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Franklin schools see smoother changes, positive attitudes in year two of district makeover

  • Jillian Roberts, center, uses her card during a class activity aimed at teaching students about the dynamics between immunizations and the spread of disease in the community in Jeff Jahn's bioethics class on February 6, 2013 at Franklin High School. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Jillian Roberts, center, uses her card during a class activity aimed at teaching students about the dynamics between immunizations and the spread of disease in the community in Jeff Jahn's bioethics class on February 6, 2013 at Franklin High School.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Jeff Jahn goes over questions with students in his bioethics class at Franklin Middle School on February 6, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Jeff Jahn goes over questions with students in his bioethics class at Franklin Middle School on February 6, 2013.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Cameron Moquin raises her hand to answer a question during Janine Neggers's sixth grade math class on February 6, 2013 at Franklin Middle School.  <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Cameron Moquin raises her hand to answer a question during Janine Neggers's sixth grade math class on February 6, 2013 at Franklin Middle School.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Lucas Poirer uses his work book to practice problems during Janine Neggers's sixth grade math class on February 6, 2013 at Franklin Middle School. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Lucas Poirer uses his work book to practice problems during Janine Neggers's sixth grade math class on February 6, 2013 at Franklin Middle School.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Janine Neggers's sixth grade math class uses their smart board to go over order of operation problems on February 6, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Janine Neggers's sixth grade math class uses their smart board to go over order of operation problems on February 6, 2013.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Janine Neggers's sixth grade class lines up before switching from math to science lessons on February 6, 2013 at Franklin Middle School. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Janine Neggers's sixth grade class lines up before switching from math to science lessons on February 6, 2013 at Franklin Middle School.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • From left, Mariah Pickering, Kayla Potter, Katie Cline and Lauren Beachard, work together on fraction and percentage problems in Dan Sylvester's seventh grade class at Franklin Middle School on February 6, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    From left, Mariah Pickering, Kayla Potter, Katie Cline and Lauren Beachard, work together on fraction and percentage problems in Dan Sylvester's seventh grade class at Franklin Middle School on February 6, 2013.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Meghan Gammel and Dan Sylvester go over a math problem during class at Franklin Middle School on February 6, 2013.  <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Meghan Gammel and Dan Sylvester go over a math problem during class at Franklin Middle School on February 6, 2013.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Dan Sylvester helps one of the groups in his seventh grade math class with a problem on February 6, 2013 at Franklin Middle School. Sylvester splits his class of 23 students up into smaller groups so that they can do different activities that reach across the levels of comprehension. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Dan Sylvester helps one of the groups in his seventh grade math class with a problem on February 6, 2013 at Franklin Middle School. Sylvester splits his class of 23 students up into smaller groups so that they can do different activities that reach across the levels of comprehension.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Jillian Roberts, center, uses her card during a class activity aimed at teaching students about the dynamics between immunizations and the spread of disease in the community in Jeff Jahn's bioethics class on February 6, 2013 at Franklin High School. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Jeff Jahn goes over questions with students in his bioethics class at Franklin Middle School on February 6, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Cameron Moquin raises her hand to answer a question during Janine Neggers's sixth grade math class on February 6, 2013 at Franklin Middle School.  <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Lucas Poirer uses his work book to practice problems during Janine Neggers's sixth grade math class on February 6, 2013 at Franklin Middle School. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Janine Neggers's sixth grade math class uses their smart board to go over order of operation problems on February 6, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Janine Neggers's sixth grade class lines up before switching from math to science lessons on February 6, 2013 at Franklin Middle School. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • From left, Mariah Pickering, Kayla Potter, Katie Cline and Lauren Beachard, work together on fraction and percentage problems in Dan Sylvester's seventh grade class at Franklin Middle School on February 6, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Meghan Gammel and Dan Sylvester go over a math problem during class at Franklin Middle School on February 6, 2013.  <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Dan Sylvester helps one of the groups in his seventh grade math class with a problem on February 6, 2013 at Franklin Middle School. Sylvester splits his class of 23 students up into smaller groups so that they can do different activities that reach across the levels of comprehension. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

In the second year of the Franklin School District’s transformation under a federal grant, Superintendent Maureen Ward keeps a sign in her office that sums up her feelings on the changes.

“Sometimes we must burn bridges in order to light the path ahead,” it reads.

Many bridges were burned during the first year of the grant, which is providing more than $2 million to the district over three years to drastically overhaul teaching and learning methods. Teachers reacted with anxiety and sometimes anger to the swift changes, and the students noticed. But in year two, both teachers and administrators say the path ahead is becoming clearer.

“We were definitely apprehensive last year. With any substantial change you’re a little nervous, and so there might have been some hesitation on the teachers’ parts,” said Jeff Jahn, a physics and bioethics teacher at the high school. “As it’s gone on and we’ve become more comfortable with the system in place, people are more comfortable taking the chances.”

In its 2010 application for the School Improvement Grant, the district applied for funding under the “transformational” model. Under that scheme, it must revamp curriculum, improve teaching methods, create a more positive school climate and improve communication with parents. Franklin schools have consistently ranked among the lowest-performing in the state, and the district is labeled “in need of improvement” by the federal government. An outside study commissioned by the district found there was no consistent curriculum and that teachers, parents and students expected and accepted low performance.

That means a lot has to happen – and fast.

As the district builds on last year, teachers face even more challenges this year, including a new curriculum, longer class periods at the high school and new posts for many of them at the middle school. But they also have more resources to handle those changes, including big yellow binders that help them map and record lesson plans, a week-long training session in the summer, and new mentors drawn from the ranks of the Franklin faculty to help in the classroom. The hard work is producing noticeable changes, administrators say, including better test scores, less disciplinary action and a culture where students think they can reach higher levels of achievement.

“I think that that low expectation – the ‘Oh, it’s just Franklin’ – that’s totally changing,” said Tracy Bricchi, curriculum director. “You can really feel it, from parents and the students.”

Continuing changes

For years, teachers in Franklin weren’t required to write lesson plans that followed state guidelines, and the district didn’t have a curriculum. That meant students weren’t fully prepared for state tests and were often learning the same lessons year after year.

Cris Blackstone, the district’s curriculum coordinator, offered the example of a unit on lightning, where a teacher explains the science behind lightning and brings in balloons for kids to rub on their heads to learn about static. It’s usually a lesson kids and parents love, so the teacher does it every year. They share it with other teachers, and if the teachers move to a new grade, they take the lesson with them. Eventually, it might get to a point where students are getting the lightning unit in four different grades with no real purpose.

Not anymore.

“That part is gone. We had how many Dumpsters to prove it was gone?” said Blackstone, referring to a day when the teachers discarded old lesson plans or passed them on to other teachers.

The basis for the new curriculum is the Common Core State Standards, standards adopted by 46 states that will be tested first in the 2014-2015 school year. Teachers and administrators spent last year developing the curriculum. This year, they’re implementing it.

Each teacher brings a yellow binder to class every day, in which he or she records student objectives and reflects on how each lesson worked. One big push is to make sure students understand why they’re learning what they’re learning. This year, the teacher writes the purpose of the lesson on the board every day, and gives students “I can” statements, so they know what skills they should have by the end of the lesson.

Teachers spent a week last summer in training to learn how to make their lessons more interesting. One tip was to get kids up and moving, maybe by having them act out a specific scientific process. Last year, the changes were piled on so fast that the teachers had to go to training sessions during the school day, which meant a lot of substitute teachers. With much of the training accomplished before the school year began, that has happened less this year.

The administration had hoped to go further. At the beginning of the school year, teachers were required to stay for development after school, but that stopped when the union said it was a violation of the teachers’ contract.

Another change from last year are the four teacher coaches at the middle and high schools. Last year, the district hired two outside coaches, who sat in on lessons and tried to help teachers adapt to the changes. Those coaches met resistance from teachers who didn’t like an unfamiliar figure monitoring them. Those two mentors left by the end of the year, and this year the administration moved four teachers who were already working in the district into those roles.

The new coaches are Kerry Cook, a math and science coach at the high school; Deb Norwood, a math and science coach at the middle school; Ginny Doyle, humanities coach at the high school; and Diane Conlin, part-time humanities coach at the middle school. The new mentors have been able to foster a more positive relationship, teachers say.

This year the “coaches aren’t there with negativity all the time – they’re there to try to encourage us and help us so the kids can succeed,” said Janine Neggers, a sixth-grade math and science teacher.

High school teachers now have more time to go deeper into their lessons, too, because the school switched to block scheduling, which consists of four 90-minute classes each day. The longer classes give the students more time to work through large projects, and the teachers can be more creative with their lessons.

“They can really get into and work on a project, and get into the ins and outs and be able to complete a project in a faster amount of time because there’s less transition time between working on things,” said Heather Subocz, a high school technology teacher.

In the middle school, several teachers changed positions this year, moving to new grades and sometimes new subjects. The students used to have different teachers for each subject starting in fifth grade. Now they are eased into having different teachers for each subject. Fifth-graders have one teacher for all subjects, sixth-graders have two teachers – one for language arts and social studies and another for math and science – and the seventh- and eighth-graders have a different teacher for every class. With this change, the younger students are spending less time moving from classroom to classroom, which means more time for learning, Ward said. Moving the teachers to new grade levels also meant they had to leave their old routines behind and establish new ones.

Amid the transformation, teachers say they feel more supported than they had in the past.

“Yes, there are still always those (stressful) times, but it’s not as stressful, we talk things through a lot more,” said seventh-grade math teacher Dan Sylvester. “So if anybody’s really feeling some heat, we’ve got people we can talk to.”

Measuring progress

All of the changes have the same underlying goal: increasing student achievement.

How does the district measure that?

Test scores and student behavior are two indicators.

Franklin consistently has some of the state’s lowest scores on the annual New England Common Assessment Program tests. Those tests will soon be replaced by the Common Core-related tests, but the district is using them now to map progress. From 2011 to 2012, scores increased in reading and math for Franklin students in the elementary, middle and high schools. In high school reading and elementary school reading and math, the increases exceeded expectations set by the state. Since the grant money came, an additional 10 percent of Franklin High School students are testing “proficient” in math. The numbers indicate that the revamp is working, said Ward, the superintendent.

Beyond that, teachers now use a computer program called Study Island to track how much students learn in each lesson. The students take a test before the unit and a test after, which helps teachers measure how effective their teaching has been. (The district did not provide individual Study Island data for this story but did say teachers are seeing positive results in most areas.)

The coaches are focusing their attention on the areas where students aren’t improving.

“It’s not so much we’re looking at it as ‘Oh my God, this teacher is terrible.’ It’s more, ‘Are we teaching what it is that we’re supposed to be teaching?’” said Bricchi, the curriculum director.

Principals now have a new teacher evaluation form that they use to measure success when they visit classrooms. Those forms give teachers a better idea of what isn’t working and how to fix it. Teachers who bring innovative ideas into the classroom can be rewarded with a new “Teacher of the Quarter” award, which comes with a cash bonus.

One of the biggest problems in the past was that students, teachers and parents accepted low achievement, often pinning it on the city’s low socioeconomic status. That’s starting to change, too, administrators say. On a behaviorial level, if students are having a problem in class, they can voluntarily leave and go to a room with counselors trained to handle students with complex mental and emotional needs.

“There’s a big shift in the way the students are perceiving what the teacher is doing for them,” Blackstone said. “They might not all be buying into ‘I’m responsible for my own learning,’ but they are buying into ‘I’m pretty well responsible for my own behavior.’ ”

Both the high school and middle school started student-led conferences this year, where students meet individually with their parents and teachers to demonstrate what they’ve learned. The point is to see if students understand what they’re learning, and to keep parents involved. Several teachers said the students and parents are probably feeling more comfortable with the changes this year because they can see that the teachers are handling them better.

“I’m sure the community anxiety (last year) was partially a function of the teachers, and then funneling through to the students, and it trickled down to the parents, just because I’m sure they could see that everything was changing quickly for us,” said Jahn, the high school science teacher.

Deanna Crucetti, a fourth-grade teacher, said parents seem more invested this year.

“I think the community in general is much more confident,” she said.

Moving forward

By Friday, Franklin must submit its application for the third and final installment of grant money. The trick with the grant, Bricchi said, is using it as a resource to help teachers completely change their routines. That way, when the money is gone, the best practices they’ve developed will remain. The district may try to fund some of the positions, such as the coaches and a technology specialist, through other grants.

Heather Judkins, president of the middle school parent-teacher organization, said she hopes the district will keep moving forward even after the money is gone. It’s been hard for Franklin to make changes that stick because administrators have come and gone quickly, and that worries parents, she said.

“We’ve had so many administrators that change that no one’s been able to really stay focused on (a) project,” she said. “My hope is that we will be able to do that and to keep looking forward and keep improving.”

From the perspective of the New Hampshire Department of Education, which periodically checks up on schools that receive grant money, Franklin is making big strides. Deborah Connell, an administrator in the Bureau of Integrated Programs, visited the high school and middle school a few weeks ago. Last year, she saw the burning bridges, and a district that wasn’t coming together. This year, she said, things have changed.

“It was very rewarding to visit the school in the second half of the second year, because the first year they were struggling,” she said. “It’s a school community. It wasn’t back then.”

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or
kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

Legacy Comments1

Three cheers to the Franklin School District for embracing this program and bringing about a transformation in everything from curriculum to culture. As the article suggests, such sweeping changes -- even when the need is widely recognized and supported -- come with some major challenges. As a former Monitor reporter who covered Franklin more than 20 years ago, I still find inspiration in those good Franklin-ites who are working to lift up that hard-working city. Likewise, thank you to the Monitor for the great reporting on this -- and for giving your talented staff the time and resources to share these bigger-picture stories with us readers!

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