Celebrating growth at ASCEND

This is a guest post from Oakland Charters.

The end of the school year is approaching fast and it’s assessment time at ASCEND Elementary School, a Locally Grown Oakland Public School operated by Education for Change located in the Fruitvale neighborhood.

It’s raining outside on a recent weekday morning, so ASCEND second grade teacher Kate Snyder’s class is having recess indoors, playing board games as they huddle around short-leg tables. The class just finished a literacy block, a time normally reserved for phonics, reading and other comprehension strategies. But it’s end-of-the-year evaluation time and Snyder and the students have been checking in on progress.

As the teacher and students would go through each student’s data, Snyder is especially impressed with the growth her students are displaying. Many have made drastic improvements in their reading ability. Some students who started the year with holes in their ability to recognize letters and sounds are now talking about what they’re reading, learning, thinking, and wondering.

“It’s exciting,” Snyder says. “It makes me proud. I know the kids feel pumped, and it’s exciting to hear them talk about their data and see how much they’ve grown. They know their reading targets and have strategies, and have made these enormous leaps. It’s pretty incredible, and they’re pumped about it, too.”

Jaden, an 8-year-old student in Snyder’s class, is one such student who has made a lot of progress this year.

“I used to get stuck on each word,” he says, “Now when I’m reading I can say the word the proper way. It makes me feel good and happy that I learned.”

All around ASCEND, there is much growth to celebrate. The school was recently recognized by the CORE Districts as a school that is having “the highest impact on student achievement — (a) school where students are consistently making academic gains faster than similar students at similar schools.” Four High Impact Badges are available, and ASCEND was recognized with all four: for 1 year of math growth, 3 years of math growth, 1 year of English language arts growth, and 3 years of English language arts growth.

The CORE growth model is especially useful because it reveals the impact of a school’s pedagogy, isolating out the progress a student makes compared to peers with similar demographics, similar prior test scores, and attending similar schools. The model is able to measure growth for all students whether they are below, at, or above standard.

ASCEND Principal Morgan Alconcher said the four badges that show growth in multiple areas prove it’s not a particular curriculum or one area of focus that is driving the student growth at the school; rather the community shares in the common vision that students cultivate personal agency and learn to forge their own paths through an approach that includes arts integration and a focus on social-emotional growth

“For us, we have tried to make sure our program represents our vision,” Alconcher says, “and we have been moving bit by bit, with small actions. Everything we do is calibrated to that, and everyone is aware of where we’re headed. Sometimes schools just focus on one area, but at what cost?”

“Our dashboards and data points are the benchmarks and progress monitoring to see if we’re on track,” she later says. “Is our theory of action working and how are we tending to that?”

What it means to be a thriving student at ASCEND goes much deeper than just getting good grades, she adds, mentioning goal setting, being aware of yourself and what you need, having the ability to advocate for yourself, exploring passions, and figuring out how to make decisions. “We have to set the conditions for that,” she says. “We very much believe in learning by doing and see ourselves as designers and facilitators of learning experiences.”

Authentic student agency is important at ASCEND, Assistant Principal Jeffrey Embleton says. “It’s asking students what they want to do, how they want to learn. It can’t be a worksheet, it has to be something that really taps into their passions and lights fires.”

When it comes to sharing data with the community and keeping them informed of progress, the CORE growth model is especially useful, Alconcher says. “I often put these data points down with our vision and theory of action so parents can see them together,” she says.

“We have not hit our targets, there is still a long way to go. But we have been very committed to a path and worked really hard to get there.”

For the ASCEND community, the growth comes from a focus on continuous improvement.

“Something that we have done well that has allowed us to grow over consecutive years is we have stayed that course,” Alconcher says. “We’re not picking one component of the program to hit out of the park, and once that’s good we’ll focus somewhere else. We chose the strategy of ‘let’s stay anchored in building out our model towards our vision.’ Our goal is to get better at what we do, to beat ourselves from last year.”