LEWISTOWN - After the announcement last month that several Mifflin County schools fell "far" and "significantly" below state benchmarks in the 2011 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, the Mifflin County School District Board of Directors on Thursday heard presentations from three secondary school principals on their plans to improve the next time the tests are administered.
During the board's Aug. 16 workshop session, Superintendent James Estep said preliminary results from last year's tests showed that the district has "quite a bit of work ahead."
With that in mind, Estep said he set up meetings with the various principals on all levels and asked them to work on devising a strategy to improve student performance on the tests.
On hand for Thursday's committee-of-the-whole meeting were Mike Zenoble, principal of Mifflin County Junior High School; Rob Reeder, principal of Mifflin County Middle School; and Mark Crosson, principal of Mifflin County High School.
Zenoble said he and his staff have the burden of preparing not only for another round of PSSA tests, but the mandated Keystone Exams, as well.
With that in mind, he said the junior high school has set a number of goals, including keeping the retention rate of students higher, ensuring a safe and productive environment, making every minute count and creating a vision representing the goals of the school.
"We want to narrow the (school district) mission statement even further to what the junior high is all about," he said. "We're looking to increase communication, getting teachers together and working with the high school to make the transition smoother."
Zenoble said he has begun implementing teacher assessments to increase student achievement in math and literacy skills, the two areas addressed in the state and federally mandated tests.
With regard to the recent PSSA tests, Zenoble said that, considering the massive transition that went on with last year's reorganization of the school district, the scores weren't as bad as they seemed.
"I was pretty happy with the scores as a starting point. We're hoping that everything will go up," he said.
Reeder said the middle school's scores fell below the proficiency rates being demanded by the state, however, "They're making progress and heading toward growth models."
Reeder said his school has begun implementing an improvement plan that includes improved data analysis, teacher instruction and professional training.
"Assessments are also being taken to see where the students are at with regard to the PSSAs," Reeder said. "Once those assessments are done, we will analyze the data and look for deficiencies and where we need to make gains before taking the PSSAs this year. This is a very important piece of the process."
In the realm of improving instruction, Reeder said he and his staff are focusing on content, professional development and math and literacy skills. He said the school is also partnering with another school located in Fulton County that had test scores at or above the proficiency levels.
"We're pairing with them to learn what they've done to be successful," Reeder said.
Crosson said the high school level isn't required to take the PSSAs, however, it does participate in the Keystone Exams.
Crosson said his school is presenting tests that are geared toward the Keystone Exams.
"We believe it's curricular," he stated. "We need to make sure instruction is planned daily and is aligned to the common core. Our AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) is solely dependent on the Keystone Exams."
Crosson said he is taking a "bell ringer concept," with students spending 5-7 minutes of every lesson working on a problem done across all disciplines.
"There has to be a buy-in with all departments," he said. "I've been meeting departmentally to achieve that. These questions emulate the Keystone Exam questions."
In English, for example, Crosson said the goal is to have students take the Keystone Exams in January so they'll have half of this school year left to make adjustments to curriculum based on the test scores.
"We have to make sure we're utilizing every day to address the standards as they are presented," Crosson said. "The curriculum can never be stagnant. The teachers have been excellent. They have worked with us and been very progressive."
With regard to the last round of test scores, Crosson said, "Obviously, they're not acceptable. We're working really hard. The math and reading scores were higher than the prior year with Indian Valley and Lewistown. But they're not anywhere near where we want to be. We have lots of work to do. That's why we're addressing this across the board."
Estep said principals from the other grade levels will also be addressing the board on their improvement plans at a future meeting.
On a related note, during the public comment period, Dianne Shearer, president of the Association of Mifflin County Educators, gave an impassioned speech on the frustration being exhibited by teachers with fewer staff members, larger class sizes and spending a large portion of their time getting students prepared for the various mandated testing programs.
Shearer said with the increased number of assessment programs, teachers are losing valuable instruction time.
"Most people go into this field because they love children and want to teach," she stressed. "Unfortunately, we cannot even do that. Because of all the assessments during January this upcoming year, at the high school alone, some students will have a total of two instructional days. That is simply crazy. One month with barely any instruction. What are we teaching kids? The answer: Bubbling on a test sheet."
Shearer said teachers are worried and wonder how they can be successful when they do not get to take advantage of classroom instruction time. She said teachers are being asked to volunteer more time and stress is increasing to new heights.
"Staff and administrative morale is at an all-time low," she said. "It's hard to believe, but the situation is even more dismal than last year. This is not good for the members of the district and especially not for the children in our community.
"PSSA scores were poor. No kidding. Do you suppose there is a correlation among the factors of staff reduction, school closings, moving, stress levels, huge classes, elimination of elementary libraries and after school programs? If we want success in our district from students and staff, then we need to be able to teach. We cannot do this without the proper resources."
Board President Walter Harpster said he agrees with most of what Searer said and believes the frustrations she mentioned are warranted.
"It is frustrating for everyone," Harpster commented. "I agree 100 percent with you. There's way too much testing. Too many times we're being asked to teach to the test and we don't have the time. It's frustrating to us because of state and federal mandates on all this testing."
Following the presentations, the board reviewed the following agenda items that are scheduled to a vote during the Sept. 27 business meeting:
The rejection of boiler replacement and HVAC construction bids dated Aug. 14 for the Mifflin County Junior High School.
The hiring of Jamie Fisher and Tracy Bastress as custodians.
The addition of Andrew Stroup, William Gillispie, Michael Bickhart and Travis Mazzoni to the custodian substitute list.
Deletion of Theresa Stangl from the custodian substitute list.
A request by the Husky Football Parents' Group to use the Mifflin County High School Commons area on Jan. 13 for their end-of-season banquet.
A request by the Burnham Bulldogs to use Mitchell Field for the Burnham Bulldogs Special Needs football team to hold its annual American Bowl on Nov. 11 and request the waiver of the $600 fee.
The addition of Mary Gordon, Karen Miller, Cindy Jasper and Ashley Carolus to the cafeteria substitute list.
The hiring of Karen Miller, Cindy Jasper and Shelby Stimely as part-time cafeteria workers.
The deletion of Ashley Carolus from the cafeteria substitute list.
Approval of the following bus drivers: From KV Bus Lines: Lisa Sunderland and John Byler; from Fisher Brothers: Deborah Miller, Hanry Walk and Mary Ruble; from J&D's: Scott Aultz, Barbie Bender and Beverly Lightfoot-Gers.
The hiring of Jade Ruble as a math teacher at Mifflin County High School.
The hiring of Brandy Erb as an autistic support teacher at Lewistown Intermediate School.
The hiring of Corby Lancaster as a long-term substitute kindergarten teacher at Strodes Mills Elementary School.
Approval of Sonya Riden and Kathryn Shaffer to serve as teacher mentors.
Approval of Clint Aurand as mathematics coordinator for the 2012-13 year.
Acceptance of the resignation of Sean Carey, social studies teacher at Mifflin County High School, due to personal reasons.
A recommendation to increase the rate of pay for substitute teachers to offset a shortage.
The following additions to the 2012-13 substitute teacher list: Ashley Kitting, elementary; Raymond Klinger, elementary; Carol Caldwell, mentally/physically handicapped elementary; and Amy Hart, secondary.
The following deletions from the substitute teachers list: Kevin Ryan and Alison Summers.
A recommendation to increase the daily teacher substitute rate effective Oct. 1
The hiring of the following full-time paraprofessionals: Tracy Roe, Lisa Avedician, Debra Phillips, Kathy Krepps, Cheyenne Wagner, and Jesse Hoffman.
The following to be added to the substitute paraprofessional list: Betty Jo Knepp, Loretta Cherry, Tina Hale, Susan Jodon, Alynda Lewis and Jennifer Miller.
The resignations of Kendra Kauffman and Louise Gramley as paraprofessionals.
Approval of Katherine Gandy and Carol Booher as classroom volunteers.
The hiring of Gina Wortman as a language arts teacher.
The resignation of Dorothy Fisher, phys ed teacher at Indian Valley Elementary Center, effective the end of the current school year.
The following coaches for the 2012-13 year: Scot Sechler, first assistant spring track; Donald Lepley, assistant eighth grade girls basketball; and Emily Eckenroth, assistant seventh grade girls basketball.
The following volunteer coaches for the 2012-13 year: Edward Stewart, boys basketball; Jamie Barrett-Fetters, bowling; Raymond Klinger, football; Michael Hoskavich, football; Frank Zannino, football; and Richard Strausburg, football.
The addition of Raymond Klinger and Alex Haines to the 2012-13 event staff.