The October 3 Winchendon Public Schools School Committee meeting included a comprehensive presentation on the results of the 2019 MCAS tests and how the school department is responding. Mary Aker, Principal of Toy Town Elementary, Jessica Vezina, Principal of Murdock Middle School and Thad King, Principal of Murdock High School gave the presentation as a team.

Mary Aker began with a presentation of the elementary school results. The elementary school test scores reveal the strongest areas of concern. Aker explained that the 4th and 5th grade results show that the schools are making progress toward their target goals. In the few years prior, we actually fell back, so our progress last year is a significant improvement. We went down compared to other schools, but those schools improved much more than Winchendon did, so the regression is relative.

The Student Growth Percentile (SGP) for 5th grade increased in both Math and English Language Arts (ELA). 4th grade Math SGP came in at 43.58%; the state's target is 50%. 3rd grade results show a consistent increase from 2017 to 2019 in the percentage of students in the Meeting Expectations group, with a corresponding decline in the lowest group, Not Meeting Expectations. The highest group, Exceeds Expectations, nudged down slightly.

Aker explained that a major takeaway from the elementary school results is that needs are not being met for both the highest and lowest performing students. Both groups need specific instruction that meets their individual needs.

Plans being implemented immediately include: creating a high achiever RTI (Response To Intervention, a targeted, evidence-based learning model) group in each grade level, which will incorporate self-directed high level projects for students; using data to analyze student needs and form RTI groups aimed at those needs; and using a workshop model to help differentiate and meet students' individual needs. To help the lowest achieving students move up, solutions include incorporating the workshop model in classrooms and implementing targeted RTI with pre- and post- assessments in real time for each session.

Ideally, students should move on from RTI within six to eight weeks. Its function is to identify student needs and allow teachers to frame the best solutions for meeting those needs.

RTI groups have been set up for every grade level. Looney Math Consulting has been running math workshop training for all math teachers. Common Planning Time for teachers includes training in analyzing student data so gaps and problems can be identified and responded to as quickly as possible. Strategies to help families understand how they can assist students are being developed. A strong emphasis is being placed on improving student writing skills, utilizing common writing prompts that can be assessed consistently.

Aker said that a lot of parents have requested training in the new math so they can help their children. Toy Town Elementary held a Math Night for parents, and the department is asking families what they need to support students in their learning.

Aker frankly said that we're making progress but not fast enough; with an overall accountability percentile of 8% Toy Town Elementary is in the bottom tenth percentile and identified by the state as needing targeted assistance. "We have a turnaround plan in place," she said. "The staff has already begun to roll up their sleeves and dig into the work necessary." The state Department of Education will be meeting with Winchendon Public Schools administration soon to define what the DOE will be doing to help and what they'll require from the schools.

Murdock Middle School Principal Jessica Vezina continued with the presentation. Like Toy Town Elementary, Murdock Middle School made substantial progress towards its targets, but is still in the lowest tenth percentile and identified by the DOE as needing targeted assistance from the state.

Middle school students are doing better in Math than ELA. Vezina explained that the Personalized Learning model has changed math instruction a lot; ELA instruction hasn't changed as much. 8th grade students, who had had the Personalized Learning model for two years, did better than 7th graders. The lowest performing students, including chronically absent and disadvantaged children, have been targeted with what amounts to "an IEP for every student" and improved significantly.

8th grade did better than expected in science. Vezina said that this was the first group to get the spiraling standards, with all sciences taught together rather than split up into life sciences, earth sciences and so on.

Moving forward, Vezina said, the Middle School will implement Personalized Learning and Summit Learning in the second quarter of 6th grade. Common Planning Time and Department Planning Time for teachers will follow a tight agenda. Daily student work, not just tests and quizzes, will be closely evaluated so as to assess changing student needs in real time. The school will have a scheduled Intervention/Enrichment block focusing on specific student needs based on real data, extending students' thinking and providing more critical thinking/enrichment activities and opportunities. More teacher leaders are being trained as Summit Coaches.

Vezina praised the Middle School policies standard which establishes expected routines and behavior for students throughout the school day. She explained that this standard creates a completely consistent learning environment across classrooms and outside of the classroom, allowing students to focus. School Committee member Lawrence Murphy questioned whether the students are learning to think independently and learn good judgment; in high school they won't have that kind of structure. Vezina said that she hopes students will internalize these standards in middle school and will be able to apply them in the more open high school setting.

Murdock High School Principal Thad King took over for the final section of the presentation. The challenges presented at the high school level are somewhat different. High school students were taking the new MCAS 2.0 tests for the first time. The high school moved from the 11th to the 25th percentile in the state's accountability scale, the highest rating Winchendon has ever had. Murdock High School has moved from Requires Assistance from the state to Does Not Require Assistance.

High school students showed a slight improvement in ELA and substantial improvement in Math and Science, although King stated that 2018 "was a bad year for science" so the improvement is a little skewed. Conversely, the drop in Advanced Placement coursework is deceptive because in 2018 there were no Honors level classes. In 2019 these were reinstated so some high-performing students took Honors classes instead of AP classes. The tests are changing from paper-and-pencil to all computer tests, and it's hard to make exact comparisons between 2018 and 2019.

Of greater concern than academics at the high school level, however, are attendance and dropout rates.

Chronic absenteeism is a serious problem at Murdock High School, and it increased from 2018 to 2019. We exceed many urban school districts for chronic absenteeism. It indicates a problem engaging disadvantaged and high-needs students across the board. The dropout rate also went up, and King said that it might be higher, because students at risk transfer to Murdock Academy and then drop out. Murdock Academy is not counted in the statistics because the number of students in the program is too small.

King identified a number of factors that may lead to absenteeism. The attendance policy in the school handbook allows students to be absent for nine days per semester. "They know this," King stated, and some students abuse the policy. Absenteeism "speaks to relationships with adults at the high school," it has a lot of implications, King said. "If we address that, how they value education overall" it will help. "It's how we work together" to communicate the value of being in the classroom. Murphy added that we need to create the right climate in the schools, "create schools kids want to run to, not run from."

The amount of allowed absences in the policy raised concerns, and School Committee members suggested looking at data on what days seem to have the most absenteeism. Other school districts have eliminated half-days because absentee rates skyrocketed on those days.

The School Committee and Superintendant Joan Landers thanked Aker, Vezina and King for their thorough presentation and their detailed explanations of the plans underway to improve students' learning at all levels. "We're showing great growth," affirmed School Committee member Roann Demanche.