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Cotton: Schools have taken steps to equalize programs

Monday, May 5, 2014

Henry County Public Schools keeps a close eye on student representation in gifted and talented programs and other advanced course work and testing, according to schools Superintendent Jared Cotton.

He mentioned Advanced Placement courses, and ACT and SAT college entrance exams, in addition to gifted and talented programs.

Cotton was commenting on data about the county schools posted on the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) website. This spring, OCR released the first comprehensive look at civil rights data from every public school in the country in nearly 15 years, according to a news release. (See related article for county data.)

To increase student representation in gifted and talented programs, rigorous course work and ACT/SAT participation, Cotton said, the county school division has implemented a number of things:

• “We utilize universal assessment screenings to identify students for gifted and talented programs. As a part of our gifted plan for the state, we have included more accurate assessments that identify students based on ability rather than letting language barriers or socio-economic factors prevent students from being identified for gifted education,” Cotton said.

• All 10th-graders participate in the PSAT, Cotton said.

“Counselors and teachers use this information to identify students who have the ability to be successful in advanced level course work,” he said. “This requires school staff to follow up with students and their parents to encourage these students to take on these more challenging courses.”

• HCPS has enhanced its focus on literacy. The school division has expanded the Read 180 program to the elementary schools and continues to monitor student reading at key grade levels.

“Many times, students who struggle in reading will be less likely to participate in advanced course work,” Cotton said.

• The school division has increased its efforts to communicate with parents.

“If students are going to be successful, students need to start early,” he said. “Parents need to be aware of these opportunities. As a result, we have increased our parent workshops and we have developed the Parent Connect website.”

• When the school division assesses the effectiveness of its programs, it always compares student demographics with overall school division demographics to address any representation issues. Warrior Tech Academy at Magna Vista High School is a good example.

“When we analyzed student demographics for this program, (they) mirrored the demographics for Magna Vista High School,” Cotton said. “This is an indication that we were successful in our efforts to encourage all students to apply.”

• HCPS has been able to encourage students to participate in Advanced Placement testing because of a Virginia Association of School Superintendents grant that the school division has had the past few years.

“Unfortunately, this grant is running out,” Cotton said. “As a result, we will see a decrease in participation for AP tests as well as SAT testing due to the cost to students and their families. Ideally, we would like to provide funding for all students to test, but this is not possible given the current economic climate.”

“...It is important to point out that the figures provided above do not address the issue of poverty. We know that we have a significant number of students who are impacted by poverty in our community. While this will never be used as an excuse in Henry County, it is a challenge that our students face,” Cotton added.

The OCR data indicate in the 2011-12 school year, 55.7 percent of students in HCPS were in the free and reduced-price lunch program, which is considered an indication of low income or poverty.

As for student discipline, Cotton said the school division monitors “student discipline data to assess whether or not student groups are over-represented in certain areas. For example, this is one of our indicators that we report to the VDOE (Virginia Department of Education) for students with disabilities. Fortunately, Henry County has not been cited in this particular area as our special education students have not been over-represented in this area.”

Cotton said the data for in-school and out of school suspensions “are not far from the percentage of students that represent each of those student subgroups in Henry County. While the percentages will not be exact, you should expect them to be fairly close when comparing the percentage of students receiving an out-of-school suspension for a given subgroup to the percentage of students that fall into that subgroup category for the division.”

He called the data for expulsions “not as close based on the percentages provided. However, it is important to note that you are dealing with a much smaller number (14). As a result, you will see large fluctuations in percentages in this case, and a slight change will exaggerate the percentages.”

Cotton said the school division needs to be diligent “at ensuring that all students are well represented in programs and advanced courses. In addition, we need to ensure that certain student subgroups are not over-represented when it comes to disciplinary action (in-school, out-of-school-suspensions, expulsions).”

HCPS monitors these data and addresses issues as necessary, Cotton said.

“This spring, for example, we are planning to survey students in grades 5, 8, and 12 to get their feedback on the enforcement of school rules, and the consistent application of school rules in school. This is an additional data point that we will use to help us monitor these areas,” he added.


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