DANVILLE — Kerra Harper said math has always been her favorite subject. But she hasn't had an easy time in her geometry class lately.
Recently, the Danville High School sophomore struggled with one of the learning objectives in a unit on angle pair relationships.
"I just got confused when my teacher was going over it in class," Harper said, referring to a lesson on solving problems involving theorems about parallel lines. An assessment confirmed she didn't have a solid grasp.
But instead of moving on to the next lesson, Harper was given a chance to relearn the material in a new 30-minute seminar period. The "intervention tier" gives students who aren't meeting targets in math and English the extra support they need during the school day to address their deficiencies and get back on track.
"In the past, we taught the targets. If the student didn't understand something, it wasn't really addressed. There wasn't time to go back and reteach it in class, so we moved on," said Megan Gleason, who's in her sixth year of teaching math at the high school.
"That approach didn't promote the understanding of things," Gleason continued. "This approach ... is assessing their learning every step of the way, trying to pinpoint where they have holes and filling in those holes so that they can be successful at the next level."
The new period is one of the initiatives that was introduced this fall through a School Improvement Grant. The grant program infuses federal funding into underperforming schools that are committed to implementing a bold and comprehensive school improvement plan designed to significantly improve academic achievement.
Danville High was one of 22 schools in the state that applied for the competitive grant, and one of four to be approved by the Illinois State Board of Education. It will receive up to $6 million over a three-year period to establish the plan's framework, which officials can continue to build upon once the grant ends.
The major initiatives of the plan, which was tailor-made for the school, call for implementing a guaranteed and viable curriculum that's aligned to the Common Core State Standards and focused on ensuring that students are college- and career-ready; developing a classroom and schoolwide system of academic behavioral interventions and supports; and using data to drive both instruction and professional development.
The school's goals include:
— Fifty-five percent of students will meet or exceed math and reading benchmarks on the Prairie State Achievement Exam in 2014; 70 percent will meet or exceed in 2015; and 85 percent will meet or exceed in 2016.
— The school will have a 92 percent attendance rate in 2014; a 94 percent rate in 2015; and a 96 percent rate in 2016.
— The school will reduce the number of behavior incidents by 10 percent each year.
"The house structure really helped us to focus on building student relationships and student engagement," Principal Phil Cox said, referring to restructuring efforts that established the school's four small learning environments — Freshman, New Tech, GLOBAL and ACE houses. "What the (School Improvement Grant) is doing is helping us focus on what we want our students to learn and align it to the Common Core, how we assess students and, most importantly, the intervention we put in place with our students."
The new period, for all students, takes place during fourth period, from 10:10 to 10:40 a.m. It was created by combining the old 15-minute homeroom period with 15 minutes that were added to the school day this year.
During the first three weeks of school, students used the period to learn skills for academic success, such as time management and note taking, as well as how to use the Skyward student database management system to check their attendance, homework assignments, grades, etc. They also set specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely ("SMART") goals and made a plan for achieving them.
Starting in mid-September, students who weren't meeting targets in math and English were sent to intervention classrooms, taught in three-week cycles.
"This allows us to reach students before they fall through the cracks," said Ericka Uskali, the transformation officer who is overseeing the plan's implementation.
"In the past, any kind of intervention would have been done by the teacher with no support or time for planning. And it would not have affected a great multitude of students," she continued, adding that few students were able or took the time to come in for more help before or after school.
"This allows us to intentionally focus on where students are at and what we need to do to help them master the standards and be successful. We're able to meet them at their areas of need and intervene quickly rather than wait until final grades come out."
Each class has a specific focus, where teachers reteach one or two learning targets in a particular unit, reassess students and even "pre-teach" material that's coming up in the next unit to give them a head start. And each class has no more than 20 students, ensuring that each gets one-on-one attention from both the teacher and a peer tutor.
On a recent Thursday toward the end of a cycle, Gleason reviewed a lesson on how to use slope to determine and justify whether lines are parallel or perpendicular, with 15 students. Most of them had failed that target on their unit assessment.
In the past, Gleason and other teachers saw far too many students fail a test, crumple it up and throw it way.
"This is a system where you can't do that," she said. "It's forcing them to look at their failure and overcome it."
After the lesson, Gleason and junior Fabienne Daulton, one of 100 volunteer peer tutors who assist the teachers, went around the room helping students complete practice problems.
"Good job!" Gleason told freshman Kaleigh Wells after Wells solved a problem and explained her reasoning correctly. Wells missed that particular target the first time because she was absent the day it was taught.
"It's easy to fall behind," Wells said. "This class gives you a chance to go back and fix something before it's too late."
Gleason spent more time with another student. He set up the equation and identified the angle pairs correctly. But he had trouble solving for "X" and couldn't complete the problem.
"Solving for X is something they were supposed to learn in algebra last year. But if they miss that one target, whether they're sick or they don't understand it, it can haunt them," Gleason said. "If you can pinpoint that hole and help them relearn it, they'll be more successful in higher math."
Prior to the start of intervention classes, math and English teachers met to design intervention lessons and ways to check for understanding and guide future instruction.
Now they meet weekly to review student data that's continually collected and analyzed by instructional coaches and determine which ones need intervention. Currently, about 450 students — a little more than a fourth of the 1,550 or so students at the high school — are in intervention.
Students can leave the classroom once they have successfully tested out. If they are reassessed and don't pass, they will stay there another week.
"Some kids may be struggling with one concept because they didn't understand it or were absent. They may only stay in the classroom for a week," Uskali said. "Other students' deficiencies go much deeper. They will remain in intervention for several weeks at a time."
Uskali said the instructional coaches work with teachers individually and by department. They observe their classrooms, helping plan lessons, work with them on teaching strategies and help them fine-tune their instruction.
And after seven weeks, about 41 percent of students are testing out.
"That's a significant portion of students who weren't understanding a concept or a skill," Cox said. "And now with additional support, they're getting it."
"It really speaks to our goal of supporting kids and helping them overcome a barrier," Uskali added. "And it shows us that sometime by changing instruction or individualizing instruction, it can make a difference."
As Gleason worked with her geometry students, in another part of the high school, history teacher David Covey was deep in conversation with 19 freshmen students in their "seminar" class. The period's other tier, seminar is for students who aren't in intervention, with the exception of the peer tutors.
This semester, teachers are using the time to review study skills, literacy skills, talk about what success means and help students calculate their grade-point average and discuss how it factors in to not only getting into college but their top choices.
The day's topic: school attendance.
Students read a handout on Danville High's attendance policy, which includes valid and invalid reasons for an excused absence, how many days a student can be absent without failing, what students and parents can do to improve and some of the benefits of good attendance.
Covey personalized the lesson by sharing that, the evening before, he had driven to Peoria for his dad's 60th birthday and didn't get home until midnight. Even though he could have called in absent, he woke up at 5 a.m. to come to work because he wanted to achieve the goal that he set for himself: having perfect attendance.
Then he asked students why they come to school.
"To prepare for my future," Jordan Davis said.
"To get my education and be a role model for my little brother and sisters," La'Nae Moore said.
Christopher Brannin said his older brother had dropped out of school and told him that he would do the same.
"I'm going to prove him wrong and go to my college for my degree in engineering," he said, prompting his classmates to break into applause.
On a recent Friday, the last day of the cycle, Covey met one-on-one with students, while the rest of the class worked quietly at their desks. Teachers hold the mini-conferences every three weeks to allow students to review their grades in all of their classes, their attendance and set goals for the next three weeks.
It's also a time for teachers to make a personal connection with the kids, encourage and inspire them in their academic endeavors and find out if they need extra support.
"You are getting straight A's," Covey said to Faith Aziaka, who has a 4.0 GPA and hopes to go into a career in fashion design or the arts. "What are you going to do if you get a B in one of your classes?
Aziaka paused, then answered, "I think I would talk to the teacher and ask what I'm doing wrong and how I could fix the problem."
Then she wrote down her goals: "I want to study more and turn in my homework on time."
Then Covey met with another student, whose grades have been slipping.
"What's going on?" the teacher asked.
"It's me," the student said, adding he hasn't put in the work. "My grades are already bad. I think it's too late."
"No, it's definitely not too late," said Covey, who went on to give him ideas on how he can turn things around.
Covey believes the conferences are helping students take more ownership in their learning.
"They're starting to realize they have choices and they can make decisions that will help them improve," he said. "A lot of times in the past, I'd hear a student say, 'They gave me a C or D.' Now they're saying, 'I earned the grade.'"
School leaders said the new period, like the entire school improvement plan, is flexible. Programs are constantly being monitored to see what's working or not working.
"If something's not working, we have the ability to finesse it or change it completely and try a new approach," Uskali said.
Cox added that two upcoming changes that will roll out next semester, possibly earlier, came directly from students and staff.
The period will become three-tiered. The intervention prong will stay in place.
But they're planning to add "guided support" classrooms in math, English, science, social studies and possibly other subjects. Cox would like to introduce some of them in December.
"Those are for students who don't need intervention, but they are struggling, but they need more time," Uskali said. "That might even be kids who are in (advanced placement) classes who need more practice with a specific concept."
"If you've got kids who are struggling in Spanish, they could get some extra support during those 30 minutes," Cox added.
They also plan to add enrichment electives for students who are doing well in their classes. Topics will be based on both students and teachers' interest.
"Those will be like mini-courses of things that can enrich students' lives and give them some experiences they might not be able to get through their regular coursework ," Uskali said.
For example, one teacher has expressed interest in teaching a unit on the Holocaust, another wants to teach Japanese and another wants to teach a cooking class. Leaders would also like to see classes on preparing for the ACT, applying for college and completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
"Some may prepare them for life," Uskali continued. "Some may give them more background in some of the things we're teaching. Some of them may just be an interest. Some students may have gone down the business track, so they aren't able to experience the arts. This will allow them to experience something their schedule has not allowed them to do."