A few times each school year, Saugerties students get a day or half-day off in the middle of the week. Either Superintendent’s Conference Days or Staff Development Days, the breaks allow educators and support staff to come together with an eye on improving their own skills for the benefit of kids across the district. Dr. Olanike Audu, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction, assessment and data, equated the process with figuring out how best to teach a child how to cook a meal.
“Okay, kids, we’re going to cook a chicken, and this is what it looks like. See how nice it looks, and it’s fresh from the oven, it’s hot and you put your potatoes around it. That’s where we’re going,” Audu said. “And then you go back and you give them the raw chicken. They already have a sense of where they’re going, and now the teacher will teach everything in between. We call that the assessment of the learning, showing the kids what the evidence of a good, well-cooked chicken would look like, all the steps in between, and the directions for how to go about cooking that chicken step by step. That’s what we did most of today.”
“Today” was this Tuesday, November 7. With students taking a day off from class, teachers were taking a professional development — or PD — day. In Saugerties, Audu said, teachers are engaged in figuring out what sort of professional development they require. Audu called it “understanding by design.”
“The focus is on sharing best practice and having ongoing professional development,” she said. “We have been focusing on trying to have teachers share their expertise, looking at how sharing with each other and developing together can impact overall student achievement.”
The day is usually broken up into four hour-long-plus sessions. In the past different presenters come in and spend a day with teachers. “What I’ve been trying to do is give teachers more ownership and listen to what teachers wanted,” Audu explained. “If teachers have more time to practice and work together, they’re likely to better find out what problems there are and solve problems together.”
The district held its first Superintendent’s Conference Day of this school year on September 5, preparing the educators for the rush of students the following day. This week’s conference was the first during the school year. Much of its focus was on early implementation of the Next Generation Learning Standards, adopted by the Board of Regents in September as a replacement for Common Core.
Next Generation Learning Standards were seen as a more realistic educational option for students than what it’s going to replace in three years. Unlike Common Core, which underwent a trial by fire, Next Generation tests won’t be fully implemented or tested until September 2020.
Though some aspects of Common Core will remain, the notable changes in English include making writing standards more adaptable at the classroom level, merging reading standards, and focusing on reading and writing skills. In math classes, the focus will shift from mastery of concepts to exploring concepts and more age-appropriate levels of learning. In science courses, Audu said, some students will have the opportunity to use modeling as a means of learning, giving them an opportunity to create 3D projects.
“Many of the concepts are the same, but the approach is different,” said Audu. “The state is now focusing more on student performance. We’re looking at unpacking those standards. Design our units based on where the state wants us to go. This is the beginning of that type of strategy.”
Educators were also given time to focus on students’ emotional development. All teachers of seventh and eighth graders attended a workshop focused on behavioral intervention and support. Junior high can be a difficult time for kids.
“A lot of kids at that age, they come in and that’s the day they don’t want to walk along with their parents, self-identity issues come along, and their peers’ influence on them is so strong,” said Audu. “Behavior can be an issue when kids are making the transition from elementary school to the secondary school before they get to high school. That gap in between can be challenging for some kids.”
Superintendent’s Conference Day has something for everyone. Every department gets involved, said Audu.
“Nurses have something they’re doing. Custodians have something they’re doing. Everybody in the district is getting an opportunity to improve their practice and ultimately help our kids become great independent learners,” said Audu. She believes we all have a collective responsibility for all of our kids, and that the sooner we start working together and thinking along those lines, the better off we will be.
She’s optimistic. “If we learn how to pass the baton of good teaching skills and good learning skills and we’re teaching our kids to become independent learners, we will just be an unbeatable school district,” she said. “We have the teachers to do it. Kids are kids wherever you go, but with good motivation and teachers working together we will close the gap. Not all at once, but gradually.”
The next Staff Development Day takes place on Friday, February 16, when students will attend school for a half-day. The next full-day Superintendent’s Conference Day is scheduled for Thursday, March 15, followed by another on Tuesday, May 15.