November 2, 2013

Wichita school tests a new kind of parent-teacher conference

As much as education has changed over the years – new technology, new standards, new tests, even new lunch guidelines and recess routines – one thing is pretty much the same today as it was generations ago:

The parent-teacher conference.

Twice a year – once in the fall and once in spring – you set a time to meet with your child’s teacher. You drive to school, sit in the tiny desks, review some papers, see report cards, maybe ask a few questions, browse the book fair and go home.

“They’ve been the same for 50 years,” said Maria Paredes, senior program associate for WestEd, a Phoenix-based educational consulting firm. “And no one knows why we’re doing them. What’s the point? What kind of results are we seeing?

“Sometimes you’re just going through the motions in the name of building relationships … without a clear idea of what kind of relationships you want to build.”

One Wichita elementary school this year is reinventing the parent-teacher conference, adopting a model based in part on Paredes’ work in Arizona and a dozen other states.

The idea: Meet with parents more frequently and as classroom “teams,” review academic and behavior expectations, share data more openly and give parents specific ideas for ways to boost learning at home.

Cessna Elementary, identified last school year as among the lowest-performing schools in the state, has eschewed twice-a-year conferences for monthly “Stat Nights,” where parents gather in groups to see how their children are performing in relation to classwide data. Teachers and administrators hope the change will create more meaningful partnerships and, consequently, raise test scores at the southwest Wichita school.

“We know we can’t do this job alone,” said principal Matt Snodgrass. “We need them, not just with a phone call or a brief meeting twice a year, but we want them to feel welcome in the school and have an active part in their child’s education.”

Learning by doing

During one of three sessions for her students’ parents at a recent Stat Night, teacher Jennifer Kennedy and several mothers met in her fourth-grade classroom.

After a brief welcome, Kennedy shared a slide that showed 40 percent of Cessna’s first-graders and about a third of fifth-graders are considered “at-risk” in reading, meaning they read below grade level and are in danger of falling even further behind.

“It’s a really big deal,” she said. “So hopefully, we’re making changes – no, we are making changes – to make that better.”

Kennedy explained the district’s renewed focus on phonics for older elementary schoolers, illustrating how her students are learning to “attack big words” by breaking them into sounds and syllables.

“I want to clarify what the district expectations (for spelling) are because when we all went to school we got 10 words, had to memorize them and write them in sentences and that kind of thing,” she said. “When I teach spelling during my decoding time, it’s different. So we’re going to play along with the teacher.”

The moms smiled and sat up straighter.

“Let’s take the word ‘delight,’” Kennedy said. “Tap out the sounds that you hear: ‘dee,’ ‘lll,’ ‘eye,’ ‘tuh.’ How many sounds?”

“Four,” the women responded.

“So how many boxes will we use?”

“Four,” they answered.

Kennedy illustrated how her students break words into sound boxes on specially formatted paper, then “loop” syllables together with arching arrows.

“How you teach it at home is up to you,” she said. “But just know that your kids are used to sounds when they talk about spelling. Any questions?”

Kristy Holomeck raised her hand. “I think they just complicated things,” she said.

“It is. It’s just too much,” Stacey Easter added, nodding.

“They’re taking a simple concept and making it so massive and complex,” Holomeck said.

“This is throwing so many different angles at the kids, and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I have to break it down to this, this and this?’ … You’re just making it such a complicated task.”

Kennedy listened and nodded.

“I respect your view on it, and I understand, for your daughter, that it could be causing her a little bit more confusion because she doesn’t struggle with certain things like others do,” the teacher said.

“It might seem kind of silly if your daughter can pick up a book and read it with no problem. But there’s going to be a time in the next two years that this skill is going to be extremely important. They’re going to have to be able to look at a word and say, ‘Oh, I know that and that’ and figure it out.

“If we can break even just these words down, it will help them with those words,” Kennedy continued. “It’s going to help them. It’s giving them that foundation. … I’m sorry. That was probably way more than you wanted.”

“No, no,” Holomeck said. “I actually appreciate the explanation. It’s a good explanation.”

Mixed results

Those types of conversations, more rare during one-on-one parent-teacher conferences, are a benefit of the new model Cessna Elementary adopted, said Christina Long, family and community network specialist for the Wichita school district.

“Teachers are taking their knowledge and sharing it with parents in a family-friendly way, so parents then know what they can do to help,” Long said.

“Oftentimes, we as educators have these unrealistic expectations of parents. Or we feel so deflated when parents don’t seem to rise to our level of expectations.

“But do we stop ourselves and ask ourselves, ‘How are we helping parents to help us?’”

Cessna teachers spent more than six months developing their new format for monthly conferences, which they call “Cessna University.” The first Stat Night in September was spent addressing privacy concerns – students are identified by an assigned letter rather than names – and explaining terms such as intervention, progress monitoring and AIMSweb, a screening tool.

Parents still may request one-on-one conferences with teachers.

Snodgrass, the principal, said one of the biggest challenges so far has been scheduling sessions at times when most parents can attend. The school, at 2101 W. 45th St. South, posts fliers, calls parents about Stat Nights and offers on-site child care, but many classes still don’t attract a majority of parents.

This month, parents learned how teachers use AIMSweb passages to rate students’ reading levels, and they took home materials to practice and track their children’s reading at home. They also got math flashcards and games.

“We’re kind of tweaking it as we go,” Snodgrass said. “We’re taking their feedback and using it to make changes as necessary.”

Gail Edwards, whose son Dustin is a fourth-grader, said she likes the new format.

“I like the information we’re getting and the hands-on (demonstrations) of what he’s doing and learning,” she said. “I think it’s good overall.”

Holomeck, who has a third- and a fourth-grader at Cessna, said she doesn’t mind the new format but prefers individual conferences.

“Sometimes there’s something I want to talk about that’s related specifically to my child,” she said. “I think that one-on-one, face-to-face conversation is important.”

Leveraging parents’ aspirations

Paredes, formerly the director of community education at the Creighton School District in Arizona, developed a model called the Academic Parent Teacher Team, which replaces traditional parent-teacher conferences with three group meetings and one individual conference per year.

Four years ago, a dozen teachers in her district tried the new format. Their students showed improvement in math and reading at nearly three times the rate of other students in the same schools, Paredes said. Today, all nine schools in that Phoenix-area district use the model, and parent attendance for APTT meetings averages 92 percent, she said.

Schools in 13 states, including Nebraska and Colorado, have adopted the new conference format. Still, Paredes said, teacher buy-in often is a challenge.

“Teachers have never been taught to teach parents,” she said. “The first reaction is usually, ‘If they wanted to be involved, they already would be,’ or ‘They’re not going to do it anyway,’ and on and on. … But then they see how excited and grateful and committed the parents are.

“What you’re doing is you’re leveraging parents’ aspirations and wishes for their children. That’s a powerful thing,” Paredes said. “These parents want their children to be successful. You’re just using data and instruction and practice and goal-setting to organize it.”

Another key to the new conference format, Paredes said: Schools must sift through their catalog of activities and events – each school in her district had an average of 22 a year – and keep only ones tied directly to classrooms or student achievement. That means saying goodbye to fall festivals, bingo nights, spaghetti dinners, carnivals and even PTA meetings.

That can be controversial, Paredes said, because those activities are long-held traditions in many schools. But, “When you get families on your campus, they should be there for a very meaningful, specific purpose, not just to hang out.”

Long, the Wichita parent engagement specialist, said “there is an appropriate place for relationship-building events” in schools, but, “If we are being so narrow as to think that when they come on our terms, our schedule, that we’re involving them, we’re wrong and we’ve missed the mark.”

Long said other schools in Wichita are watching Cessna Elementary and some plan to replicate its new conference model. Spaght Elementary, near 10th and Grove, held a similar Stat Night event last month to review data with parents and introduce academic vocabulary.

“Sometimes we go into autopilot when it comes to conferences,” Long said. “Parents often express a feeling of being unfulfilled. … You get all of this information thrown at you, very little time to ask questions, and it becomes almost impersonal.

“With all the demands on people’s time, with all the preparation that goes into parent-teacher conferences, what is the outcome we want to see? If schools are displeased, then maybe it’s time to look again and do something differently.”

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