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Fort Worth parents don’t always know when their kids are behind. Could this plan help?

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - 11/15/2023

Education advocates in Fort Worth say there’s a worrisome disconnect between where students are in reading and math and how parents think their kids are doing in school, potentially leaving parents with the mistaken impression that their kids don’t need any extra help.

Polling data released earlier this year shows the overwhelming majority of parents in Fort Worth think their kids are performing on grade level, largely because their kids bring home all As and Bs on their report cards. But state test results show the majority of students in the city’s public schools scored below grade level this year in reading and math. Parents and education advocates have called on districts to provide more detailed information on how kids are doing in school.

Three years ago, another big urban district came up with a new plan to keep parents informed about their kids’ progress. During the 2021-22 school year, Baltimore City Public Schools rolled out a program to create individualized learning plans for every student in the district. The plans were intended to give parents a more detailed look at how their kids were doing in school. Now, school officials in Baltimore can point to signs the program has helped restore relationships between schools and families that were broken during school shutdowns.

But while the program could be one possible solution for other school districts looking for ways to keep parents informed about how their kids are doing, it also highlights challenges that have hampered efforts in many school districts to build those bridges in the past.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea. I think it was a terrible launch,” said Chris Patterson, a former Baltimore City teacher.

Baltimore student learning plans use two-pronged approach

Heather Nolan, director of knowledge management for the Baltimore school district, said the program is modeled after a plan developed by the Harvard University EdRedesign Lab. The district adopted the plan after students returned in person from remote learning during the 2021-22 school year. District leaders saw they needed a new way to engage with parents after connections between families and schools were severed during the pandemic, she said.

The plan consists of two main components, Nolan said. The first piece is a survey that parents fill out at the beginning of the school year with questions about the family’s hopes for the student, any potential barriers that might stand in the way and any extra support the student or family might need during the year. The second is the identification of a goal for the student for that year, and an outline of how the school and the family will work together to help the student meet it.

Parents can access their kids’ student learning plans through the district’s parent portal, which the district already used to send out information like attendance and grades, Nolan said. Those plans are meant to serve as an anchor to conversations between teachers and parents about how students are doing, she said, and what each side needs to do when students are falling short of their goals.

Not all of the goals included in student learning plans are academic, Nolan said. Teachers and families are encouraged to identify up to two goals, with at least one of them being academic, she said. The other goal could be based on some other issue like attendance or social emotional learning, she said, or it could be based on a particular interest the student has. For example, when her own son was in second grade last year, he named learning to write in cursive as a goal he wanted to reach that year, she said.

Three years into the program, there are signs the plans have helped restore connections between parents and their kids’ schools, Nolan said. In the district’s most recent parent and family survey, about three-quarters of parents said they talked with someone from their child’s school about how they were doing academically. Before the district implemented the plans, only about half of the parents who took the survey said someone had contacted them about how their kids were doing in school.

The district also posted gains in reading on this year’s state test. Math scores continue to lag — the news that no students at 13 of the district’s schools scored proficient in math on this year’s state exam prompted outrage among parents and state and federal policymakers. But Nolan said it’s difficult to point to any single policy or program as the sole factor driving academic outcomes, although she suspects student learning plans played a role in the district’s progress in reading.

Baltimore family engagement strategy met with challenges

Although the district can point to signs the program helped strengthen connections between parents and their kids’ schools, the implementation wasn’t perfect. In a report on teacher retention released last June by the Baltimore-based Fund for Educational Excellence, authors noted that teachers told them that developing the plans added significantly to their workloads.

“They are roundly disliked by many teachers, who do not see them as a good use of time,” the report’s authors wrote. They noted that the district streamlined the process for creating the plans last year, and gave teachers more time this year to complete the plans.

Patterson, the former Baltimore City teacher, said teachers never got much guidance about how to create the plans and talk parents through them. There was no formal training about how to structure the plans, she said, just a deadline for getting them done.

At the middle school where Patterson taught, teachers were responsible for compiling learning plans for the students in their home rooms. That left teachers in an awkward position, she said, because they had to discuss students’ progress in subjects they didn’t teach. As a science teacher, Patterson was familiar with Maryland’s state standards on science, but less so for subjects like reading and social studies. So she had a hard time giving parents a complete picture of how their kids were doing, she said.

But Patterson said she thinks the goal of making sure families understand when their kids are struggling is an important one. She just wishes that administrators had taken more of a leadership role in the project, rather than handing it off to teachers with little guidance behind it.

Rebecca Yenawine, who has a daughter in the Baltimore school district, said the introductory questions included in the survey seemed like they could be helpful. But once she filled it out, it wasn’t clear that teachers used the information for anything, she said.

Yenawine said she doesn’t get much information about her daughter’s progress beyond what’s on her report card. She suspects that’s because teachers are too overburdened to talk through student learning plans with every student’s parents. Her daughter generally does well in school, so she may not be as high a priority as students who are struggling, Yenawine said.

But Yenawine, who runs an organization that works with families to advocate for better schools in Baltimore, said parents still need that information, even if their kids are getting good grades. Skills like reading, writing and math aren’t the only things students learn at school, she said. They also learn how to build friendships and communicate with people who are sometimes different than them, she said. If a student is doing well academically but doesn’t know how to solve conflicts with friends, that wouldn’t necessarily show up on a report card. But it’s still something parents need to know about, Yenawine said.

Mismatch between grades and test scores exists in Fort Worth, nationwide

Nationwide, a mismatch exists between how parents think their kids are doing in school based on their report cards, and how students perform on reading and math assessments. In surveys fielded in March, 92% of parents across the country said they were confident their child met or exceeded grade level in reading, according to a report from the national education advocacy group Learning Heroes. About 80% of parents told pollsters their kids received all As and Bs on their report cards, according to the same survey.

But according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes known as the Nation’s Report Card, only about a third of fourth-graders across the country were either proficient or advanced in reading in 2022.

School grading records suggest that the same mismatch exists in Fort Worth. Across the 12 public school districts and 14 charter schools that serve students in Fort Worth, 44% of students scored on grade level in reading on last spring’s State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, according to an analysis of test data by the nonprofit Fort Worth Education Partnership. That represents a two-point decline from how Fort Worth students performed on the previous year’s STAAR, the analysis shows. But in several school districts that serve part of the city, two-thirds to three-quarters of students received As and Bs in reading and language arts last year, according to figures obtained by the Star-Telegram through open records requests.

Education advocates say that mismatch could leave parents with no idea if their kids are struggling. In a survey fielded in May by Concord Public Opinion Partners on behalf of the Fort Worth Education Partnership and the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, 80% of parents who live in Fort Worth ISD said they thought their kids could read on grade level. Some advocates worry that many parents see As and Bs on their kids’ report cards and assume, sometimes incorrectly, that they don’t need any extra help.

M.H. Moore Elementary School rethinks parent engagement

About the same time officials in the Baltimore school district were rolling out the student learning plan program, one Fort Worth ISD elementary school began rethinking the way it communicates with parents.

When principal Ricardo Alvarez Uzcategui arrived at M.H. Moore Elementary School at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, he started scheduling data nights where parents could come talk with teachers about how their students were doing. Three times a year, parents get a chance to sit with their kids’ teachers and look over MAP assessment results. Like many school districts, Fort Worth ISD gives the assessments at the beginning, middle and end of each school year. So the exams can give a more complete picture of how much progress each student made during the year than the state test, which students only take once a year.

The MAP assessment also gives parents information not only about how their kids are progressing, but also about how they compare with other students nationwide. So parents can see whether their kids are behind, and also how quickly they’re progressing compared to their peers. In cases where students are behind in certain subject areas, Alvarez Uzcategui said those results can show parents whether their kids are closing those gaps, or whether there’s more work to be done. If students are struggling, the data nights can be an opportunity for parents to talk with teachers about what kinds of support they need and how parents can help at home, he said.

The program is beginning to show results, Alvarez Uzcategui said. Last year, 62% of the school’s students met or exceeded growth projections in reading, and 70% met or exceeded growth projections in math. That growth came despite daunting challenges — 94% of the school’s students were considered economically disadvantaged last year, compared to 85% in the district overall. And more than half were categorized as emergent bilingual, meaning they were learning English even as they were learning subjects like math and reading.

Alvarez Uzcategui acknowledged that the school still isn’t where it needs to be. Only 23% of the school’s fifth-graders scored on grade level on this year’s state test in math, compared to 34% district-wide. And 26% of M.H. Moore’s third-graders were on grade level in reading, compared to 32% across the district. But as teachers continue to work with students to close those gaps, keeping families engaged and informed about how their kids are doing will be a key part of the process, he said.

“The parents need to be involved, the community needs to be part of the work that we do,” Alvarez Uzcategui said. “I see that as a partnership.”

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