Jarrett Middle`s ohana delivers extraordinary results


Conventional wisdom would say that Jarrett Middle School should not be doing as well as it is, given the size of its high-needs student population. But it's bucking expectations with a commitment to "Everyone Being Extraordinary." A calm atmosphere and engaging instruction are boosting students to go beyond a year of learning.

Conventional wisdom would say that Jarrett Middle School should not be doing as well as it is.

The Palolo Valley school on O‘ahu has large “high needs” student populations. More than 72 percent of its children qualify for the Free and Reduced Price Lunch program (the statewide average is just over 50 percent). Jarrett Middle School also educates higher than average numbers of special needs students (14.5 percent vs. the state’s 11.2 percent) and nearly double the state’s average of English Learners, at 11.5 percent.

As a consequence, many of Jarrett’s students are starting school less ready for it than their peers across the state, and have to work harder to catch up.

“These kids have farther to go. That’s why they can’t afford to be ordinary,” said Principal Reid Kuba, who is in his second year at Jarrett after helming nearby Palolo Elementary for nearly three years.

Not only have Jarrett’s students caught up, they are 15 points ahead of the state’s middle schools in science (19 points above their Complex Area middle schools), and they are on par with middle schools across the state and their Complex Area in English language arts/literacy (ELA) and math. (See Jarrett’s Strive HI Report here.)

And all of Jarrett's students are learning at a better rate. The school’s achievement gap between high needs students and their peers is much smaller than the state average for middle schools:

  • Math: 34 percent, or 20 points less
  • ELA: 35 percent, or 14 points less

“We needed to focus our efforts on doing things better than ‘normal.’ So we challenge them, and this expectation is communicated to parents and the surrounding community,” noted Kuba. It's why it's enshrined in the school’s accreditation plan:

Expecting Everyone to be Extraordinary
Ordinary and status quo is not enough. 66% of our kids often come to us below proficiency, and if we aren’t strategic in what we do, they will leave us being below proficiency. We needed to focus our efforts on doing things better than “normal.”

Educators intuitively grasp the extra work that is required of high needs students to match their peers. But it’s more important to make sure that the kids get it. So when the school year starts, they do a “pretend race” in a schoolwide assembly.

Kuba explains: “Some students start at the starting line, and then we move a random group of kids further back. And they protest, like, ‘Hey, what’s going on, that’s not fair, why are we back here?’ But because we have kids from families that struggle, lots of them didn’t go to preschool, don’t have learning supports at home — a host of challenges. So they have farther to travel in the race and they’re still expected to get to the finish line with these other kids that have advantages.”

The message is that life is not fair, but students must choose to do something about it. They are given three options:

  1. Give up, quit, and fall farther behind,
  2. Be an ordinary middle school student and still end up behind, or
  3. Be an extraordinary student and win the race.

“Ultimately, students choose to be extraordinary, and it is expected of them,” Kuba said.

While that captures the students’ attention and understanding, the school has laid the groundwork to ensure they all have the opportunity to catch up and more. Here's how.

suspensions chart

SOURCE: Hawaii DOE Longitudinal Data System

Building 'a safe place'

Along with focusing on learning and instruction, the school staff implements many positive behavioral support programs to create a safe learning environment. The graphic above shows suspensions at Jarrett Middle and all grades 6-8 across the public school system over the past four years. While the statewide total is down 7 percent, it’s plummeted 91 percent at Jarrett. (Pictured: Message in a Jarrett Middle hallway.)

Jarrett hallway

Kuba cites this shift as the foundation for everything else the school is achieving. “The school culture and learning environment has to be calm and inviting. You need to have that. Then you can think about academics. Our counselors, Shaunte Nobriga and Jessica Shifferly, do a great job at being proactive and keeping on top of the students. They prevent many small problems from turning into larger ones.”

The school set up a system — Ke Alaka‘i Good News — to record the good works of students throughout the day, whether for each other or for staff, that are broadcast during the morning bulletin and recorded on the school’s website. Students and staff are challenged to do good works on and off campus, and the adult staff is always on the lookout. Students could turn in a lost cellphone, help a peer pick up books and papers that fell on the floor, or help a special needs student carry their lunch. Kuba says he hears it all the time from visitors and other state workers who are on their campus: the kids are respectful and the campus is peaceful.

Math teacher Katy Parsons, who is chair of the school’s math department and has taught there for three years, witnessed the culture shift.

“It wasn’t a negative atmosphere before, but it wasn’t as welcoming. Now it’s much more of a family feeling, a ‘home away from home’ kind of place,” she said. “Everyone helps now, there’s a lot more leadership by example.”

And the students agree. In the 2016 School Quality Survey, 83.8 percent of Jarrett’s students responded positively about school safety, more than 14 points higher than the statewide rate for middle school students.

“I think kids sense a different feeling on this campus. It’s focused on learning and being a safe place, and we look out for each other,” Kuba said.

Science teacher Paige Yerxa, who has taught at Jarrett for seven years, cited leading by example as being key to the family environment. “(Former Jarrett principal and now Complex Area Superintendent) Donna Lum (Kagawa) began it by creating this perfectly working motor where every part complements the other. She made us excited to work hard and want to constantly work harder. Reid continues this by being a leader who supports us and leads by example.”

And no school can do without that one person who holds it all together. Yerxa says Jarrett’s person is Geri Pung. In her varied positions at the school, she’s been a special education teacher, student activities coordinator and now registrar. “Geri is a unique and super-extraordinary bonus that we have here. I call her the glue that holds us together because she holds everyone accountable and makes sure everything gets done properly and fairly.”

Jarrett Middle School
Kūlia ‘i ka Nu‘u. “Strive to Reach the Highest.” Mural at Jarrett Middle School.

More than a year of learning

Focusing on academics, Jarrett Middle changed its Data Teams into Instructional Teams, with full support of the faculty. Each Department Instructional Team focuses on instructional strategies that solve common learning challenges, and the Instructional Leadership Team (ILT) drives schoolwide instructional goals.

“The focus should not be on data and compliance. The focus should be on students and good classroom instruction,” Kuba said. “Teachers are empowered to be the difference in the classroom.”

The Instructional Teams are the school’s “Bright Spot,” he said. The teachers identify classroom challenges they’re seeing, discuss their recommendations, and pull from Visible Learning strategies that boost a student’s learning beyond one year.

Part of helping students “catch up” is Ketchup Week — all administrators, counselors, classroom and non-classroom teachers come together as a team to support students who are receiving Ds and Fs for mandatory one-on-one tutoring after school during the 7th week of every quarter. Students who are doing well are also invited to participate by attending and accelerating in study halls in the Media Center.

“This is really an example of the teachers doing their part to be extraordinary,” Kuba said. “The first time we did Ketchup Week, our team helped students move about 45 grades from a D or F to a C or higher. Our teachers really focus on the success of the kids and are extraordinary. Originally Ketchup Week was held right before the end of quarter. It was the teachers who said that’s too late to have meaningful impact for students, so they asked to add one more Ketchup Week at mid-quarter and end of quarter. I am grateful to the teachers for their teamwork and focus on the success of our students.”

The focus on finding the instructional practices that work with each student and group of students is organically reflected in its performance on the state assessment. As such, there isn’t a question of how to keep the school’s trajectory going, Kuba said. “The way we improve on a test is not to focus on the test. Our focus is on life skills. For example, performance tasks (a component of the state assessments in ELA and math) are an outcome of us teaching kids life skills of how to justify an argument, citing evidence, and how to write. The teachers here focus on good instruction. You do that, the test will work itself out.”

Jarrett also provides a robust after school program that ensures diverse learning opportunities to keep kids engaged at school. The After School All-Stars program at Jarrett includes enrichment classes in fine and performance arts, foreign languages, cooking and gardening, filmmaking, and chess, among others. Students can join fitness classes around a host of sports — basketball, flag football, rugby, volleyball, soccer, softball, cross country, field hockey and bocce ball. The program also has daily one-hour tutoring and homework assistance.

Parsons with her 2016-17 homeroom students.

Making math real

Hawai‘i can track more than just achievement on the state assessment. Results are also examined for the shortfall in performance of high needs student groups (known as the “achievement gap”), and growth is also measured. Growth is the way the state tracks “greater than average” learning — it’s the assessment version of Jarrett’s life-race analogy. The online assessments for math and ELA are adaptive — questions get progressively harder as students correctly answer them. More students progressing to harder questions equals greater growth. When looking at growth, the state is the median, so schools that rise above it are pushing their kids further in their learning compared with similar students.

In a year, Jarrett not only raised its math achievement 10 points, and cut its gap by 27 points, it raised its median growth percentile 14 points to 61 percent.

This would be an extraordinary feat for any school, and it happened at a school with a significant high needs student population. Kuba gives full credit to the school’s faculty for their teamwork in supporting the various departments, and to the math department, which he said, “really took ownership of their own learning.”

It all started with a new professional practice in the math department. Instead of one professional development day, math chair Katy Parsons and her team pitched the principal to give them two days — one for observation, in which the teachers watched how each member conducted lessons in the classroom, the other to collaborate on strategies and curriculum based on what they learned from it. (You can follow #ObserveMe to see how teachers across the country are adopting and sharing this practice on social media.) They also explored possible ways to incorporate more technology into the classroom to promote differentiation and individualized attention for students.

“It really helped us to hone in on, ‘Where are the needs?’” Parsons said. “We can go to a billion trainings, but it’s really going to be the practice of what we do in the classroom that makes the difference for kids.”

The observations revealed these consistencies in the team’s classrooms:

  • High expectations of all students — “nothing was cookie cutter, nothing watered down,” Parsons said.
  • Classroom routines showed efficient use of instructional time — “do now” exercises, work review, activity, closing.
  • The students showed a strong grasp of math language and were attempting to use vocabulary to explain problems to other students in the class.

These provided a solid foundation from which to launch new instructional strategies to target the “soft spots” in math learning — ratios and proportions, and their visual representations (expressions) such as graphs.

The team also identified the need to support the transitions that students in this age group go through in their learning. As Parsons explained: “They’re being weaned off of being handed information (elementary) and doing the work to figure it out on their own (high school).”

The team adopted two strategies, both of which work to “make math real” for kids to help them connect to and engage with the subject:

  1. Place- and culture-based curriculum. They partnered with UH-Mānoa to connect concepts from GO Math! curricula to the everyday things they would experience as kids in Hawai‘i.
  2. More project-based work, such as computer aided design (CAD).

So instead of studying animals they’ve never heard of, they’re studying humpback whales and Hawaiian monk seals. They design and build canoes working with 3D CAD, bringing math to life creatively. They’ll be asked to add their real-world experience to expressions — so when the kids suggest “riding the bus,” their calculations (times, distances, transfers) would be represented with a bar graph in 6th grade, revisited in 7th grade with a linear equation, and in 8th grade with a scatter plot and a line of best fit.

“Looking at the same information over time, but using the new concepts that come with each grade, everything is really scaffolded and the learning is cyclical,” Parsons said, who also cited the hour-long after school tutoring available for students as a big help.

Technology has been a game changer for many students, Parsons added. For example, being able to use the GO Math! online learning platform in a student’s native language can unlock doors beyond math.

Parsons: “I had a student from Vietnam — didn’t know anyone, didn’t speak English. His math skills were pretty good, but he was failing every other class. I would work with him to help pull up his English so he could work the word problems a little better, and between that and being able to work in the medium of his language, he went from failing to straight A’s. He put so much effort in, it shocked me. After that he was driven to learn English.”

“If you give them just that little bit of encouragement, along with the right tools, they’ll soar. They’ll blow past your expectations.”

Science is problem solving

Paige Yerxa and student

Jarrett also saw strong achievement in science, hitting 53 percent proficiency, which is an eight-point jump over the prior year. Despite its majority high-needs population, Jarrett leads the middle schools in its complex area by 19 points and all state middle schools by 15 points. 

For some years now, Jarrett has benefitted from a pipeline of students trained in science thanks to Palolo Elementary’s Engineering Design Program (EDP), which assigns to each grade level projects rooted in solving a global problem. (Teachers were trained in EDP in a partnership with Chaminade University and the Office of Naval Research.) The students have tackled a range of challenges, from food shortages to natural medicines and alternative energies.

Science teacher Paige Yerxa (pictured with student conducting an experiment with carbonation) was an advisor to that project and pulled the EDP training into her middle school classrooms, providing ongoing exposure to this engaging format as those students aged into her classes.

“We’ve had Paige in 8th grade science for years, and she’s passionate,” Kuba said. “Our approach with science is, not everybody is going to be an engineer, but everyone will learn to solve problems. And not be afraid to fail and persevere. Those are life skills.”

Yerxa’s focus is differentiating instruction. “I’m not a science guru. I know what it’s like to be a student who struggles to learn science,” she said. “We’re always making changes and improvements to meet the needs of every student.”

And she notes differentiation is not just an instructional strategy. It’s what you do when you care for students. “We really try to meet their needs. We use so many different strategies to get to each one, I can’t even count.”

In addition to using EDP, Yerxa cites these components of her teaching style that are working:

  • A good class environment where everyone feels comfortable, respects each other, and is there to work hard. “I also lead by example by being calm, assertive and fair.”
  • Variety. “Classwork is hands-on, with lots of visuals, labs, and group work. We have students teaching each other, facilitated learning, and revisiting a single topic using multiple strategies. Students can choose how they will display their knowledge (i.e., using poetry, rap, art, acting, or creative writing in a project).
  • Giving the kids time to work toward answers on their own. “It takes longer, but it’s crucial.”
  • Let students share relevant experiences from their lives and native cultures.

She also cited a month-long interdisciplinary unit the school does with the Challenger Center (8th grade at the beginning of the year, 6th grade at the end of the year) on a simulated space station that fires up the students. All departments take part — science, social studies, math, language arts, physical education.

“It’s inquiry-based and a month-long project, so the teams work really tightly together, we’re constantly talking to each other,” Yerxa said. “The kids love it."

Students are trained in the Challenger classes using a rigorous curriculum that aligns with the state standards for each department and General Learner Outcomes. They then attend a simulated space station and mission control where they must work as a team to complete a task — finding a place on the moon to land that has the resources to build a lunar base for further space exploration.

“Students are driven to their breaking point, yet overcome adversity and love it,” Yerxa said. “They beg us to take them back again."

Lion King

'Beauty and the Beast'

Principal Kuba invites everyone to see Jarrett Middle School's production of its annual musical, part of its After School All-Stars program. This year they're doing “Beauty and the Beast,” April 21-22, 2017. “The kids do everything — lighting, sound, props, costumes, performances.”

Pictured: The 2015-16 production of "The Lion King."

About this ​​series

T​he Strive HI System is a diagnostic tool to see how schools are doing in supporting keiki across four key areas: achievement, growth, readiness and the achievement gap. The goal of this series is to profile those schools that are successfully moving the indicators in the right direction — boosting achievement, growth and readiness, while reducing the achievement gap — in order to promote models of success that other schools may want to adopt. View other stories in this series:

  • The Kapa‘a Way [VIEW]

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