Chanute transforming teaching and learningScott Rothschild
Building on the effective practices of a national Blue Ribbon School award for Chanute Elementary School in 2016, school leaders and educators are transforming how students are taught, graded and supported in the district.
Everything is focused on four key questions, said Chanute USD 413 superintendent Richard Proffitt: What do we want students to know? How do we know if they know it? What do we do if they DON’T know it? What do we do if they DO know it?
Teacher teams called Professional Learning Communities identify essential outcomes, called “need to knows,” at every grade level, based on what a student will need to be successful at the next level. “We know that our curriculum has been too wide and not deep enough,” said Proffitt. “We want to make sure all students learn the essential outcomes.”
Those outcomes are based on state standards, ACT test requirements and other key expectations. Teachers then prepare “rubrics” clearly outlining what students are expected to know in each area. Students are regularly assessed for progress, and teachers can quickly personalize what they do for the students with either more support or enrichment, as needed.
The key, says Proffitt, is to allow students to take ownership of their learning. “I had a young woman explain to me that before this system, she got back homework with red marks showing what she had done wrong, but it didn’t tell her what she needed to do to get it right.”
Paired with the focus on rubrics for essential skills, Chanute has moved the use of standards-based grading from the elementary school to the middle and high school; a system that assesses students based on their demonstration of learning the skills, rather than simple letter grades or percentages.
Proffitt acknowledges there is some controversy over the change, primarily from parents concerned about how the system will be received by colleges looking for traditional grade point averages for admission and scholarships. To address those concerns, the district uses a “conversion scale” to produce a standard GPA to report. However, the system requires students to show a “deep, rich” understanding of essential content, not just pass a single test on a single day.
“The point is not to chase grades but to chase learning,” said Proffitt. “We want to raise the ACT score for college, not just the GPA.” He cites a high achieving student who reported the standards based approach is harder than the old system, because it requires a more comprehensive demonstration of what the student learns.
Proffitt is confident that the changes in the district will pay off, based on the results at the elementary school which was awarded national honors for closing the achievement gap.
Chanute used increased state funding this year to improve teacher salaries and restore positions cut in recent years of stagnant funding. The district’s next big priority is expanding preschool programs. There are few private preschools in the area, and the cost of attendance and transportation is beyond the reach of many families. Chanute hopes to expand available slots, provide transportation (which has been a major barrier) and add a childcare component.
Like many other districts, Proffitt says the biggest challenge to improved student success in the district is poverty. Over 60 percent of students are on free or reduced-price meals, and many of those come from families with severe economic circumstances.
“Too many kids come to school not in the frame of mind to learn,” said Proffitt. “They may have missed a meal. They may be cold because the heat was turned off at home. They may be facing other traumatic experiences.”
To help address these issues, Chanute used some of its additional funding this year to expand its Communities in School (CIS) Program, which provides school-based staff to work with teachers to identify challenges students face in class or at home and coordinate with community partners to bring outside resources inside schools.
The district is also exploring participation in the Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) program, which works in high schools to provide additional support to keep students from dropping out. Chanute would also like to provide more social workers and increase staff training in issues like trauma. All these programs have two things in common: they have evidence of success and they cost money.
Serving students better means forming deeper relationships between teachers and school staff and students and families. For example, middle school students are grouped in “houses” with students from three grade levels. The student stays with that teacher for all three years, and the teacher is able to get to know those students and families very well, becoming advocate, not just an educator.
“The biggest problem is not poverty, but generational poverty,” said Proffitt. “These kids lack hope and expectations. We need to give them both.”