An Interview with Allison West, Middle School Division Head
What are focus areas, and how did the new daily schedule format open up the ability to give each child what they most need?
ALLISON: In 2003, we looked at the latest research in effective reading instruction, and thought about how to complement our robust Orton-Gillingham tutoring program with additional classes to help students become better readers. We started with fluency groups and, over the course of a few years, expanded our offerings in comprehension and vocabulary. At that point, groups met during, or replaced tutoring blocks.
As the programs expanded into written expression and math, we realized that there was an opportunity to redefine the current daily schedule to create dedicated time on students’ schedule for focus areas. We also added a flex block to provide additional skill boosters for particular areas of need, and make room for Targeted Cognitive Intervention (TCI.) The new schedule provided much-needed time and space for important programmatic initiatives to take place (focus areas, flex, health and wellness) without disrupting the flow of core classes.
The new schedule also included a rotation of class times, providing each student with the ability to have each class at their best time of day for learning. Now teachers can plan their lessons differently, knowing when students will be most ready to learn.
How are students placed in focus areas?
ALLISON: First, we look at data: curriculum-based assessments, formal assessments, and informal assessments. We combine that data with recommendations from the student’s team from the previous year: their tutor, ELA teacher, math teacher, focus area teacher, speech and language pathologists, etc. Department Heads start meeting in March to review the data and team feedback for placement in the next academic year.
There is a progression of skills that help us determine the right focus area. If a student is still struggling with decoding and reading, they are placed in an Orton-Gillingham tutorial. Once they've demonstrated a certain level of decoding mastery, that's when we look at other options. If we identify that language is a concern, the next step is to look at fluency. If a student has not demonstrated a certain level of mastery in oral reading fluency, it's highly likely that that's going to be a big part of their focus area class.
Over the years, we’ve gotten more fluid about the focus area offerings and have been able to combine areas of greatest need. Students may have a focus area class that has a fluency and a comprehension component, or one that has creative writing and written expression components. This year, we added a class on media literacy that builds critical thinking skills by analyzing different types of media.
Teachers before Carroll didn’t really understand how to teach me because of my dyslexia. Carroll understands me and helps me with the things that I struggle with the most like typing, reading, writing, and spelling. They have made sure there is a Flex block in the day that helps me with typing, which I definitely need, and I’m in Orton-Gillingham tutorial for my focus area and it has helped me improve my reading, fluency, and spelling skills.
I feel much more confident in just a few months at Carroll than I did at my previous school.
Caroline Atkins, 7th Grade Student
Are adjustments made over the course of the year as students gain competency in their focus areas?
ALLISON: Around the midyear point, we look at the data to determine if an adjustment needs to be made. If changes need to happen, we roll those out after winter break so students start the second half of the school year with their new schedule. Sometimes a focus area class shows progress as a group, and then we add a component that builds on that original focus.
How do you see focus areas evolving?
ALLISON: We’ve talked about adapting the curriculum in different ways so it doesn’t feel like another language or another math class, such as adding more science or history content. Ultimately, our commitment to building strong readers and math learners has never wavered. But fluency, comprehension, critical thinking, written expression, math fluency … none of that will change.
This article is part of a series from Carroll Connection, A Timeline for Transformation: 2005-2021.
- Carroll Connection 2021-22