For students, getting selected to participate in an Academy is considered a high honor. Students actually clamor for the opportunity and are excited to be accepted. For administrators and teachers, making the selection is a careful and highly data-driven process. The Academies are but one in a suite of interventions created by the district to help struggling students, and the district and schools engage in an intense matchmaking exercise to find the students who will benefit most from this particular intervention. In a few respects, the bar is high for those who are invited to attend: they must have a solid attendance record, indicate a willingness to work hard, and not exhibit chronic behavior problems.
Schools may even put students under a contract to make concrete improvements between the February and April Academies in order to qualify. “As a former adjustment counselor, I recognize that kids need to be in a place where they are ready to learn,” Superintendent Riley said. “If they haven’t been to school in a long time or they’re acting out, we’ve got to get them back on track and get them the help they need. It’s important to make sure all of our kids have access to it.”
The Golden Ticket
Students are invited to participate in the Acceleration Academies by way of a “golden ticket,” which typically are handed out amidst much fanfare in a large group setting such as an assembly or mealtime.
The idea of a golden ticket resonates because of the popular Hollywood movie “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” based on a 1964 book by the acclaimed British author Roald Dahl. The protagonist, a child whose family is struggling to make ends meet, finds a golden ticket in a chocolate bar he purchases, which entitles him to tour the factory and prove his worthiness. He receives a lifetime supply of chocolate, and eventually inherits the company from its founder, forever changing the trajectory of his family’s life.
In Lawrence, when students receive the simple gold-colored piece of paper that serves as their admission slip, they beam with pride. They consider it a mark of distinction, and their families often view it as a step toward changing the trajectories of their children’s lives.
The significance of the Golden Ticket lies in students’ understanding that by receiving one, they have been chosen to participate in something special. Faculty and administrators raise awareness and excitement about the Academies throughout the year, and particularly in the elementary and middle schools, they make an event out of handing out the Golden Tickets. Some principals have even invited Superintendent Riley to hand out Golden Tickets to highlight the importance the district places on these weeks.
Driven by Data
Every fall, central office administrators organize student test scores for the previous year’s state assessment and assign students to a priority level. Students in Lawrence, like all students in Massachusetts, take the state exam known as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). Students who score in the Needs Improvement High or Warning High ranges are assigned to Priority 1. Students on the cusp of a performance level, such as the lower ends of Needs Improvement or Proficient, are assigned to Priority 2. In 2016, when the state announced plans to create an updated version of MCAS, the Lawrence Public Schools, along with other districts in the state, chose to administer the nationally normed – and very rigorous – PARCC exam as a way to get students ready for the new MCAS. For the 2016 Academies, students still were assigned to priority levels based on their 2015 MCAS scores, but these scores were translated into their likely PARCC equivalent.
The data provided by central office, however, are a starting point for additional conversations. Oftentimes, the superintendent invites administrators and teachers from a given school into his office. Together, they closely examine the “big board” on which each student’s name is placed, moving the names around to ensure that the district decisions are as fine-tuned as possible. Said Wetherbee Principal Colleen Lennon, “I think he [the superintendent] validates them as teachers by having them be in his office to see the board, kind of move the stickers around until we finally came up with the final list of students that we would choose.”
Once all of the preliminary decisions are made, a spreadsheet with the data is then sent to each principal, along with a letter providing additional guidance about student selection. For example, school principals are advised to consult interim assessments for third grade students. The data are a starting point for school administrators, who are given discretion to use additional data and their familiarity with students and families to come up with the final list of students who will be invited to each Academy. This is in keeping with the district's firm commitment to data-driven decision-making.
In addition to analyzing interim assessment data – which represents current performance in relation to past performance as indicated by state standardized test scores – administrators also review attendance and behavioral data, as previously mentioned, to flag students for whom attending a weeklong session during school vacation might pose a challenge. Principals also look to their teachers and other staff members to help determine which students are most likely to benefit from Acceleration Academies. “When all of us are together in the room really talking about each individual student, then the discussion looks a little different than what the data might say, which is really what you want. You make an important choice about a week that the student is going to spend, so you want to make sure you choose wisely,” said Lennon.
English Language Learners and Special Education students are very deliberately included in the Academies – often not needing accommodations because of the smaller class sizes and personalized strategies employed by the teachers.
Families Make the Commitment
When students receive the Golden Ticket, they must bring it home to be signed by their parents. When they return their signed tickets, they receive a prize. At some schools, members of the administrative team will call the parents or guardians of students who do not return their ticket to speak with them about the opportunity and encourage them to send their child to the Academy. Ultimately, though, participation is voluntary, which reinforces the notion that Acceleration Academies are a reward rather than a punishment. Further, students and their families make a choice to spend their vacation this way – even if some are initially hesitant to spend additional time in school, many are motivated to take advantage of the extra academic help that they know they need.
The invitation to participate in an Acceleration Academy comes with an implicit set of expectations. First and foremost, students are expected to attend every day. Selected students and their families are encouraged to address logistical or other potential concerns prior to the start of the week; however, if a student foresees an impenetrable barrier to attending the Academy every day he or she may be advised to decline the invitation. One parent summed up the message in explaining the conversation she had with her children about attending a recent Acceleration Academy: “It’s up to you if you want to go, but once you say yes, it’s mandatory.”
Some students mentioned in focus groups that they were initially “sad” to be losing their vacation time, but nearly all found the week to be “fun” and different from their typical school experience.
Sacrifices and Rewards
While the daily raffles, extra specials classes, and prizes for perfect attendance help get students in the door, many walk away appreciative of the chance to spend the week learning with their peers and getting to know a teacher in a different way. Indeed, many students are very much aware that their Acceleration Academy teacher also has chosen to give up his or her vacation to help them, and that is a powerful piece of knowledge. Not only does it tell students that their teachers care about and believe in them, but also that they are worth the effort and sacrifice.