Since its opening in 2006, St. Emily has maintained a positive, respectful and caring culture for 620 students in its rapidly growing suburban community. The school’s inclusionary policies have allowed for the seamless integration of recent new Canadians and students with special education needs into the school’s general population. Known for its strong curricular emphasis and use of EQAO data, the board has supported St. Emily’s success in providing school-wide differentiated instruction by offering its expertise when requested. Further, recognizing assistive technology as a powerful instructional tool, the board provides teachers with professional development and specific training in various technologies and digital media.
To build on these supports, the school, in partnership with a highly engaged school council, initially directed assistive technology exclusively to students with special education needs. Students with autism began employing iPads to great advantage and those with learning disabilities were highly engaged in independent learning using laptops. Since then, the immense popularity of assistive technology has widened its use and underlined its value as a highly motivational teaching device for all students. Qualified staff members now provide ongoing technical training and support for their colleagues, who in turn assist their students. This level of capacity-building is typical throughout the school. For example, when four Smart Boards were purchased, teachers were asked to submit proposals to the principal explaining how they would use the device to promote student learning. In the ensuing months, enthusiasm grew as teachers observed their colleagues using the boards effectively, and the latter offered to share the equipment and their expertise. Now every classroom has a Smart Board, and the teachers, trained to use the boards effectively, report strong evidence of increased student learning.
With improved student learning as the goal, data use at St. Emily is always focused and purposeful. Not satisfied with generalities, the administration team probes EQAO data deeply to identify trends and patterns, verify strengths and focus on specific questions that are problematic for students. Having confirmed areas of need, they blend EQAO and other data such as those from PM Benchmarks and CASI, as well as teachers’ anecdotal notes and board results, before analyzing the data and displaying their findings in the Data Room. Subsequently, the school improvement plan team studies the combined data and presents it to staff as a school-wide venture requiring intense collaboration in grade-level and divisional teams. Confident that teachers will buy into the plan if they are part of the process, Principal Micheline Harvey involves the entire staff in its shaping. Principal Harvey says: “Be very involved. You have to believe that data is crucial in bringing kids along. You’ve got to use the data to decide what your school needs to get better. Make curriculum your focus.”
“You have to believe that data is crucial in bringing kids along. You’ve got to use the data to decide what your school needs to get better. Make curriculum your focus.”—Micheline Harvey, Principal
Four years ago for instance, Principal Harvey’s suggestion that teachers take learning walks through one another’s classrooms was met with surprise. Yet after viewing classrooms, recording positive observations on Post-it Notes, returning to the Data Room and matching their entries to indicators on the School Effectiveness Framework, many applauded the experience as exceptional professional development. Guided by EQAO and other data, the school improvement plan’s focus on professional development has been inspirational. Principal Harvey observes: “Whatever we focus on becomes our learning for that year. A school doesn’t become successful through complacency.” Now entirely comfortable with this process, teachers appreciate how this visual presentation of student achievement data facilitates specific targeted instruction. Similarly, when used in conjunction with all accumulated data, it aids in the reflective evaluation of initiatives from the previous year and acts as a blueprint for developing the current school improvement plan.
Ever on the path of improvement, St. Emily staff views the school improvement plan as a working document and adheres to it faithfully when determining the direction of its professional development. In the initial stages, professional development centred on teacher moderation with collaborative planning as a key strategy. Later, when data and current research on higher-order thinking exposed a need to ask students more thought-provoking questions, teachers found value in literacy models such as the Question Answer Response, the Restate Opinion Proof Evidence Summary and the board’s Math Enquiry strategies. Aided by direct, explicit teaching and rising to the challenge of heightened expectations, students soon became comfortable and confident using the language of the curriculum while applying critical-thinking strategies. Because EQAO data showed that these measures were working, the school adopted prescriptive feedback and performance walls as strategic initiatives for this year. Building on previous learning patterns and benefiting from specific and timely feedback from teacher- led conferences, students clearly understand the process and are now skilfully engaged in “bumping up” the levels of their work by referring to co-created success criteria posted on performance walls in every classroom.
Use of evidence in the decision-making process has recently been expanded to include video recordings of students engaged in evaluating their own work. These recordings show students demonstrating their understanding of how to improve their learning in a safe and caring environment. Strongly supported by a board that perceives principals and teachers as curriculum leaders while recognizing the important role of parents, St. Emily Catholic School exerts a profound and positive influence on its entire school community.