Education is so important and hits each of us so close to home, that it’s easy to get critical when things aren’t going well. At a time when public schools are being criticized daily, we need to step back and recognize all that community members and our schools are doing right, and what are doing to improve.
We also need to get involved. Being a player out on the field is more impactful to the game than being a spectator on the sidelines. Ask any athlete trying to catch the ball.
One organization that is working to make our public school system excellent is the Pinellas Education Foundation (PEF)*. I have been honored to serve as a volunteer member of its Gender Achievement Gap Committee since 2014.
When Pinellas Education Foundation (PEF) Chairman Jim Myers and a team of panelists first presented the national Gender Achievement Gap issue to school officials and the general public in 2014, they were met mostly with surprised expressions or blank stares.
The reason for this less than enthusiastic reaction is that the Gender Achievement Gap is not obvious–until you look at the statistics.
The statistics are surprising. Nationally, boys are more than twice as likely to receive a written discipline referral as girls. Boys are also approximately three times more likely than girls to be expelled, diagnosed with learning disabilities, and diagnosed with emotional disorders. Here in Pinellas County Florida at that time, the graduation rate among boys was a full 10% lower than girls.
In response, PEF established the Gender Achievement Gap Committee chaired by Jim Myers. In its brief existence, the committee has brought attention to the issue by bringing national speakers to Pinellas for four symposiums, collaborated with Stetson University to provide training to parents and teachers at Belleair Elementary, conducted three separate focus groups and initiated a countywide survey in conjunction with Nielsen Media.
In 2016, just two years later, the issue was made a priority for Pinellas County Schools by the Superintendent Michael Grego who added it to the District Strategic Plan. The Pinellas County School Board’s (PCSB) new Executive Director for Elementary Education, Shana Rafalski, now serves on the committee and has worked with the committee to implement training and strategies to close the gap in twelve pilot schools in 2016/2017. The principals of each of these elementary schools opted into the pilot after they learned about the issue and examined the data in their own schools. The pilot schools include: Madeira Beach Fundamental. Sutherland Elementary, High Point Elementary, Belleair Elementary, Skyview Elementary, Woodlawn Elementary, McMullen-Booth Elementary, Sunset Hills Elementary, Fairmount Park Elementary, Belcher Elementary, Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. Elementary, and Southern Oaks Elementary.
The areas targeted for improvement and measured for improvement are: reading success and discipline referral rates. In the summer of 2016, the committee provided these principals with funding for ongoing training and consulting from LitLife, a national literacy company based out of New York City. LitLife focuses on positive behavior management and helping principals create a classroom culture where children, especially boys, identify themselves as readers. Special emphasis has been put on strategies that help all students, but are particularly critical for boys. These strategies include adding movement into teacher lesson plans and ensuring that there is literature of high interest available for boys.
The results have been nothing less than astounding.
By spring, seven out of twelve elementary schools have seen significant decreases in discipline referral rates which has a disproportionate benefit to boys. One principal said, “There has been an improvement in overall behavior. Implementing restorative practices give boys the opportunity to take ownership of their behavior as well as coming up with solutions in a risk-free environment.”
Two of the pilot schools had no gender gap in any grade level on mid-year assessments in English Language Arts (ELA). Five of the schools had only a single grade level with a gap in ELA and another four schools had just two grade levels left to eliminate the gap between girls and boys. One Principal noted that the change is due in part to a shift in attitude towards students. “Students’ interests are valued and utilized to build interest and drive their individual progress.”
“We are excited about the prospects for boys in Pinellas County. It is thrilling to see real impact being made for boys as a result of a team effort between the Foundation’s volunteer committee members, local principals, and the district,” stated Jim Myers.
Bolstered by this success, members of PEF’s Gender Achievement Committee, PCSB staff and the principals of the schools are looking forward to the future. In April and May, committee members visited each of the pilot schools to work with principals to assess the implementation of best practices in closing the Gender Achievement Gap. This information, along with end-of-year results compiled over the summer will guide thecommittee’ss activities in the upcoming school year.
* PEF is the nation’s top Education Foundation according to the Foundation.http://www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook/pinellas-education-foundation-ranks-first-in-national-study/2305507