Sunday, January 22, 2017

Grading in schools....and ours

Grading in schools.....and ours

     I write this after a conversation with my staff at the school last Friday.  We discussed grading and the complications that come with it...............

     I truly believe that grades should "reflect a student's knowledge and mastery of content".  This is easier said than done.  Unfortunately, since the inception of "grading", we have moved galaxies away from what grading was initially meant to do.  Grading was, and should be, a way of knowing if a student truly understands and has mastered the content they are being graded on.  Currently, however, grades can contain a reflection on whether the student is polite in class, is a procrastinator, is diligent about retaking the same test over and over, is good at extra credit work..... the list goes on and on.

     I know all about this from a personal perspective.  In high school, I was able to get acceptable "A's" and "B's" out of my Language Arts classes by way of doing extra credit, redoing assignments (which is not a bad thing) and jumping through the "worksheet" hoop.  Yet....when I arrived at college and was given the writing entrance exam, I was placed in a remedial writing class because I could not write a lick.  Admittedly, I was all over the place, the most unorganized writer; nothing made sense.   It was like vomit on a page.   (Good thing I wasn't writing surgical procedure textbooks.)

     The funny thing is that my college obviously didn't trust my high school's grading system, hence the writing entrance exam.  It was a good thing.......... my grades in no way reflected my actual ability to write a simple paper.  Now, thanks to my actual mastery of the subject, I have a degree in English and have been an English teacher for most of my career.  Nevertheless, I did end up having to "actually" master the skill of writing.  At some point the skill HAS to be mastered, no matter what grade you are given.  (The same thing happened to me with math but a much worse situation, taking more than a year to remediate my skills.)

     We do our children no favors when we give them an "A" for the simple act of jumping through hoops without truly looking at mastery of knowledge and skills.  I am definitely not the only person with this opinion either.  Colleges are complaining that we are just moving students forward to the next grade without the foundations of the previous skills being solidified.  "...according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, just 37 percent of high school seniors are prepared for college-level math and reading".  This was reported by Leslie Brody in The Wall Street Journal in April of 2016.  Additionally, Sal Khan, the creator of "Khan Academy" stated that  “We are telling students they’ve learned something that they really haven’t learned. We wish them well and nudge them ahead to the next, more difficult unit, for which they have not been properly prepared. We are setting them up to fail.”  I could insert quotes all day.  Inevitably, someone, somewhere has to make a change.  The saddest part is for students who are in the upper grades.  Some of our math students are legitimately in an 11th grade math class and cannot do the work because they are missing major chunks of content/skills from the 4th grade.  

     When you talk to teachers, they are overwhelmed themselves because they can't cover the required content let alone go back and make sure every student has mastered it; customization for every single student is a near impossible feat.  Therefore we have come full circle back to our conundrum.  Bottom line is that we are doing a disservice to our students by moving them along when they haven't mastered the skills needed.  Is it any wonder that we have parents thinking that their student may have a learning disability when they are still struggling with math by the time they hit 9th grade?  This is system failure, not a disability.  So....where do we go from here?

     In that I am only one tiny person/cog in an overwhelmingly massive machine where cogs fall out continually, our school will be moving ever more toward mastery of skills/standards/content.  Without doing so, we are spinning our wheels on the vicious treadmill called education.  

     In an effort to move this way, we need to look at the bigger picture........and simpler is always better.  

1.  Determine what our students need to learn and why.  (This is an article in and of itself.  As we gain more knowledge the breadth of the standards required gets more vast.  Who said we need to know everything there is to know in the world?  Why are we trying to teach our students EVERYTHING?  We are arrogant to even assume what will be the most important thing for their survival in 10-20 years, as fast as technology is moving.  I for one say, problem solving will be the key to their survival;  problem solving and resourcing.)

2.  Teach in a clear way with clear expectations.  Sometimes the failure is in that the student is not clear on what they are expected to learn.  It is the burden of the teacher to inform the student clearly on what the expectation is.

3.  Verify that students have actually learned the skill/content.  If not, reteach and give additional support.  (Maybe a test is not the way?  Maybe we need to have them show us instead.  And by the way......the definition of learning is attaching something new to existing knowledge.  So if we don't make efforts to make these skills and content real for the students, they will never retain the information;  it will be forgotten as soon as the grade is entered into the gradebook.)

4.  Revisit concepts frequently to help students retain the skill/content learned.  (Once again, easier said than done.  The amount we are expected to cover does not easily allow time for remediation or extension.).

5.  It boils down to real life experiences for students........... learning that means something and becomes part of their tapestry of learning for future endeavors.  

This may sound like unicorns and rainbows....... but our school will make every effort to make changes where we can.......slowly fixing the problems we find with grading vs. mastery, in an effort to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem (obviously within the confines of rules, regulations and laws).   Keep in mind.... this is a new way of thinking, a paradigm shift and will be hard for some to understand; it may be seem confusing since it is not what we are used to.  Therefore, let us keep lines of communication open so there are no misunderstandings, work together for our students and keep at the forefront of our minds........."what is best for the student".   :)

-Cassie Hays, Terra Academy Director

Thursday, September 29, 2016

 Data and SAGE

Education is a balancing act.......our school believes in an individualized education for students, a kind and positive culture as well as helping our students prepare for the world after they graduate from high school. However, there are so many things that play a part in the behemoth machine we call “education”. Sometimes it is so political, we can’t see the forest for the trees. Other times, we micromanage the situation to the point we lose sight of what is really important.
I write this in the hopes of shedding light on a very small part of the gigantic machine……that being “data”. Recently, an article was published in the “Vernal Express” giving results from our “SAGE” scores from last year. The article was, admittedly, not a very positive reflection on our school. I am in no way saying that those results were not accurate. However, there are many pieces to the bigger picture and the article did not reflect any of that. So….I would like to address some of the issues we are facing at Terra, in this, our second year. I hope, as you read this, you do not take this an attempt to make excuses in any way….but, as an effort to help our parents understand that “yes” you did make the right choice by taking a chance on Terra Academy for your children. Let’s begin……………………..

1. Regarding the testing, I was asked many questions from the “Vernal Express” in the form of an email. I am not sure why these questions were asked of me, because they didn’t print any of what I replied. At any rate, I thought you would like to read what I did write in response to their questions. This is the actual copy of the email in response to the questions they sent to me……

I tried to address each of your questions as best I could.  ;)
We recognized that there were many students (especially grades 7-12), when they came to our school, who were substantially below proficiency levels in math, writing and language arts.  As a matter of fact, that was one of our school improvement goals for last year; to start implementing practices to help students gain growth toward proficiency in their corresponding grade level.  

In reference to SAGE scores, state science scores are in the 40's as were our own science scores.  Our math and language arts scores were low, however, we feel like some of this can be remedied by moving to a semester system.  This prevents situations, for example, where students may not have had core subjects for the entire year.
Our formative testing results from last year showed substantial growth from k-6.  In grades 7-12, the growth was less substantial but was still, on average, at a 1.5 years growth or more.  We feel like these results more accurately portray where our students are and where they need help.  

This year was a difficult year for the SAGE assessment due to the fact that we had a very high opt out percentage.  We also had students who, though not opted out, were not accountable to the test because they could not see how it would affect their future performance and education.  Although, they are starting to realize that the school itself may be affected by the "grading of schools", they still look at the SAGE from a perspective of it not having a direct effect on them.  

Our school firmly believes that we need standardized testing for comparison and accountability.  We also strongly believe, that we should measure growth on and individual basis because no two students are alike.  We will continue to focus on individualized learning by meeting the students where they are when they come to our school.  We will seek positive ways of helping students grow to their full potential as unique human beings.

2. SAGE: As mentioned in the previous (unprinted) article, the year-end assessment has been problematic. Of course we want a tool that can help us determine where our students are and where we can assist them to increase their learning. However, we definitely have problems when our students who are taking the exam, don’t take it seriously. Unfortunately, the state uses the SAGE exam to “grade” schools. We received a “D” this year as a grade. This is not the only aspect in which the state will grade our school. However, the other items have not been decided upon by the State Charter Board in an agreement with Terra at this point in time. So, for now, we are primarily being graded based on the SAGE results alone.

If you look at that fact closer, you can see why this can be detrimental for the school when students are opting out or clicking through answers instead of taking the test seriously. We had many students from 6th grade and up who clicked through answers randomly in an effort to get finished faster. The end result means that our scores, most likely, don’t reflect our levels reliably. Moreover, the state made a recent statement in which they stated that there were too many schools receiving "A's" and "B's" in the school grading system so they lowered the overall grades of all schools this year to prevent so many high grades.

Honestly, we believe in measuring our success with more than just a number. We can’t quantify a student, and his or her potential for the future, in a single number or letter grade. There are so many students with amazing untapped talents who don't fit the regular mold. It is important that these students find alternative methods to help them reach their full potential.

3. Another problem facing the school is that we truly have some VERY low students in math and language arts/writing. As I stated before, our science scores were in line with the state. However, our math (which was terribly low) is where we need the most work. When our students came to us, in our first year, our formative exams showed that our greatest deficit was in math. Our figures showed that our 7-12th graders were, on average, at a 6th grade math level. Our theory for why we have students coming to us with such low proficiency........
a. Trimesters allow students to be without core subjects for up to 6 months at a time. Hence, our move to semesters so that students have math for the entire year (not just two trimesters and then nothing for another 6 months).

b. Mastery is not being met. What this means is that students who are being allowed to move forward, for example, with a “C or 75%” are missing 25% of the content. When you start compounding that over time (9th grade, then 10th grade, then 11th……) of course the student will be at a deficit. If a student performed at this rate throughout high school, it would be nearly impossible for a student in 11th grade to close that gap. For a student who passes a class with a "D-", it is obviously not going to work to send him/her on to the next level.
(see the film below….it is a good explanation of why this doesn’t work):

This is why we are using a new program called Mastery Connect to help track and strive for mastery learning of the standards. Additionally, we push for student to get no lower than a “B or 80%” in their coursework. (In all honesty, 80% isn’t mastery either….100% is). These efforts will not fix everything but it is certainly a step in the right direction. Bottom line is that we have our work cut out for us by attempting to fill in the foundational learning “gaps” students come to us with. With only having these students for less than a year, we cannot fix multiple years worth of gaps in that short period of time. On the other hand, we feel confident that our plan of working with current 6-8th graders, specifically in math and language arts/writing, in our school improvement plan, will help decrease these gaps and be able to show this growth in verifiable data.

c. Testing Pool: Another thing to remember is that, because we only have 500 students at the most, who could possibly take the year end assessment, every score impacts our bottom line even more. Not to mention, the reason parents bring their students to a charter school is because their students are struggling and need an alternative or different option from regular public school.

d. Apathy and low resilience. One way to help our students prepare for the future is to instill the trait of resiliency; to not give up on the first try. We believe that mistakes are how we learn. Although we will always try our best to meet our students where they are, we strongly encourage our students to gain “grit” and “stick to it’d ness” for the task at hand. This, is just one of the many real-life skills we teach through our character education program.

In the end, we understand that our ideas may be unconventional and different. But, Terra has a vision and pride in what we are trying to create in a partnership with parents, students and community. We have had to make some tough decisions after the last year to do what is best for our students. Starting out with an all new staff, procedures, policies and building........I would say we did pretty great. We received one of the highest scores on our accreditation and we have worked tirelessly to remedy and set up a precedence of constant improvement. Of course things aren't perfect, they never will be. But, we have an incredible staff this year with a common goal to be innovative and open minded when it comes to learning and to provide more options and alternatives in education for students and their needs. We will keep working hard to make a positive difference in your student's education. Please remember that my door is ALWAYS open if anyone has a question or concern.

Cassie Hays
Terra Academy

Friday, April 22, 2016

Dear Parents:

Spring is here!!!  Don't we know it.  The kids are so full of energy, we could light New York for a month.  :)

There are a couple of things we would like to communicate..............

1.  We are still having issues with the dress code.  Please review it with your kids and help us to enforce it.  It takes a lot of our time to enforce it and it is time, we would rather spend educating your kids.

2.  Pick Up:  Please remember to come in from the South and leave to the North.  It backs up traffic when we have people trying to turn to the left or coming in from the Northern direction.  

Also, DO NOT park on the cross walks!  We put them there to keep the kids safe.  If you pull into the drive through, you CANNOT turn around and go out.  You have to go with the traffic and KEEP moving.  

3.  1st Annual Terra Art Auction is coming up.  This is a REALLY BIG DEAL.  We will be auctioning art off from parents, staff and students.  It will be a beautiful affair on May 14th at 6pm.  A formal invitation will go out but we hope you will come and support us.  There will be a sit down dinner that will be $25 (there is a limited number of seats available).  All of the circle art that was in the hallway during the year will be auctioned off.  That means some of us will have to outbid some other parents for the art work!  :)

Thanks so much for all of your support.  The school is becoming an INCREDIBLE place!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Charter School...a Public School

There is still a lot of misconception about what a charter school is.  As a matter of fact, a charter school IS a public school.  We receive funding from the public just like a public school does.  This means that there are requirements that we must follow just like public schools do.

We have to follow State School Board rules and Utah state statutes.  Sometimes there are specific rules and statutes that are directed specifically toward charter schools.

The process begins with the Charter school writing a charter that specifies something special they would like to do or focus on.  That charter then becomes their agreement with the state.  It will guide and provide accountability to the state in addition to other requirements dictated by the state.  Charters must answer to the State Charter School Board in addition to the State School Board.

One of the frequent assumptions made by the general public is that we can choose which students attend our school (like a private school does).  In reality, we cannot choose which students can and cannot attend our school.  This is the purpose for the lottery we run each spring.  The lottery ensures that we do not show preference for students in any way.   We CANNOT pick and choose which students we let into our school.  If we don't have anyone on our waiting list from the lottery, we have to accept those students who apply (the only exception is for students who have been Safe Schooled, in which case we can deny entrance based on the severity of the violation).  Keep in mind, the lottery is required by the state and allows any student who enters the lottery to have the same fair chance of getting in.

Terra Academy runs a "reverse lottery".  The reason for this is because it's always harder to fill the older grades in a charter school.  The "reverse lottery" gives the school a chance to fill those spaces first.  If we didn't do that, we would fill the lower levels and many of those children may not have siblings to help fill the upper grades.

With this type of lottery, it helps to fill the upper seats first and then allows those students to give preference to their younger siblings.  The only requirement here is that the older sibling must stay in the school for a year.  If that student were to drop out, all siblings who got in with that student would also be dropped from the school (this is because it has, in the past, in other charter schools, been a problem with parents enrolling the older sibling, in turn allowing the younger siblings in and then the parent pulling the older sibling out.......which can be disastrous for the funding of a school.)  Some parents may be a little frustrated with this type of lottery if they do not have older children.  However, it is a necessity to gain the needed funding for a "full" school.  If we didn't have a reverse lottery, we would lose funding due to empty upper level seats.

I hope this bit of information is helpful to those of you who still have questions about enrollment, the lottery and what students we can and cannot enroll.  :)

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Amazing School! and......some other information.

Out of this world!  I just want to say that our students are sooooooooooooo talented!  We had our talent assembly last week (sorry, we didn't put out a parent invite due to the limited space in the gym).  However, I cannot say how amazing our students were.  For an hour and a half, we had amazing TRUE talent up on that stage.  I am so thankful to be part of this school.  I can't believe how lucky I am to be mingling with so many special students and staff.  They literally took my breath away!  Furthermore, the students watching were absolutely incredible, respectful and supportive.  They were proud of their fellow students getting up there and it showed.  They make me so proud!!!  

My door is OPEN!  I just want everyone to know that you are more than welcome to contact me when you have questions about the school.  Occasionally I hear rumors around town about the school, its programs and its students (it always shocks me at how untrue so many of the things I hear are.  I've even heard some incorrect information from my own staff.)  At any rate, I am always here to answer questions or........I encourage you to come to the Terra Town Meetings.  We have these usually every other month.  Watch the calendar on the home page of our website.  It will show when these open forums are for you to ask anything you want.  :)

Some fun upcoming things....................

May 6th  Kentucky Derby
We will be having the "Kentucky Derby"!!!  That's right!  We will be having our own Kentucky Derby with all the pomp and circumstance (in a fun way) along with Mint Juleps and big hats!
Some of the staff and students will run "heats" around the soccer field on stick horses while wearing their silks, of their creation.  Spectators will enjoy their Mint Juleps and will guess probability factors (earlier in class) as to which horses/riders will win.  We will take different factors into consideration (ie:  lame leg, spooky horse, isn't a long distance runner etc.).  This will be so much fun and we encourage the parents to come take part and watch.  :)

 May 21st, Saturday evening.  Terra Academy's First Annual Art and Photo Auction
This will be an incredible event where there will be entertainment along with an auction of student/staff art and photography to help raise funds for our school.  We will serve a delicious dinner outside on the beautiful lawn.  Students have been working all year on various pieces as have staff to auction at this event.  More information to come on this event.

May 26th Graduation  We have a small but mighty class of graduates this year.  We are so proud of them and are so excited to give them a wonderful send off into the big beautiful world.  We love these kids and can't wait to celebrate everything about them.  The ceremony will be at the convention center, we will have a sit down dinner and a presentation.  More to come on this as well.  

School Policy Book:

Emergency Procedure Manual:

Student Handbook:

Internet Safety Links!internet-safety-links/nu3se

Student and Parent LOG IN

Blue Light Protection:  There are a lot of studies that show that Blue Light from your computers and phones can really harm your eyes.  It was on the news the other night.  Please use these links to fix this on your computers.  We don't want the kids's eyes to get bad from the blue light.  I have used these for over two years now and my eyes do so much better I can't even tell you.  

For Chromebooks

For PC's

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Breaking Away............A fresh outlook

Terra Academy was created with many hopes and dreams.  One was to help students who were getting lost in the cracks.  Another was to invoke new ways of learning (ie: using technology to learn...not just to use technology for technology's sake).  In our endeavor to "break away" from traditional models of education that have become outdated and even archaic, we still find ourselves tied to regulatory red tape which hold us down and prevent new movement.

That being said, the teachers, counselors, mentors and I have often discussed how, even those of us who want for something different are so entrenched and "used to" the old way of thinking, we find ourselves slipping back down in the heavy "tar" of "education past", losing our ability to see the future of our children's education.  Being in a small town can contribute to that because we have always known "one way" of doing things. "We've always done it this way, and I turned out just fine".  However, I ponder so often about how mind blowing it is to think about learning for our future.

For instance, electronics, the internet and the information age is moving at such neck breaking speed now that we can barely keep up.  When I was in high school, my parents had a cell phone the size of a brick.  My first real computer was huge and couldn't do a billionth of what my cell phone can do today.  This means that our kindergartners of today will be graduating into an unpredictable world.  How do we prepare for something we cannot even make vague predictions about?  One could say that we can never see the future....but, in the past, the future was not on "hyperspeed".  As humans, we had the ability to change and acclimate for what would come next.  Now?  It seems near impossible.  Whole generations get left in the dust.  Just ask a local teacher how well they do on keeping up with technology and its available options for education.  They will tell you that it is challenging if not impossible.  As a matter of fact, many teachers, do little more than run their email.  That is the extent of their technology repertoire.  

Beyond that, the students themselves don't really understand technology.  I know, I know.........they are on devices all day long and they know how to do things you couldn't even fathom or keep up with.  Unfortunately, these students seem to be well versed in gaming, online videos and music but still can't find valid scholarly articles for research on an important topic or project.

That leads me back to what direction should we be going in education?   Back when my parents were born, if they went to college, they were guaranteed a job.  My father went to medical school and, as long as he worked hard, he was practically guaranteed a terrific income and a solid future.  Now....a classical education doesn't necessarily guarantee anything.

I don't profess to know the answers by any means.  Intuitively, however, I do feel like we need to teach our students a few things that would be valuable to them, no matter what the future brings.

1.  Problem solving skills:  Problem solving is by far the most important thing, I believe, we can teach our children.  Life itself is one big problem to be solved.  Our children need to learn what the problem is, where they find resources, discern which resources are valid and which are bogus, organize a plan and try to solve the problem.  This is so important and we see so often, students who know how to do "academic" work or jump through "academic hoops" but don't truly have the ability to solve a real-world problem.  Contributing to this is the current education system which has created a "factory" model where students have to jump through hoops to the "grade point average" goal.  Many students who have successfully jumped through the "academia" hoops don't actually know how to "do" or "solve" anything.

2.  Having "Stick–to–itiveness".  Our students need to quit giving up so easily.  I've told my own sons, sooooo many times, that they wouldn't be in school if they already knew it all.  School is to help facilitate students in learning things they don't's OK to struggle.  Unfortunately, too often when we ask students to actually struggle, they give up instantaneously.  Even as adults we have become accustomed to conveniences of life, so much so, that when something goes wrong, we don't know how to function.

We can't blame education for all this.  We have an instant gratification society which leaves our kids little room to learn that struggling and fighting for something can be a good thing.

3.  Self-regulation and Self-motivation:
Teaching students how to become self-regulated can be extremely difficult in today's culture where we do so many things for our children.  Students have become used to teachers spoon feeding information and then, as expected, regurgitating it back out. Not to mention, students don't invest in their responsibility because they are waiting to be told what to do when.  We need to change these practices to help students become more involved, self-motivated and active in their own life and learning.  We need to encourage responsibility as citizens of their school and society, regulation of behavior, organization skills, goal setting, understanding that they are responsible for their own actions and the repercussion of those actions.  When students and children have a say, they become more invested in what they are doing.

All in all, I think the education has a long way to go.  I hope, with all my heart, that we can creep toward something better for our kids.  As I said before, it is hard to do when we have so much red tape stopping us in so many directions.  What I do know is that it is important for all of us to work together to support our kids for a future with a fresh outlook.  :)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Thank You

Dear Parents and Terra Academy Staff and Supporters:

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of those people who have put tireless efforts into volunteering at the school.  We have had so many people help move furniture, paint furniture, give donations, work with student and volunteer in classrooms and events.  We could not have done any of it without you all.  Again thank you so very much for helping us to become a successful school to educate our most precious resource.