High hopes at Broughal MS School improvement plan envisioned as the foundation for a stronger South Side
“You can’t have a strong South Bethlehem without a strong Broughal,” asserts Dr. Jack Silva. Bethlehem Area School District assistant superintendent. Silva is clearly proud of the recently upgraded facilities at Broughal MS, as well as the school’s partnerships with the South Side community, including Lehigh University, the Hispanic Center, and the Bethlehem Area Public Library.
Principal Rick Amato points to the school’s success in implementing a “trauma-informed” social and emotional health plan. Both also recognize that there is an opportunity for Broughal to improve the quality of the education it offers all students.
Title I funding
In June, BASD selected Broughal for a Comprehensive Support & Improvement (CSI) plan, based on the school’s three-year average of math and English Language Arts (ELA) scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests administered annually to eighth-graders. The Pa. Department of Education (PDE) states that schools designated for CSI face “the most significant challenges in academic achievement, student growth, and other areas.” Broughal and BASD submitted a CSI plan to the PDE laying out specific areas for improvement, including detailed actions and associated costs, goals, and metrics to track progress toward goal achievement. Implementing the CSI plan will use $545,000 of Title I federal funding released by the PDE. (Broughal qualifies for Title I funding because of the percentage of student families living below the federal poverty level.)
Broughal’s CSI plan encompasses three main areas: culture and mindset; instruction and assessment; and professional development. The seven action steps delineated in the CSI plan fall under one of those categories. Specific budgeted items include teacher training, substitute teachers to instruct the classes of teachers receiving professional development, a new sixth-grade teacher, licenses for Acadience (an English language arts curriculum known as ELA) and IXL (a math curriculum) assessment tools, and materials and training for benchmarking.
A notable aspect of the plan is that although it involves purchasing assessment and curriculum licenses, as well as hiring an additional sixth-grade teacher, it is primarily about investing in improving the assets the school already has. Amato points out that if the school were to use the federal grant money to make dramatic staff increases for intensive tutoring, the district wouldn’t be able to continue to fund them after the grant had been expended.
“We want to sustain this,” Amato says. “Our teachers are our assets.”
Two new sixth-grade teachers, Alyssa Gammel and Ethan Turner, are joining Broughal this fall to replace a retiring teacher and as part of the CSI plan. In a move of equal significance, Broughal’s reading specialists are being incorporated into the regular classes instead of working with students pulled out of class.
“The magic,” Silva explains, “is in core instruction at grade level.” What this means is that specialists work with ELA, math, science and social studies teachers to craft lessons that help struggling students close the achievement gap — without missing class — a stark contrast to the pull-out remediation practices common under the 2001 federal education law No Child Left Behind.
Amato says investments in coaching teachers and improving pedagogical methods are crucial to the success of the program.
“There’s a difference between a student who’s cognitively unable to learn, and a student who has an achievement gap based on his circumstances,” he explains. “These kids have a cognitive mind just like any kid at East Hills” or any other middle school. He notes that the new testing software will provide data on where achievement gaps exist so that teachers in all content areas can work together to close those gaps.
Some substitute teachers will be needed to cover sessions when Broughal staff members are learning — instead of teaching — on-site. However, a substantial portion of the teaching approach shift will occur through coaching and modeling that will happen in the classrooms and through peer-to-peer sharing of best practices.
Amato gives the example of formative assessments.
“Assessments are to inform,” he explains, “so the concept is not that ‘this kid failed,’ but ‘what did you do to teach that skill?’ and then modifying instruction based on whether students are achieving those skills.”
Broughal as a
The district has selected Step by Step Learning, the educational consulting firm retained by BASD for its “Reading by Grade 3” (RBG3) initiative, to provide coaching and modeling for teachers at Broughal. Silva and Amato are aiming for the same type of success — for Broughal and district-wide — that BASD achieved with RBG3, a program to help students read on grade level by third grade.
During the 2013-2014 academic year, the district identified Lincoln ES as a Title I Focus school, and worked to develop RBG3 for rollout at Lincoln in 2015-2016. The program, deployed at all district elementary schools in 2016-2017, has been a remarkable success, with every school increasing the percentage of third-grade students reading at grade level from the beginning of the academic year to the end of the year, every year since the program’s inception.
In addition to testing tools from IXL and Acadience, Broughal is piloting the use of StudySync, a new curriculum that uses literature to teach literacy skills. Amato sees improving literacy as the key to closing the achievement gap in all subjects. He knows it won’t be easy, but he believes his students are up to the challenge.
“It’s good to have a productive struggle,” he says. “The kids are growing emotionally.”
“Students and teachers are going to achieve in reading and feel confident and successful along the way,” Amato says about critical success factors. “Our teachers are going to go on a journey to instructing students at grade level.”
Instructing all students at grade level will be a critical change at Broughal. Too often, students who begin middle school without the math and reading skills appropriate for their grade level have suffered one of two fates: Teachers have devoted too much time to remediating just a few skill gaps, resulting in larger overall skill deficits, or some skill gaps have gone unnoticed — and unremedied — due to inadequate assessment tools. Both problems result in students lagging their peers in math and reading skills, which has translated to poor performance on state standardized tests.
Amato has metrics for these goals:
• Decreasing the number of students receiving intensive interventions by 6 percent and
• Increasing mastery of IXL (math) materials by 100 percent for each student every year.
“Intensive interventions” are what the education community calls individualized, corrective instruction given in addition to regular coursework to students with significant skill deficits. Although Broughal teachers will be working (along with the Step by Step Learning coaches) to incorporate skill-deficit remediation into regular lessons, some students will still need to receive individual “intensive interventions” during the “what you need” class period, but the goal is to reduce the number of students who require this level of support. (“What you need” happens every day, for every student; students who are already working at or beyond grade level work independently or in small groups on enrichment activities.)
If IXL data improve according to Amato’s plan, math PSSA scores at Broughal will rise 3 percent annually. Reading PSSA scores should also improve, as students are taught the literacy skills that the state deems appropriate to their grade level.
But Amato’s vision is bigger than changing test scores at one middle school, or even at all BASD middle schools.
“We’re going to enhance the flavor of the South Side,” he says. “These kids are the ones who will make the changes to the South Side, not us. They’re going to go to college and come back and improve their community.”
Amato believes his students are as smart as anybody else, and haven’t yet been given the tools they need to pull their community up by the bootstraps. He envisions Broughal students going on to college and coming back to the community to build successful businesses and lead families of high academic achievers, so the perceived association between the South Side and underachievement goes away, in reality and in the mind of the public. Broughal graduates living on the South Side as adults will be employed and creating their own positive culture.
This is the first part of a four-part series on the Comprehensive Support & Improvement plan at Broughal MS. Part two will focus on the CSI plan from the teachers’ perspective; part three will include student and parent viewpoints; part four will revisit Broughal at mid-year to evaluate the school’s progress.