Our Number 1 Job
To groups of students, I say the following many, many times in the beginning, middle, and end of each school year, "Our number one job is to improve your ability to learn." Obviously, there are a lot of things that factor into getting this job done. But, at its core, school exists for this reason.
To our Board of Education last Monday night, staff members shared academic performance results from the 2016-17 school year. The presentation, which was led by WLPS Director of Instruction, Jill Henry, focused on MSTEP, SAT, and Advanced Placement (AP) results of our students. There were some notable strengths; our 3rd-grade math scores were about 10 points higher than Washtenaw County. This is impressive. (By the way, Washtenaw County is the highest performing county in Michigan when it comes to state testing.) SAT results were at or above state averages, which is good news. Better news is the percentage of students who met all benchmarks at college readiness levels has almost tripled in the past five years. The AP results are generally excellent at WLHS. In one subject area, WLHS students had a passing rate 20 points higher than the national average. We are making good progress.
However, there is room to grow. The overall presentation, to me, was a good reminder of why we continuously add programs aimed at helping students improve their ability to learn - our number one job. I have highlighted many of them individually in previous News and Notes, but here is a list of changes or additions WLPS has made since 2015, as it annually commits to improving teaching and learning:
- Art instruction returned to K-6 three years ago to develop fine motor skills and foster creativity.
- Everyday Math, a new math curriculum, was adopted by the Board two years ago because it creates critical thinking skills among elementary-level students necessary for complex mathematics at the secondary level.
- Advanced Placement classes were added in the areas of English, Math, and Computer Science to better prepare students for the increased rigor of college. (You can learn more about the newest addition, AP Computer Science Principles, below.)
- Mandarin Chinese was added this year to K-2 to further foster brain development and promote cross-cultural awareness.
- Access to technology has doubled in the past two years to keep pace with the style of learning young minds engage with readily.
- In its 3rd year, the new social studies curriculum, History Alive, utilizes our new technology and allows students in grades 6-8 to easily access resources and information.
- Science Alive, a hands-on, interactive curriculum for grades 6-8, was adopted by the Board of Education this summer to focus science instruction on big-picture concepts rather than memorizing facts.
- A Project Based Learning (PBL) hour was added to grades 5 and 6 this year along with a scheduling format much more like that of a middle school.
The impact of these programs and curricular changes will improve our students' abilities to engage in more challenging content and, thus, better prepare them for the global environment which they have to live and work someday.
Speaking of days, that list above reminds me why today is a great day to be a Trojan.
Newest AP on the Block
The Advanced Placement (AP) program’s goal is to aid in the academic transition from high school to college by giving high school students the opportunity to explore college-level coursework. The new AP Computer Science Principles class is one of five AP courses available to our students.
Why Computer Science (CS)?
We could probably provide you with ten News and Notes blogs on that topic alone, so I’ll hit you with the highlights.
Advanced Placement courses are key to our academic strategy at WLHS and our strategy to create a college-going culture. Every junior at WLHS is required to take the Advanced Placement English Language and Composition course. By requiring all our juniors to dip their toes in the AP pool, we show them what they are capable of, that they can handle coursework that is designed to prepare them for college.
The AP CS class hits that point home. Students do not have to have any prior CS knowledge or experience to be successful in the course. It is designed and taught emphasizing that anyone can take it. And Ms. Taylor says, based on her experience teaching coding for years, students who might not be at the top of their class in other disciplines, often shine in computer science. With the heavy hands-on lessons, it is a perfect fit for students who need that constant interaction in a classroom.
Computer science skills are in high demand. Every year jobs in this industry go unfilled due to the lack of qualified candidates. Furthermore, some colleges are now starting to require students of all majors to take a computer science class since those skills are embedded in every industry. It is essential for students to have a fundamental understanding of how computers communicate, operate, create, and how that can benefit their field of study.
The benefits of computer science translate outside of the pure subject. As the teacher of the course, Jen Taylor, emphasizes with her students, those who take computer science classes (in high school and college) perform better in all classes because the basics of CS help develop and inspire creativity and problem-solving skills.
What Will They Learn
The 23 students currently enrolled in the course will review five units of study. They include:
- The Internet: students will learn about representing and sending bits of information as well as communication protocols.
- Digital Information: students will look at and generate data, clean it, manipulate it, and create and use visualizations to identify patterns and trends.
- Algorithms and Programming: students are introduced to the foundational concepts of computer programming, which unlocks the ability to make rich, interactive apps.
- Big Data and Privacy: students explore many complex questions related to public policy, law, ethics and societal impact.
- Building Apps: in this unit students transition to creating event-driven apps.
Quality Staff Leading the Way
In order to bring this class to WLHS, Ms. Taylor applied to attend a week-long training in Philadelphia put on by Code.org. While many teachers were left on a waiting list, her application was accepted and all costs were covered by a grant courtesy of the Math and Science Network of Michigan. For eight hours a day she did hands-on lessons exploring the content, practiced teaching the lessons to fellow teachers and was trained on how to administer the AP test. She also has to attend another 40 hours of professional development throughout the current school year to continue building on teaching concepts of computer science.
We are grateful to have Ms. Taylor leading this new program at WLHS. It is no secret that the technology industry is male-dominated and that same pattern is seen in technology education. Current rates show of all students taking Computer Science courses, less than 20% are female. Code.org put a challenge to all the teachers to change that statistic. Ms. Taylor went to work. WLHS currently has 15 girls (so just under 66% of the class) in the AP CS course. Add that to the list of statistics we obliterate around here.
Like all AP courses, AP CS culminates in an AP exam. If students perform well, they can leave WLHS will college credit. The AP CS exam includes 74 multiple choice questions and two in-course performance tasks.
We commend the staff who teach these courses and the students who take them. I look forward to sharing the continued success of this program in years to come.