Last Thursday, the Alexandria School Board unveiled a specific and aggressive list of goals it hopes to realize this school year and beyond, laying out a skeleton of objectives that will eventually comprise a full-bodied strategic plan. Intended to raise student achievement, the plan could alter the face of the public school system for years to come.
Though only two of the initiatives have been approved by the Board thus far and the rest remain up for debate, the drafts contents are the springboard for what officials say will be an inclusive approach to reshape parts of the system. The Board will hear public feedback on the topics Oct. 2 before its members vote on the items.
This is a dialog, Superintendent Dr. Morton Sherman said at the Board meeting. This is an ongoing conversation so that we hear your concerns as representatives of the community and make sure that we can identify the language and respond to it in a professional manner; to say, This makes sense or doesnt make sense.
Led by Superintendent Sherman, the conversations included definitive language addressing strategies to reduce the achievement gap and enhance writing, math and science aptitude among students. The first step is to establish a Strategic Planning Committee, comprised of Board members, school employees and members of the community, to be solidified in October. Once established, the committees job will be to guide the systems various advisory committees toward the goals laid out by the Board and superintendent.
The strategic plan calls next for an in-depth academic analysis of each and every student. The Board intends to identify students strengths and deficiencies by December of this year, informing administrators where and how to best affect change. Sherman described an ideal scenario in which handheld two-way radios could be used at a school for onsite student troubleshooting once the board has a profile of every students academic ability.
This Board and this administration has committed to identify every single student out there so that they will be able to show us by name where we are with specific children, what their needs are and what our plans are, Sherman said. He added that the strategy is an asset model rather than a deficit model. All of our students have strengths, have abilities, have potential. And so, rather than saying this is wrong with them or thats wrong with them, we will try to build on their strengths, identify their needs and to move forward.
The strategy is also meant to bridge the achievement gap namely the gap between minority students and white students that is a major concern locally and nationally, one that Sherman said he would address when he became superintendent this year. School Board members lauded the superintendents leadership thus far, voicing their support for the identification process.
Thats where my comfort level is going to be, said Board member Blanche Maness, who called the achievement gap a grave concern. Im thinking that that is where you are going to hone in on how to help all of our children.
Sherman has earned a reputation among Board members for his not so fast approach, and he cautioned board members that the achievement gap is not pigeonholed to just minority and low-performing students. He emphasized the potential for across-the-board improvement: Even some of our seemingly higher achievement students could go higher, and so part of this is designed for those students as well, Sherman said.
Perhaps the most radical change, if it were to occur, is the implementation of the International Baccalaureate program, a college preparation strategy and curriculum with an international emphasis.
This school year represents the exploration phase in which the central office will identify elementary schools ideal for the programs preliminary stages and determine the programs support among principals and the community because unless its deeply imbedded in the school culture, its just not going to make it, said Sherman, who has implemented the IB program at his previous posts.
The advantage of [the IB program] is it doesnt change the curriculum, Sherman said. It focuses the curriculum around certain attributes as identified by some of the best independent schools across the world. Every single kid special ed. kids and regular ed. kids have chances at being successful in this program.
The IB program consists of three stages: the Primary Years Program, the Middle Years Program and the Diploma Program. Beginning this year, every level will be at least considered if not implemented by 2011, according to the Boards list of goals.
Curriculum changes are afoot as well. To help pass the state-issued accreditation and Annual Yearly Progress standards for both middle schools, officials seek to enhance the math curriculum in grades K through seven so that more students are ready and enrolled for algebra in the eighth grade by fall 2009.
School officials are also putting an emphasis on its literacy initiative through the third grade. Statistics show that last year, 40 percent of students identified as lacking language and writing skills in the fall did not meet the next benchmark in the spring. The Boards goal is to increase that number by 10 percent this spring and an additional 10 percent each year through 2011.
An enhanced elementary science program is also in the works. Officials hope it materializes for the beginning of next school year.
These are not sort of just grand visionary statements, School Board member Arthur Peabody said. At the end of the year, everyone in the community the superintendent, each School Board member will know what we achieved, or barriers we encountered, that might well be challenges for the future.
The complete draft with timelines outlining the School Boards strategic plan can be found on the Alexandria City Public Schools Web site.