FAIRFIELD COUNTY — Fairfield County schools were honored to receive a visit from State Superintendent of Education Dr. Mick Zais last Thursday.
The visit is part of Zais applying lessons he learned previously as an Army general and college president, as he noted how a good leader learns from being out in the field and not always behind a desk.
Each week, Zais spends one day visiting state schools. In Fairfield he visited Fairfield Middle School, the Fairfield Magnet School for Math and Science, Fairfield Elementary School and the McCrorey-Liston School of Technology.
Zais took a 10-minute tour of each school. He also met with the school principals, district office staff and Superintendent J.R. Green to find out things the schools were doing well and teaching techniques that are working for them. Zais also wanted a debrief on challenges the schools faced.
The request for feedback helps him as a facilitator of elementary and secondary education, because the key to one school’s success might be just the idea that could help another in a different district overcome an obstacle.
Principal Leevette Malloy at Fairfield Middle School shared how their curriculum emphasizing explicit, direct instruction is paying dividends for students and for teachers through professional development, from observations and from lesson plans within the direct instruction method.
That method requires teachers to constantly check with students to see that they have understanding of subject matter while a lesson is being taught. That way more students can pick up the information instead of waiting until the end of the lesson to ask questions about things they do not understand.
The school’s goal is for 80 percent mastery by 80 percent of the students. White boards and clickers are some of the technologies used to draw the children in and enable immediate teacher-student feedback.
The change required a paradigm shift where they teachers had to break down their lesson plans and redesign them. Zais was complimentary of the staff development related to direct instruction, an area he believes college graduates do not receive enough preparation for while in school themselves.
The district wide goal is to get as many children performing at or above grade level as possible, particularly in reading and math.
Malloy mentioned the plan of action her school has in place, a plan the faculty and staff “stick to with fidelity.” She also highlighted the 6.5 transition program that encourages parent involvement with their children making the transition from grade six to grade seven.
Departmental fairs, secondary life courses in middle school and intensive two day summer camps in math and reading are some of the tools used to help ease children into the middle school environment. Zais was pleased that the MAP standardized testing occurred twice a year, giving data for where a child begins the year and where he or she ends the year on a particular skill.
“That is a good plan because you can see if there has been growth,” Zais said. “Pre and post Map testing is great because you can get a real idea of which teachers are making a difference.”
He mentioned the new federal accountability system that gives teachers and schools credit for making progress with students, part of the waiver to the No Child Left Behind bill.
Malloy also said they look at the previous year scores during the pretest period to measure student summer learning loss. Middle School teachers benefit from a curriculum leadership team that not only relates to curriculum and instruction but utilizes classroom observations and videotaping of teachers to give constructive feedback so they can hone their craft.
On Thursdays faculty have collaborative meetings to plan about grade level appropriate subject matter. A report card data committee helps with staff setting goals developed by interpreting data and demographics. Middle School teachers also collaborate with high school teachers twice per nine weeks in each subject area, another practice Zais applauded.
“I like the idea of Fairfield Middle School working with the high school. So often we focus on high school when really those four years are a culmination (of the eight years preceding them),” he said. “You are doing a super job to integrate schools so they work progressively together.”
Summer reading loss and reading proficiency were areas of concern. This year nine beginning readers entered the middle school but there were high performers who scored 1300 on the PASS testing. Malloy said that most students in the middle school are below grade level in reading, so a literacy initiative was launched. The initiative is a 45-minute daily intervention that is broken up into subject areas, including related arts, classes on study habits and classes on drug intervention.
“Schoolwide, we have a scripted step up to literacy in all content areas because reading is different across disciplines,” Malloy said. She also commended parents for their increased involvement in their children’s educations. Zais encouraged proactive communication from teachers to build rapport with parents from the beginning of the year, rather than a parent only hearing from an educator if there is a problem.
Zais, who is dyslexic, spoke of relating to children for whom reading and math were difficult.
Zais congratulated Fairfield Middle School and Fairfield Magnet School for their high school report card scores. He noted that poverty is a factor in poor or under-performing schools, a factor that is negated by the quality of teachers in the classroom and the effectiveness of the administrators overseeing the teachers.
He was impressed by the security at FMS, including its state of the art camera system and the school resource officer that is based at the school.
Zais examined the per pupil spending which is about $3,000 per child more than the state average. He was proud of a school with a 95 percent poverty rate that moved beyond the rate to receive an A rating and he left the administrators a handout of homework, a study that revealed ways to identify the most effective teachers in the classroom.
In Zais’ mind “we don’t pay our best teachers nearly enough and we pay some of our worst performing teachers entirely too much.” While noting the importance of infrastructure and management, Zais continued to place his emphasis on what happens in the classroom.
“A building has never hugged a child and an administrator rarely teaches one,” he said.
Zais was impressed with the focus on student learning and the focus on literacy.
“That focus is making a school wide difference for students. If you can’t read overall, you can’t learn, so reading needs to be first priority… to get students reading at or close to grade level,” Zais said.