Changes at Mercer Island schools move toward personal needs, less formal assessment

Under the Mercer Island School District’s 2020 Vision, the district’s goal is to “provide more personalized learning where student-centered education is responsive to students’ strengths, needs, learning styles, interests, passions and affinities” by August 2011.

To work toward that goal, the district has been working with teachers at every grade level to encourage them to create lessons and classrooms with a personalized learning aspect.

“Overall, we have lots of evidence that staff is working hard to create a personalized learning environment,” said Mercer Island High School principal John Harrison. Harrison, along with associated principals Craig Olson and Mark Roschy, presented the high school’s School Improvement Plan to the School Board during the May 27 meeting. A large area of focus during the review of the plan was how teachers are moving toward more personalized education for each student. But all members of the administrative team said it was a work in progress, one that requires changing the way that teachers think about teaching.

“The biggest ‘ah-ha’ moment for me was at the end of the year meeting, listening to how teachers created differentiated learning instruction,” said Olson. “Some teachers weren’t quite sure about it in the beginning, but they saw the results, and now we have the concept to grow those results outward.”

In order to help that change come about, the high school’s new evaluation process includes ways for teachers and the evaluators to see how much personalized learning the teacher is doing.

“I think it’s a learning process,” said Roschy. “They are feeling more free to share what’s working.”

Board member Janet Frohnmayer commended the administrators and the school on the work that has been done so far.

“The reality is, changing how people think is a profound change. I think it’s pretty amazing that you are cracking it,” she said.

One area the administrators said where getting more support from the district would be helpful is in offering focused professional development. In many cases, teachers are having to relearn and rethink the way that they teach in the classroom and extra support and professional guidance in those areas would make them stronger teachers.

Another area where the district is shifting thinking is in the form of assessments. The model of years past, when a student earns a grade and that determines everything, has long passed.

“The focus of the assessment is formative,” said Superintendent Gary Plano. “We are looking to gather information, with less judgement. The fact that you’ve done that is laudable.”

The district has identified three types of assessments which are used throughout the school. Authentic assessments are those in which the student demonstrates what they have learned, for example, through a concert where a student performs a solo piece. Formative assessment includes ongoing assessments, reviews and observations in a classroom to provide feedback. Summative assessments are those tests which directly evaluate whether or not a student has mastered a topic. These tests include essays, end of chapter tests and state assessments.

“I’ve spent a lot of time telling teachers what assessments are not,” said Roschy. “The point is there are still some people we need to work with.”

While the administration team said they know there is still work to do, they said the change is starting to take hold.

“It’s happening on a classroom to classroom basis,” said Harrison. “We’re not all the way there, but because the culture has changed those conversations aren’t as difficult as they were.”

MISD plans to hire more teachers after Schools Foundation/PTSA exceeds expectations during spring fundraising campaigns

Thanks in large part to the generosity of parents and the community, the Mercer Island School District will likely be able to add a few teachers next school year with funds raised by the Mercer Island Schools Foundation (MISF) and the Mercer Island PTSA.

This spring’s Bridge the Gap campaign and the Breakfast of Champions have provided the district with over $700,000, exceeding the $500,000 lost in state funding for next year. Because the amount exceeds what was lost, the district will be able to add teachers specifically with the goal of reducing class sizes.

“We are now beyond where we were last year,” said Superintendent Gary Plano. Due to the extra funds, Plano said the district plans to add two teaching positions at the elementary level, .6 FTE (full-time equivalent) at the middle school and .8 or 1.0 FTE at the high school.

“It’s so extraordinary to think where we could have been,” said board member Janet Frohnmayer. “The level of partnership is amazing between all the groups. It’s really something.”

The MISF and PTA members will present the School Board with a check for the funds raised during the June 24 board meeting.

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