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Stories of Promising Practice: Conrad Ball Middle School

Monday, October 23, 2017

Three years ago Conrad Middle School in the Thompson School District found itself mired in a slump. 

"Performance was suffering and instructional practices were not innovative," said Jeri Crispe, Thompson School District's director for secondary education. 

The school, located on the east side of Loveland, is the most diverse of the district's six middle schools. Just over half its 560 students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. Sixty-seven percent of Ball students are white, and 26 percent are Latino. About 10 percent are English language learners.

“It was a very traditional middle school, not particularly well connected to the community or to parents,” said Crispe, who began meeting with Conrad Ball Principal Tiffany Miller and her leadership team to explore “how could we be more innovative? How could we turn the system upside down and reinvent the school?”

Ball had become an early adopter of providing every student with an iPad, but that barely scratched the surface of the personalized learning the school hoped to emphasize.

Together the district and school teams began to form “an intentional plan of what we wished this place could look like,” said Ball teacher and district educator effectiveness coach Kendra Vair, who participated in those early sessions.

Then, what Vair called “a unique opportunity” came to the group’s attention. Conrad Ball decided to apply, through the Colorado Education Initiative for a Next Generation Learning Challenges grant.

The three-year grant, funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, would provide the school with financial resources and access to expertise that would help make the dream of transformation a reality.

Ultimately, the goal was to rework instructional practices, making Ball a school where students “take charge of their own learning, access a variety of options to determine how they learn and to be able to demonstrate learning through multiple assessments culminating in presentations of learning.” Ball also wanted to emphasize project-based learning, where each student played a key role in designing his or her own projects.

Finally, Ball needed to change its structure to create time for teachers to get to know students better, an essential component of a school that focuses on personalized learning.

To make all this happen, however, Conrad Ball would need to do more than put compelling words down on paper. It would need first to create an advisory period each day; a class where teachers would be able to check in with their assigned students to make sure they were on track, academically, socially, and emotionally.

“Personalization means nothing if we don't know our students,” Principal Miller said.

Transforming the school required more than advisory, and during the 2015-16, Miller and her team hit upon the innovative step that promises to take the school to the next level.

The strategy they developed sounds deceptively mundane: Upend the school schedule so that teachers would have the time necessary to plan together, and to learn how to make these ambitious ideas come alive in the school.

It was the realization that the school needed to “push the boundaries of time,” as Vair put it, that led to the idea of the Plus schedule. And it’s the Plus schedule that has transformed just about everything else at Ball this year.

Here’s the basic idea behind the Plus schedule: What if you could create time out of thin air? Time for teachers to plan together, not for a single class period once or twice a week, but for a full day each week? As an educator, would you jump at this chance?

That’s what the Plus schedule does for teachers at Conrad Ball. All core academic content classes are held four days each week. On the fifth day, academic departments have a full day (minus the advisory period) to meet and plan. So on Tuesdays, for example, science classes don’t meet. Science teachers have their Plus Day to plan. Students spend that time either in physical education or the new Plus class (described below).

One reason Miller concluded that achievement had stayed flat at Ball was that “teachers had little time to meet about data and instruction.” Now they have ample time.

“The major theme that we followed though is our lack of best instructional practice and how do we shift that within the school day?” Miller said. “Teachers saw a need to work on the instructional side and that was the main reason we even considered this shift.”

Miller identified two strong teachers who were looking for a new challenge to run the Plus classes.

Plus class, which each student takes twice per week, was designed to help students develop strong work habits, self-agency, and problem-solving skills, said Greg Simonds, one of the two teachers Miller tapped to oversee Plus classes full-time.

“Our staff is willing to try anything and so are our kids, if we’re honest with them,” said Lisa Platkus, who has taught math at Ball for 17 years.

It’s too soon to see any quantitative results from the schedule overhaul, but there are abundant signs of qualitative improvements at Conrad Ball.

Teachers like Plus Days and are making good use of them. They even worked with students to make a video about Plus Days.

Ball veteran Platkus said the weekly planning days have helped teachers “build common vocabulary for students.” It also “helps us scaffold up for each kid, Without this much time together it was more challenging to do that.”

Platkus also extolled the value of having time to engage in deep conversation about instructional practices, and developing the sense of “building something together. We didn’t have that vertically (across grade levels) before.”

Developing common assessments has been one important result of the Plus Day planning time, teacher said.

Teachers also said the Plus Day gives them the chance to visit classes in other content areas to observe exemplary instruction. This includes the Plus Class.

On occasion, teachers use Plus Days to do outreach, helping parents and the larger community learn about the changes underway at Conrad Ball. “This has been an important focus for us,” said Plus teacher Simonds.

Teaching subject matter for four days instead of five has been an adjustment for many teachers. After all, the responsibility to help kids reach academic and content standards doesn’t diminish just because contact hours do.

Ultimately, though, this results in tighter, more focused, and more personalized teaching, some teachers have found. “It cuts the fluff, makes you more be more intentional with your planning,” teacher Kendra Vair said. “And it forces you to personalize more for each student, because you have less time with them.”

Eighth-graders, who are in their third year at Ball, have seen the school evolve and express enthusiasm for this year’s schedule changes in particular.

“In sixth grade it was like how you thought middle school would be,” said eighth-grader Zach. “You’d sit at your desk and do work and the teacher would be going ‘blah, blah, blah.” By seventh grade, teachers spent less time standing in front of the class “talking all the time and this gave them more chance to do what is best for each kid.”

This year, Zach said, “it’s more like the teacher is very rarely at the top of the class, but is there for support.”

Teachers encourage students to go deep into subjects and issues that interest them most. “School is more exciting when you get to do what you like best,” Zach said.

Students were a bit baffled at first by the purpose of Plus Class, but it has gained in popularity as the year has progressed.

Simonds and Lane Arakaki, the other Plus teacher, select student assistants for each Plus class. Being an assistant is considered an honor, and students must go through a competitive application process to be selected.

On a February day when a team from the Colorado Department of Education visited, two eighth-graders, Brad and Braden, took the lead in Arakaki’s Plus class and taught a lesson on self-confidence. They’d clearly internalized their own lesson, because they taught the lesson with ease and panache.

“We really wanted to focus on what confidence looks like, and how to be sure it doesn’t cross the boundary into arrogance,” Braden said.

Planning a lesson as a student has its advantages, Braden said. “I can think of how I’d like a teacher to pull me out of boredom, and try to do that,” he said.

And, his co-teacher Brad said, “we know we need to mix it up, put in a lot of discussion and group activity to keep them engaged.”

The Plus Schedule is here to stay at Conrad Ball, assuming, as school and district leaders expect, it leads to increased student achievement and engagement. And assuming that’s the case, the practice could spread to other schools in the Thompson district.

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