Last month, Kingston school officials revealed the district was seeing gains in some key areas of student achievement but coming up short in others. The district as a whole and four of its schools have been classified by the New York State Education Department as “needing focus.”
“Needing focus” is the middle level of the NYSED’s trio of improvement classifications, falling between “needing basic improvement” and the more serious “needing comprehensive improvement.” The district effectively swapped out a handful of schools “needing focus,” with Chambers Elementary, Edward C. Crosby Elementary, and both J. Watson Bailey and M. Clifford Miller middle schools making the list for 2016-17 and Kingston High School and Harry L. Edson, John F. Kennedy, Ernest C. Myer and George Washington Elementary schools all moving from “needing focus” to “good standing” this year.
According to John Voerg, the district’s deputy superintendent for teaching and learning, the district was identified as “needing focus” because of the performance of two specific subgroups, the four-year graduation rate for Hispanic students in the 2010 cohort and the economically disadvantaged districtwide subgroup in elementary and middle school, where 2014-15 standardized test results for math and ELA were behind state standards.
Voerg said the district was looking at ways to improve student achievement in those subgroups. Impending changes in how the state gauges performance make it difficult to anticipate how things will look next year.
“There likely will be revisions for the process that will determine our accountability status for the 2017-18 school year,” Voerg said during the presentation at a February 15 meeting of the school board. “Those revisions are anticipated as a result of the new Every Student Succeeds Act legislation that went into effect about a year ago.”
The Every Student Succeeds Act, commonly abbreviated as ESSA, was signed into federal law in December 2015 as a replacement for No Child Left Behind. ESSA, which maintained its predecessor’s standardized testing requirements for students in grades three through eight, moved federal accountability provisions to individual states.
The district has also increased its focus on struggling subgroups, including how it approaches professional development. According to school officials, a book by veteran educator Eric Jensen, “Teaching with Poverty in Mind,” has been an important resource. The book, subtitled What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It, delves into how poverty influences a student’s preparedness for school. It suggests what districts can do to help.
The school district’s student population continued its decade-long decline in the 2015-16 school year, falling to 6168 total students. Between 2012-13 and 2014-15, student population in the district fell from 6484 to 6218.
A few schools saw their student populations rise in 2015-16, however. Chambers (367, up from 342), Myer (211, up from 204), JFK (334, up from 322) and Kingston High (1877, up from 1869) all showing slight increases over the previous year.
The summary report also included data on ethnicity. White students were in the significant majority in schools like Graves (74.84 percent), Myer (73.93 percent) and Crosby (69.73 percent.) White students were in a slimmer majority at Chambers (40.87 percent, compared to 33.51 percent Hispanic) and Edson (46.38 percent white, compared to 31.70 percent Hispanic). At George Washington, Hispanic or Latino students are actually in the plurality (38.17 percent) compared to white students (34.70 percent).
The overall numbers in the district showed the school district’s student population as 56.50 percent white, 18.95 percent Hispanic or Latino, 14.38 percent African-American, 7.43 percent multiracial, 2.43 percent Asian or Pacific islander, and 0.29 percent Native American or Alaska native.
Assistant director of math, science and technology for the elementary schools Jennifer Gribbin said that the number of the district’s English Language Learners (ELL) were up from 247 in 2014-15 to 347 last year. “While this population is still a small subgroup, it is our district’s largest-growing subgroup,” she said.
Elsewhere, a significantly greater number of students at Kingston High School are taking advantage of college dual-credit courses, with 671 total dual-credit seats taken in 2015-16, up from 586 the previous year and 410 in 2013-14.
“That’s seats, not students,” cautioned the district’s chief information office Gary Tomczyk. “671 seats were taken up by 272 individual students.”
While the district’s major partner in providing dual-credit courses is SUNY Ulster, Tomczyk said Marist College and SUNY Albany were also involved in the program.
The four-year graduation rate also rose in 2015-16, with Kingston High School reaching 83.4 percent, up from 81.0 percent a year earlier. According to Tomczyk, 17 students studying outside the district brought the graduation rate last year down to 81.3 percent. Broken down into subgroups, white (86.6 percent), black (68.5 percent), and economically disadvantaged students (73.3 percent) all saw increases in their four-year graduation rates. Only Hispanic students (71 percent, down from 73 percent) saw a decrease in their four-year graduation rate.
The biggest increase was seen in the four-year graduation rate of students with disabilities, up to 68 percent at Kingston High from the previous year, a gain of 16.9 percent. When out-of-district students were factored into the total, the rate was 61.8 percent, still a 15.8 percent increase over 2014-15.
“The two most effective strategies used to increase the graduation rate of students with disabilities at Kingston High School is the appeal process and Pathways to Graduation, and the identification of at-risk students,” said Angela Sterbenz, assistant director of special education at the secondary level. “The administrative team at the high school and the student’s guidance counselor identify at-risk students. Every effort is made to ensure the student is placed in the appropriate special ed program, with a team that addresses what these students need to graduate. And then the appropriate Pathway to Graduation is implemented.”
According to Barbara McGrath, the district’s assistant director of special education at the elementary level, Speech Language Improvement services will help continue that success into the future by identifying issues at the beginning of a student’s education. “The goal of this service is to reduce the number of kindergarten students referred to special education for speech-language therapy,” explained McGrath. “All children who score below the 25th percentile on the testing tool will receive the service.”
McGrath said that therapy sessions include skill development in communication, social language, literacy skills, following directions, vocabulary building, fluency, and basic concepts.
“This translates to a positive educational impact on reading and comprehension skills and an increase in students understanding language concepts used for problem solving,” McGrath said, adding that eight out of 17 students successfully exited the program after 20 weeks. “This is something to celebrate. There are eight students who will not be entering the RTI process for speech language services.”