Monday, August 28, 2017

Our challenge: engage every student in learning

The sun is setting earlier, the air is a little crisper, and student athletes have returned to the track and the field for fall sports practices – all signaling that summer’s end is near. I hope you were able to relax, have fun with family and friends, travel and rejuvenate over the summer break, and are now as ready and energized as I am for the start of school!

Summer reading

Summer vacation offers time to catch up on reading, whether it be reading for pleasure or reading to learn. Just as our students were given a reading assignment this summer so was the district’s leadership team. Although students typically get to select which books to read, my administrators and I all read the same book:“Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement” by Eric Jensen.
As any student will tell you, reading assignments do not end after the final word on the last page has been read. There is typically a report or a project associated with the book. Same holds true for my administrative team, whose assignment is to collaborate throughout the school year to develop and present professional learning opportunities for teachers and staff based on the strategies outlined in the book.

The leadership team agrees that this is an important initiative because over the past several years the percentage of students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch has grown in our schools. The increase in poverty is not unique to Watervliet. According to a Sept. 2015 report by the Capital District Regional Planning Commission (CDRPC), the number of people living in poverty has risen across the Capital Region, with children making up a majority of the increase.

Poverty and the achievement gap

The same CDRPC report indicates that despite similar attendance rates, students in urban schools lag behind their suburban and rural counterparts with respect to test scores and graduation rates. That is not surprising given the mountains of research on poverty and its effects on learning. I share the data below as two examples of the research:

  • A March 2014 report "Poverty: The Effect on the Whole Child" by Save our Schools, Inc. found that 40 percent of children living in poverty are not prepared for elementary learning.
  • The US Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics suggests that by the end of 4th grade, African-American, Hispanic and low-income students are already two years below grade level; and by the time they reach the 12th grade, they have fallen four years behind.
The question becomes, how do we change this? In his book, Jensen, a former middle school teacher, says that to persuade kids who face adversity on a regular basis to graduate, we must keep them in school. To accomplish this, our classrooms need to be relevant, engaging and nurturing places where kids feel safe and respected. The author emphasizes engagement as a key factor in motivating economically disadvantaged kids to stay in school and on track to succeed, while adding that it benefits all students regardless of economic status, as well.

For these reasons, we have chosen to focus professional learning for staff on increasing engagement in our classrooms. All teachers – kindergarten through grade 12 – will have an opportunity to read the book during the school year and participate in small and large group activities and discussions on the themes and strategies described in this book.

As educators, we have the power to make positive differences in the lives of our students. I ask you to challenge yourselves every day by asking, “Am I doing everything in my power to make sure that my students are engaged in learning?”

Free school breakfast/lunch extended to WJSHS students 

We have an opportunity this year to address another known barrier to learning: hunger.

Following the success of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) at the elementary level this past year, we applied for and received approval to expand the CEP to Watervliet Junior/Senior High students beginning in September 2017. That means every student – prekindergarten through high school – will be eligible for free school meals: breakfast and lunch. Students participating in after-school extracurricular programs will also receive afternoon snacks free of charge.

The CEP is a national program, overseen locally by the State Education Department, that allows eligible high-needs schools to serve breakfast and lunch free of charge to all students, regardless of family income. We first implemented the program at the elementary school level, which was successful in raising participation rates for lunch by about 11 percent and breakfast by 27 percent.

The provision, authorized under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, permits eligible schools, like ours, to provide meal service and after-school snacks to all students at no charge. Our district qualified for the CEP based on the number of students who are eligible to be directly certified for free school meals.

I have asked administrators and staff to encourage students to participate in the free school meals program because when students are hungry, they struggle to learn. By offering healthy, well-balanced meals at no charge, we can alleviate the distraction that hunger creates and allow every student, every day to focus on learning.

Welcome back Cannoneers!

Nothing says back-to-school like a Friday night “under the lights!” If you’re ready for some football, I invite you to come out and support Watervliet's varsity football team as they kick off the 2017 season with the first home game on Friday, September 1 at 7:00 p.m. vs. Taconic Hills. Go Cannoneers!

In the meantime, enjoy this final full week of summer vacation! I look forward to welcoming back teachers and staff on Tuesday, Sept. 5, and greeting our students and families for the first day of the 2017-18 school year on Wednesday, Sept. 6.