Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What Happens in our Middle and High Schools?

Yesterday I covered our elementary school test scores. Today I'm going to talk about our secondary schools.

I hate ONLY talking about test scores, because I've been a teacher and I know there's more to learning assessment than PSSA tests. I know there's more to teaching than simply making sure students can spit out answers for an exam. I know the ability to spit out such answers doesn't necessarily mean students will retain the knowledge, or the ability to perform the math functions (at least to be able to balance a checkbook), or to go on after graduation and, essentially, continue to teach themselves, which ought to be every school's main goal.

But, without the opportunity to observe classrooms, I have no other benchmarks available to me than test scores. And our secondary schools have fairly low ones.

In the 1970s, after our new high school opened, NASD switched from having junior highs to having middle schools. It was a national trend and we hopped on the bandwagon along with everyone else. What most residents noticed was only that the grade structure changed from 7-9 grades to 5-8. One of the actual locations changed to, from Rittenhouse to Eisenhower.

Behind the scenes, though, there were profound changes in curriculum. PA state law said that junior highs were required to include certain courses, so there was continuity in the transition from elementary-style learning to high-school learning. But when middle schools opened, PA legislators used the change in name as an excuse to save funds, no longer requiring much more than the core English, math and science courses. Some districts, like Upper Merion, were small enough and wealthy enough to make up the difference. Big districts without enough tax base, where 80% of the kids are economically disadvantaged, like Norristown, are still trying to reconnect the dots 40 years later.

Stewart has a ranking of 67.8, with scores of 67% in math, 49 in reading, 39 in science, and 48 in writing. That science number breaks my heart, after all the 70-85% numbers from the elementary schools. 84% of the kids are disadvantaged, but then, 96% of Gotwals are, and Gotwals isn't letting it stop them from improving.

Eisenhower, which now has the pretentious title of "Science and Technology Leadership Academy," earned science scores of 20%. TWENTY PERCENT. Plus math at 57%, reading 44%, writing 51%, with an overall ranking of 55.7. Basically put, it looks like only about half the students at Eisenhower are learning anything. Eisenhower's the only school without a 100% promotion rate.  My thought is that they need to shift the focus back to preparing students for high school and ditch the fancy name.

East Norriton has the best ranking, but it's still only 69.8. Math 73%, reading 55, science 43, and writing 61. They have less disadvantaged kids, only 66%. They also have a different racial demographic than the other 2 schools--more whites, less blacks, though Hispanics are about the same. All 3 middle schools have about 10% of students who are still learning English.

Norristown High's ranking was 61.7. Reading, at least, came back up to 65%. Math 55 and science 41. The rate of attendance is down to 90% (the rest of the schools are at 95%). We only graduate about 87% of the students, and only 40% are considered to be college-ready.

Roosevelt Alternative School is, in my opinion, a failed experiment that should have been ended long ago. There's only 130 students there. They have a 76% attendance rate. Their test scores are so horrible, I'm not going to print them here. Go to www.paschoolperformance.org if you want to look them up. If my child were forced to go there, I'd sue the district.

I taught middle school at Stewart. I know that age span is the most difficult to teach and needs very special teachers. It also needs very supportive parents--a real challenge in a district like ours where parents often have more than one job, and where many households have only one parent.

I also know that if you ask kids that age and in high school why they don't like school, they'll usually give one of 2 answers: either they're bored or they're bullied. We need to address both those problems.

Thing is, when I look at other things that need improving in Norristown, I usually feel like I have enough access to be able to help if I can. With the schools, as a resident and taxpayer, I feel cut off and helpless.

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