Sequoia Middle School students, like most middle school students in Fresno Unified School District in California, struggled to meet standards in reading and math. Many students took remediation courses and did not have access to electives. With the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, FUSD knew teachers needed time to collaborate or students would continue to enter high school ill-prepared for the rigorous college and career curriculum.
The district redesigned 11 middle schools, including Sequoia, to create extended collaboration time for teachers within the school day as part of the Innovative Professional Development (iPD) Challenge from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). Sequoia Middle School staff redesigned their schedule to allow for one full day of teacher collaboration biweekly. Teacher professional development was held districtwide with the other redesigned middle schools. In these sessions, teachers used the Literacy Design Collaborative (ELA, history, and science) and Math Design Collaborative as frameworks for learning and creating tools. While teachers collaborated, students experienced intervention from an expert teacher called a PLUS teacher. Students were grouped by level on the PLUS day.
In year 2, Fresno Unified implemented a 6-12 scope and sequence that allowed for better alignment of collaboration across the schools. Sequoia teachers met with content teachers from across the district to analyze student work and develop lessons. Sequoia untracked students in intervention/PLUS and instead delivered support by content area: math, ELA, and English language development. Also, Sequoia used technology and blended learning in new ways to support teaching and learning. Districtwide, FUSD expanded its Innovative Professional Development (iPD) to 9th grade.
In year 3, Sequoia decided to target student literacy because 70% of students read below grade level. PLUS teachers teach digital literacy skills with a healthy dose of literacy.
The redesign has led to better student attendance, fewer office referrals, and improved student grades in core classes. Student surveys also show that students feel a greater connection to their school and report that teachers at the school care about them at higher rates than before. Teacher surveys also show greater satisfaction in areas like PD.
Sequoia Middle School students took the Smarter Balanced Assessment aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for the first time in spring 2015. Schoolwide, 19% of the students met or exceeded the standard in ELA, and 11% met or exceeded the standard in math. On the California Standards Test, 30% were at or above proficient in science. Sequoia students underperformed district and state averages. As a result of its performance on state tests, the school was categorized as a “priority school” as part of the district’s CORE waiver. Principal Ward reports that 75% of the students read below grade level. Sequoia’s English learners do not make adequate progress in literacy and English language development.
However, early indicators show that student performance is improving as a result of the redesign. Student GPAs are higher, with 90% of the student population earning a 2.0 or higher. Just four years ago, 70% of all students had at least one D or F, and that rate is down 30%. Grades in core classes are also up. School morale has also increased among staff and students alike. According to surveys, teacher satisfaction with PD is 90%. Districtwide, student surveys report that student satisfaction has dramatically increased and students feel connected to their school. Sequoia went from the bottom half of 19 secondary schools in student satisfaction to the top four.