like.”
The concept piggybacks off collaborative groups where teachers meet on Wednesday and that result in early-outs for those days. Riverside picked it up from a training conference on the topic.
Better coordination between teachers helps them schedule sessions that students need without overlapping, and it helps them bring together students in different classes who need time to work on the same concept.
One Thursday’s schedule included time for students to work on a robot-building project, a math activity, and session to work on missing assignments. Some sessions were “closed” — teachers tabbed specific students for specific work.
That helps teachers differentiate instruction. During a lesson, not every student soaks in instruction at the same rate. Some might struggle to grasp a concept, while others get it right away. Trying to support struggling students while keeping others engaged can be difficult in a full classroom.
“If we move on, they’re just going to continue to fall behind,” Kirkman said.
With the extra session, teachers can work with a few students from each class who might be struggling with a certain topic, giving them specific instruction. Or a group of students ready to move on from a topic can get time to work on a different project.
The idea speaks to a concept that district superintendent Greg Upham frequently references: students who start off at a disadvantage compared to others need more time to catch up. District assessments show schools that serve low-income neighborhoods tend to have worse scores in math and reading beginning in kindergarten.
Achievement gaps tend to linger, matching a national correlation between student achievement and family income. The kids who start behind in kindergarten don’t have great odds of catching up come high school; they need to make more than average improvements to do so.
Riverside serves a higher proportion of low-income families than other Billings middle schools.
By restructuring an advisory period, “we gave teachers another 30 minutes to have contact with kids,” said assistant principal Nathan Talafuse.
Zachary Sharp, a science teacher, had students working on two different projects, including assembling a robotic car. He took one student into the hall to test the car out.
“Lot easier than what you thought, huh?” he told the student after a successful run.
When students aren’t tabbed by a teacher to attend a certain session, or need to make up work, it’s on them to decide what sessions will help them most.
Whether it’s responsibility or the knowledge that a missing-work checkup is a bar code away, missing assignments have been cut by more than one-third this year at Riverside.
Lewis and Clark middle school is using a similar program, and other middle schools are looking at Riverside’s model for potential use, Kirkman said.
He and Talafuse expect that improvements like that will manifest in the thrice-yearly tests that students take by the end of the year, hopefully with higher growth for students than in the past.
“You’re not leaving kids behind,” Kirkman said.