Jamestown Success Academy Is An Example Of Wasted Good Intentions

What’s wrong with this scenario? Reopen a school closed because of low district enrollment (Success Academy). Focus only on the supposed 1600 “traumatized” students (a wide-open category) in grades 5-12.

Provide open-ended, “soft” services with no-to-low accountability (mental health, social services, counselors, mentors, clergy) to these students who also are behind in academics.

Job training (abandon educator expert role; ask businesses how to educate Jamestown students). Career and technical training (is this really academic education?). Project-based learning (another weak fad). Summer school for 600 K-4 children (the district failed to teach them successfully during the school year). Add a pre-school program.

Newly-hired Success Academy principal McElrath speaks of teaching something “unique,” “growing connections to the school,” and “good, positive energy.”

Does anyone with commonsense and a logical mind think this addresses the immensity of academic problems facing our district? Where is the research evidence demonstrating that such fuzzy thinking and vague goals will raise achievement levels?

More likely, Success Academy will be a black hole, sucking up resources with little demonstrable results.

John Hattie, Director of the Melbourne (Australia) Education Research Institute and preemeninent researcher on learning and achievement, calls Apthorpe’s “legacy-building” Success Academy “the politics of distraction.” It distracts the community from massive student failure rates on state tests and low graduation rate.

Consider: over the past six years, an average of 78 percent of all students in grades 3-8 did not achieve proficiency in English Language Arts; likewise, an average of 79 percent never achieved proficiency in math.

High failure rates are a direct contributor to the district’s low graduation rate. Don’t count on math coordinator Pusateri to remedy dismal student math performance, though. In her workshop for grades 3-6 teachers, she taught them how to fold paper to represent fractions. This would be laughable if it wasn’t so pathetic.

Where is Apthorpe’s grand “legacy plan” for turning around this catastrophe? Rather than attacking the root cause of very low student achievement, his complex scheme for a limited number of students will be costly and, as Hattie’s powerful research will demonstrate, results will be dubious and disappointing.

Hattie synthesized over 800 meta-meta-analysis studies involving data from 80,000,000 students, which produced 140,000 effects on achievement and learning.

Conclusions are robust because of the huge number of subjects involved. Results, called effect size, were ranked (250 ranked currently) from greatest effect on achievement to least.

The average effect size is 0.40. At this level and above, real world differences are seen. Here are effect sizes for powerful strategies: Kindergarten children receive phonics instruction where they learn letter sounds and how to blend sounds into words (0.60); repeated reading is used for reading short and meaningful passages until a satisfactory level of fluency is gained (0.67).

By grade 4, however, disadvantaged children’s reading scores begin to drop because the focus changes from decoding words, which they learned readily, to understanding more complex text. Students benefit from comprehension programs (0.58) because teachers engage in teaching specific strategies as part of the program: inferential reasoning, rules for summarizing, and chunking texts.

As researchers Hart and Risley demonstrated with their longitudinal study, by age 4 disadvantaged children have heard 30 million fewer words than have children from professional families. They wrote that “even the best of intervention programs could only hope to keep [disadvantaged] children from falling still further behind the children in [even] working-class families” let alone professional families.

By the time these children enter school “the problem of skill differences…is bigger, more intractable, and more important.”

Hattie’s research says that early intervention programs are effective-if-they are “structured, intense, include about 15 or more children, and the children are in the program for up to 13 hours a week (effect size 0.47). But there’s a caveat: Because effects reduce over time, these children will need “systematic, sustained, and constant attention to enhancing learning.”

So, you see, Mr. Barber, YMCA teen director, there always will be an achievement gap. The summer literacy program may prevent end-of-school year literacy skills from sliding, but it will not close the achievement gap. Nor will enrichment activities close the gap, though they may make the summer more interesting-if the district can afford them.

Here is the very worthy goal that Hattie says can make a significant difference: all students need to make at least one year’s progress for one year’s input, no matter where they start, by using interventions at least at the 0.4 level. Not only do students with low achievement levels need to advance in learning, but there should be a push to get more higher-achieving students into level 4 (Advanced Proficiency) on state tests.

“Statements without evidence are just opinions,” Hattie wrote. So far we’ve heard a lot of opinions about Success Academy (including three P-J editorials) but no supporting research.

According to Hattie’s research, the whole academy school “vision” is made up of low-level strategies that lack the power (effect sizes far below the needed 0.40) to make the necessary improvements in achievement.

Here are components and effect sizes for Apthorpe’s “vision”; mentoring (0.15); summer school (0.23); individualized instruction (0.22); problem-based learning [projects] (0.15); pre-school (0.28).

All are weak, weak, weak.

Jamestown students have been used as sacrificial lambs long enough! Success Academy is another example of wasted good intentions. It is folly to waste more student time and district resources on such weak strategies for a limited number of students.

Upgrade regular education by implementing research-validated reading and math programs that are powerful, and train teachers to use them. Children with trauma and mental health issues can be referred to already established county services, such as Chautauqua County Child Advocacy Program.

Deann Nelson is a Jamestown resident.


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