Originally published in the August, 2021 issue of Equity & Access
Kristie Heath, Director of Advanced Learning and Intervention for Clayton County Public Schools (CCPS) in Georgia, has a vision to move every child forward to become college- and career-ready. “We’re doing everything we can to give our students and Clayton County Public Schools the ability to be part of a high-performance district,” Heath explains. The district’s Advanced Learning for All initiative is foundational to these objectives, and is built on a strategy of accelerating learning across grade levels to help every student achieve greater success.
High Performance is the Goal
Clayton County ranks among the 100 largest districts nationwide, with 52,000 students across 68 schools. The diverse district has students representing 90 different ethnicities with 72 languages spoken. To lead a major initiative at scale across such a large district, focused planning and execution are key.
CCPS has made their goal clear: delivering high performance. About five years ago, the district decided that a focus on acceleration rather than remediation was the most promising path to achieve equitable outcomes and high performance for all students, regardless of their current level of achievement. One of the strongest advocates for making higher performance achievable came from the district’s superintendent, Dr. Morcease J. Beasley. His incredible enthusiasm and vision helped change the mindset from an over-concentration on remediation toward more focus on acceleration and advanced learning objectives.
Advanced Learning for All was designed to give students opportunities to think ahead and engage in coursework beyond their current grade level. “Not only did it expand equity and access to all students, but we wanted them to understand that part of advanced learning is a journey of all of us working together toward the learning,” says Heath.
The initiative gives learners a chance to engage in accelerated coursework, through which a portion of their high school requirements can be completed before leaving middle school. In addition, students can continue to accelerate in high school and gain an advantage toward post-secondary preparedness.
Acceleration Across Grade Levels
“We’re doing problem-based projects and real-world applications that are pushing the engagement in our classrooms,” explains Heath, describing the district’s approach to making learning more relevant and engaging. In elementary school, this strategy is enacted through the use of complex text and authentic products. This enhances the focus on phonics, the essential building block for reading and writing.
At the middle school level, CCPS developed accelerated math for sixth and seventh grades and an integrated science curriculum. As students move into these programs, the goal is to create better access and bring high school level coursework to middle school. “The objective is for students to have completed one to five high school courses in the eighth grade,” Heath explains. When schools can reach this ambitious goal, students are well ahead of schedule once they begin high school.
District leaders rely on data to make informed decisions about these accelerated learning efforts. In doing so, they can anticipate the appropriate level of acceleration for students and ensure the efforts will have significant impact. This has proven especially valuable in reading and math. The district works with Curriculum Associates and uses i-Ready assessments to collect accurate, timely data on student learning. As Heath explains, “We pull in i-Ready to look at where our students are, so that we know how we’re helping students move into accelerated programs and how to support [those] programs.”
The initiative continues into high school, where students’ access to advanced placement (AP) courses is a top priority. Most ninth grade students take AP courses in a variety of subjects, including world history, computer science, environmental science, and human geography. “It gives them the ability to start looking long-term,” adds Heath. “They can start taking AP or dual enrollment courses and begin looking at post-secondary options and have a little bit in the bank.” In just the last few years alone, AP scores in CCPS have increased by over 10 percent, and the performance for ninth graders is comparable to students at other secondary grade levels.
More Efforts to Support Advanced Learning
As superintendent, Dr. Beasley has made it part of his goal to pinpoint acceleration to get every child back to grade level and beyond. He asked leadership to reframe various initiatives from tutoring programs to summer school programs. Heath recalls, “Dr. Beasley asked us to be innovative and come up with something different, and so we developed STEM camps called Summertime Enrichment Camps with a wide range of learning options.” Along with STEM efforts, there is a summer enrichment academy called CSEA and a new program this year titled Voice and Choice.
STEM Summertime Enrichment Camps
As suggested by Dr. Beasley, enrichment camps are elective, adding student ownership to the process. A wide variety of options are available, from problem solving to engineering. There are music-based beat programs, STEM expeditions, smart cities innovation, and more. There’s an “I’m woke” project, solving puzzles in the Microworld, and engineering water power through the use of gardens that surround the county. Everything is K-12 with a mixture of virtual and face-to-face learning, each lasting two weeks.
Summer Enrichment Academy
Clayton County is also doing a summer enrichment academy called SEA, focusing more on where students need support through an actively engaged, hands-on approach. Heath expands on the focus: “We have high-impact practices we are supposed to see in the classroom [with students]. This includes good academic discourse where students are speaking and talking in the classroom and asking their own higher-order questions.”
Literacy is another focal point for enrichment, with an equal focus on reading and writing. Writing is an essential aspect of building literacy, and Clayton is making it a priority. “Kids are not writing enough,” says Heath. “The more they write, the better they’ll be able to read. That’s part of our literacy task force in our county. So we’re really trying to change the focus from the superintendent and principal on down.”
There is also an advanced learning initiative camp that focuses on expanding efforts from the school year programs—coming in the form of bridge or accelerated programs, including AP, accelerated math, or science.
Voice and Choice
New this year is Voice and Choice, a tutorial program utilizing district data, some of it through i-Ready, to determine critical areas of need. For instance, if science data determines that energy transfer learning needs more attention, that would be chosen as a subject of study. But most importantly, students can make a choice. “We wanted to give students the ability to choose what they needed to do for a tutorial and choose what they wanted to learn,” explains Heath.
In the past, the schools were the sole determinant of remediation programs, with students being told what remediation they would need to attend based on data. But CCPS decided to shake things up by advertising through the school communications using email campaigns so students could be part of the process. An overwhelming response occurred where a large number of students chose sessions and specific tutorials. Incredibly, more teachers had to be hired to handle the interest. It’s an example of what happens when students are allowed to take ownership.
While Voice and Choice is set up to occur right before spring summative assessments, expanding the tutorial sessions throughout the year is the goal. The English Language Arts Department already wants to do more of a writing series in the future, and world language is being added.
“We really want to give students autonomy so that they are taking ownership of their own learning,” says Heath. “Putting the onus back on them and giving them the autonomy to say, ‘I need help. I need a little extra here.’”
Clayton County Public Schools is reshaping remediation by focusing on Tier I learning through data use and student empowerment. While some Title I districts concentrate disproportionately on lower-tier learning, CCPS is flipping the paradigm and challenging students to engage in advanced learning that sets them up for a head start after graduation.