The Beginning of the New School Year Starts in April

[This Blog was originally published by SmartBlog on Education on April 30, 2015]

Cherry blossoms. . . . baseball season. . . . high stakes assessments. As schools complete our nation’s annual rite of testing frenzy toward the end of this month, most will spend the remainder of the school year engaged in “instructional” activities geared more to entertaining and occupying students’ time than teaching and educating them “bell to bell.” Similarly, many school staff, during this time, will begin the slow disengagement process that culminates in their summer break.

[Parenthetically, if businesses did this same thing—basically, skating through the last quarter of their fiscal years—many of them would not stay in business.]

Critically, the last months of each current school year are the most important months of the new school year. Indeed, having worked for 30 years helping schools to maximize their student, staff, and system outcomes, we emphasize this essential truth:

The beginning of the new school year starts in April.

In essence, here, we are saying that schools need to complete as many organizational, curricular, instructional, and student preparations in April so that everyone can “hit the road running” on the first day of the new school year in August.

To this end, and as much as possible in April (and May), schools should collect the information and data needed to analyse the existing and needed (for next year):

  1. Committee Structure of their school--(re)organizing the organizational chart and structure (as needed) to reflect a shared leadership orientation, (re)assigning staff to their next year’s committee, and holding committee meetings with the out-going and in-coming members to transition and plan for next year’s committee goals and objectives.
  2. Curricular Structure of their school—ensuring that all coursework and units, primary and supplemental materials and resources, and formative and summative assessments are available and aligned not just to the state’s high stakes assessments, but also to the learning objectives related to the functional knowledge, skills, and competencies needed by all students in the areas of literacy, math, and science, as well as oral and written expression, and computer literacy.
  3. Instructional and Support Staff Structure of their school—making sure, across a multi-tiered continuum of services, supports, interventions, and programs, that they are aligned with the academic and behavioral needs of all students, individually, within their grade levels, and across their schools.
  4. Student Achievement Structure of their school—identifying the current functional academic and social-behavioral status of every student, what instructional approaches and supports were needed to facilitate their progress, and how they should be best organized into courses and classrooms next year (so that teachers can successfully differentiate their instruction and maintain or exceed their growth).

The Get-Go Process

In order to accomplish the fourth area so that the other three areas are sensitive to student status and responsive to student need, we recommend that all schools complete the “Get-Go process” every April (a technical assistance paper is available on request). The primary goals of the Get-Go Process are to ensure that every teacher knows (a) the current functional academic and behavioral status of every student before they walk into class on the first day of the new school year; and (b) what instructional approaches contributed to their learning and success during the past academic year, in addition to having all teachers (c) prepared to provide or use the more specialized services, supports, strategies, or interventions needed by any student (e.g., for enrichment or disability), once again, before the first day of new school year. In other words, the Get-Go Process expects students’ current teachers to synthesize the “lessons learned” during the current school year, so they can systematically “publicize” them to their colleagues for the next school year.

To begin the Get-Go process, staff decide what existing data to load onto a spreadsheet (our “virtual” data wall). Typically, the spreadsheet identifies every student’s grades, interim or formative assessment test scores, attendance, disciplinary infractions, disability or 504 status, estimates of their functional academic status, and other desired information. Using these data, teachers prepare for a grade-level or team meeting to determine specific student’s needs for the coming year. Beyond the students who are making good progress in all areas, three clusters of students are identified at the Get-Go meeting:

Get-Go students need immediate instructional or intervention services, supports, strategies, or programs in place on the first day of the new school year. Students on IEPs, 504 Plans, or other “high-need” academic or behavioral intervention plans are automatically Get-Go students, but students with significant medical needs or conditions also may be Get-Go students.

At-Risk students received academic and/or behavioral interventions during the past year that were so successful that they are not needed for the new school year. At the same time, next year’s teachers are fully briefed on these students and their intervention histories in case difficulties re-emerge and are needed.

Check-In students need someone to “check in” with them, for example, immediately before the school year begins, during the first day or week of the school year, or up through the middle of the first marking period. The check-in process typically provides a social, emotional, behavioral, academic, or home-school “safety net” that makes sure that the new school year begins well for these students, or an “early warning” indicator so that problems are identified quickly and resolved.

After the Get-Go meetings are completed, teachers are expected to write short “Briefing Reports” for the Get-Go and At-Risk students who do not have IEP, 504, or other academic or behavioral intervention plans, and they often meet with the next year’s teacher or teaching team during the planning days just prior to the new school year to further discuss these students.

Beyond this, the information and data from the Get-Go meetings are used to organize students into the best classroom and learning arrangements possible (#4 above), so that instructional and support staff are effectively aligned (#3 above), to successfully deliver the curriculum and content required (#2 above), so that all students’ academic and behavioral outcomes are maximized. All of this is monitored by the relevant committees in the school’s shared leadership structure (#1 above)—for example, the Curriculum & Instruction, Discipline and Behavior Management, Multi-tiered Early Intervention, and School Leadership committees.

Brandon Sanderson once said, “The mark of a great (educator) is one who knows when to set aside the important things in order to accomplish the vital ones.” All of the committee, curricular, staff, and student activities discussed above are essential to the success of a school. If we can prioritize and prepare in April for what must be ready in August, we all win. If we do not do it now, we may not have the time to do it later.