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District Superintendent Katrise Perera implements findings of sweeping academic audit.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: GRESHAM-BARLOW SCHOOL DISTRICT  - Gresham-Barlow School District Superintendent Katrise Perera holds a focus group with students from West Gresham Elementary School.Gresham-Barlow School District Superintendent Katrise Perera has made the rounds of the district's 18 schools, holding focus groups with students to get their input on how schools could be improved.

It's one result of a sweeping academic audit the district undertook last year.

"I've always believed in the student voice. As educators we often leave that piece out," Perera said. "Who knows best about what they want and need, but the students?"

Of course Perera isn't going to cave on the requests for pizza every day for lunch or recess all afternoon, but she said she is getting valuable insights even from the tiniest scholars.

"It is great to see the pride on their little faces when they come in and then leave the room. They feel like they have contributed," she said.

Perera started as superintendent in the district last June and just months later she and the school board commissioned the academic audit to be done by the independent firm of Felicity Education Services.

"It's part of my leadership training ... whenever you go into something new, do a needs assessment. It's best practices," Perera said.

Felicity conducted research, held extensive interviews with different types of school stakeholders, visited classrooms, talked with students and conducted online surveys.

Katrise Perera Positive reviews

Generally all those queried were quite positive about the district.

"An incredibly impressive percent (85%) of survey respondents are proud or extremely proud to be a part of the Gresham-Barlow School District community," the report said.

Nonetheless, the audit listed areas for improvement. One is that the district could sharpen its focus. The district could also better define "curriculum" and make it more consistent. That doesn't mean classrooms would be teaching exactly the same thing at the same time across the district, she said.

Perera and Gresham-Barlow educators are pulling these recommendations into specific improvements and initiatives.

She wants to see more consistency between schools in curriculum. She also wants students to "be able to explore, design and discover, which we've lost in education because of high-stakes (standardized state testing) accountability."

For Perera, revamping curriculum is a priority because Gresham-Barlow wants to move from being "a district of schools to a school district."

"We want to look at the Gresham-Barlow graduate and ask 'What do we want them to look like, to be able to do, etc.' and then we back plan from there,'" she said.

For example, as part of her focus group tour, a second-grader told Perera she wanted to have an opportunity to learn coding for her future career in information technology.

"She knew what she needed to have. She knew there are not many women in that field. She knew what she wanted and she knew how to get there," Perera said with an admiring chuckle.

The district-wide curriculum adjustments won't happen overnight, she emphasized.

"This has to be a three-to five-year process" so appropriate materials and training can be implemented.

"We're not in an urgent situation," she said.

OUTLOOK FILE PHOTO - New teachers are welcomed to the district with a rally and some swag, another Perera innovation to recognize staff. Attendance a priority

Another area Felicity flagged for improvement is staff and student attendance. The district is looking at strategies, and Perera pointed out that Highland Elementary School posts the prior day's attendance on a board at the entrance every day. Engaging curriculum also is a way to keep students coming to school, she said, adding that recognizing students and faculty is good for attendance. The student focus groups are one effort. She also plans to have a "teacher of the year" designation and a similar honor for support staff.

Another opportunity for improvement, the report said, is to improve the way the district helps struggling students. Those are called "interventions" in education lingo.

Felicity observed the "interventions" with floundering students are not consistent around the district. There are few interventions for high school students or in math. The district should work to add more ways to bolster failing students, the study recommended.

Perera is responding to that by promising that the district will provide more guidance on interventions for teachers.

"We have to take the burden away from teachers and say 'This is a proven practice,'" she said. The district is already using a method called iReady to help weaker math students.

The report recommended that the district make sure successful programs are available at all schools, and community resources such as business partnerships are tapped. Technology should be infused into the curriculum, the report recommended.

Schools could work at "establishing a more robust accountability system for students and staff," the report recommended.

Addressing diversity

The academic audit observed the district is already working on issues related to equity and student poverty and these should be enhanced "to ensure positive change is occurring throughout the organization."

The audit also recommended reviewing human resource practices, allowing some hiring decisions to be more local and giving staff more incentives for better attendance.

Felicity also found some roadblocks to success of any reforms including initiative fatigue, some degree of mistrust and a simple unwillingness to change. Ultimately, however, Felicity was upbeat about district prospects.

"In many ways, Gresham-Barlow is on the cusp to become a great District for all students, with the administration, faculty and staff willing to perform the work necessary to achieve these lofty goals."

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