Student engagement takes center stage at Parkway this school year
By: Marcia Guckes
This school year Parkway School District Superintendent Keith Marty and district staff are implementing new ways to engage students, including the increasing number who do not speak English or are living below the poverty level.
According to Marty there are about 550 students who speak any of 35 to 40 different languages and none of them is English. In addition, about 15 percent of the district’s almost 17,500 students are getting free or reduced-price lunches because their family income is below the level of poverty. That level is $22,350 for a family of four according to figures posted on the federal Health and Human Services Department website.
Superintendent Marty’s list of strategies to get all of the district’s students involved includes using student-owned technology, teams of teachers meeting monthly, community partnerships, character education and electronic attendance alerts.
As West Newsmagazine previously reported, Parkway is piloting “bring-your-own-technology” (BYOT) at two of its schools this year. The infrastructure of the schools has been upgraded to handle all of the different kinds of electronic devices students may bring to class.
“I think that (BYOT) will be real world for a student,” Marty said. “A student who may have been disengaged in the past will value the fact that their teacher is encouraging that use and honoring the use rather than restricting it.”
According to Marty BYOT will also be a way to engage students in class.
“Think about the classroom discussion. Someone might ask a question, and another student says, ‘Let’s find out,’ and the teacher says ‘Let’s find the answer right now.’”
Those students living below the poverty level may not have their own technology to bring to school so Marty said the district is setting up a system for checking-out electronic devices.
Borrowing devices is just one of the ways Parkway is helping students from homes with financial problems. For example, students can also check out instruments so they can play in the band and band trips are paid for them.
Paul Tandy, Parkway’s director of communication, said that the district’s alumni are helping out with fundraisers to provide the revenue needed to keep all students equipped and engaged.
Another tool of engagement new this year for Parkway is monthly meetings of teacher groups known as Professional Learning Communities (PLC). Several schools have previously piloted this program but this school year all of Parkway’s teachers will meet for two hours on the first Wednesday morning of the month, except August and January.
“The bottom line of all professional learning communities is really engagement of all kids,” Marty said. “The bottom line purpose is to ensure that each student is learning the standards and achieving at a high level. So it really is supporting all students getting involved and not some students getting behind, getting frustrated and then pulling back.”
Marty said PLCs will ensure that all teachers are giving similar assessments. Teachers can use the data to find individual or groups of students who may be falling behind or just having difficulty with a particular concept. Then the teachers can teach each other techniques that have worked for them, or they may decide to divide the students up and assign the struggling students to a couple of teachers who can help them get caught up.
The data discussed in PLCs will also help teachers catch students as soon as they start slipping in their studies. An article in the spring 2012 issue of Parkway Today states that teachers may use quick and strong interventions such as calling parents to get permission for students to attend after-school study sessions, or assign teachers’ aides and academic coaches to sit in class with some students so they can give help as soon as it is needed.
As noted, a growing number of students need extra help because they do not speak English. Those students get that help from teachers specially trained to teach non-English speakers.
Marty said these students are a challenge because they are required to take the annual Missouri Assessment Program test.
“First of all we have to teach them some English and help them to really understand English,” Marty said. “There are five or six levels and eventually after a number of years it becomes natural for them to use the language. That is a challenge.”
Another way Parkway is trying to engage more students is by putting more time and emphasis on character education. According to Marty character education is a program that recognizes students for good behavior and respect for other people and school property.
“It’s another form of engagement because if I come to school and I’m not an outstanding student … but I am one of those people who like to help others and follow the rules … then this is an area I can be recognized in,” Marty said.
According to Marty, character education also encourages teachers to get to know their students better and to build relationships that can result in engaging a student who otherwise may not be motivated.
Marty said, “I do remember my basketball coach. I do remember my drama coach and my math teacher because they really took an interest in me and they really motivated me. They pushed me.”
Another way Parkway is trying to engage students is by offering real world experience in partnership with community organizations. Another first this year, according to Marty, is a biomedical technology class in which 18 students go to Barnes-Jewish Community (BJC) Hospital in Creve Coeur for part of their school day. BJC is providing an instructor who will help students shadow medical personnel, learn terminology, and find out about many of the career opportunities in the medical field.
Obviously, a student cannot be engaged in school if they are not in school, so Marty said this year staff are being encouraged to be more attentive to attendance. The district’s electronic data tracking system will send an alert to school staff whenever a student’s attendance drops below 90 percent.
“We’re going to be much more attentive to working with the family, working with social workers if that’s necessary to get the students to school,” Marty said, “because if you’re not in school you’re more likely to fall behind and become disengaged.”
Marty said the success of this year’s student engagement initiatives will be measured in several ways. He said he’s hoping for an increase in standardized test scores and “if students are achieving and engaged we probably would have fewer discipline and attendance issues.”