St. Mary’s High School, in Kitchener, has a diverse population of 1896 students in Grades 9–12. Over the past five years, the school population has decreased by approximately 400 students. St. Mary’s is the board’s magnet school for English language learners, attracting them from a large geographical area, including downtown and the suburbs. Several years ago, due to a desire to change the culture of the school, students were asked to complete the “Tell Them from Me” survey, and many indicated that they felt bullied and unsafe. A decision was made to focus on creating a safe and caring environment, so the “Kindness Matters” initiative was implemented, stressing the importance of kindness in every interaction. A variety of strategies have been put into place to create positive changes to the school culture, such as decreasing the number of lunch periods from three to two, organizing assemblies, speakers and draws, and promoting the message that “kindness really does matter.” A student support program provides opportunities for students to monitor and improve their attendance and work habits so that they understand the importance of being at school. Over a three-year period, the staff has focused on relationships, issues related to social media and wellness in order to create a kind and caring climate in which students can learn and experience success.
Believing their school is the heart of the community, teachers organize many activities, including after-school homework clubs, sports nights and a breakfast club. St. Mary’s students are involved in a number of social justice projects locally and internationally. The school provides financial assistance so that students can participate in field trips, purchase uniforms and pay sports fees. Principal Gale Daly is very proud of the staff, stating: “At St. Mary’s, we have very dedicated teachers who freely give up time with their families to ensure that our students have an opportunity to participate in a wide variety of activities. As a result, students and teachers have developed very positive relationships. The students understand that teachers know and support them.”
Part of the regular practice of the administration and mathematics program head is to review the over-time EQAO Grade 9 assessment data, especially the “Profile of Strengths and Areas for Improvement,” comparing the academic and applied pathways and math strands to identify strengths and areas needing improvement. They examine the Student Questionnaires to determine students’ confidence levels and how they feel about mathematics. Math teachers also compare classroom assessment results to the EQAO data, reviewing EQAO assessment questions to determine whether changes are needed in programming. Teachers have observed that students’ performance in the classroom and on the EQAO assessment was better on concepts learned repeatedly. To build the students’ confidence, retention and understanding as they progress through the units, the teachers decided to spiral the math curriculum, revisiting the skills and concepts. Spiralling provides many opportunities to reassess students’ learning, especially in key areas, and allows teachers to monitor the progress of each student by overall expectation. In order to spiral the delivery of the curriculum, teachers meet during common planning time, when possible, or after school, to set learning goals and success criteria, to discuss common assessments, always with student work in front of them. Modelling EQAO resources, teachers use multiple-choice questions to enhance thinking and problem-solving skills. Mark Modolo, mathematics teacher, states: “Breaking down multiple-choice questions makes students more aware they are not easy questions. Changing them to open-response questions guides and puts meat on the bones of the curriculum and gives the students a sense of what the expectations should look like.”
Although EQAO results have indicated that students in applied math are making steady progress over time, the staff members were concerned that these students were still achieving below the academic level. The teachers believed that all students could achieve at the same level if appropriate supports were in place. To close this learning gap, the school staffed a “gap closing” mathematics section through the allocation of a student success teacher to work with classroom teachers and students. Since the Grade 9 teachers work closely with the gap closing teacher, they end up knowing one another’s students as well as their own. Scheduling multiple Grade 9 applied classes and preparation periods simultaneously provides teachers with the opportunity to collaborate and use their time effectively to share ideas, plan, track student achievement, identify student needs and plan necessary interventions.
Ongoing collaboration with associate elementary schools contributes to the success of St. Mary’s students. Transition meetings with Grade 8 teachers and the guidance department are scheduled to review Grade 6 EQAO and school data and discuss the individual needs of each student to ensure he or she is placed in the appropriate program in Grade 9. In addition, intermediate and Grade 9 teachers participated in cross-panel professional learning community sessions based on the work of Dr. Marian Small and with support from the board numeracy consultant, to model lessons based on key findings from cross-panel learning lessons. These teachers had the opportunity to co-plan using three-part lessons and parallel tasks and then observe each other in the classroom, making recommendations to enhance students’ problem-solving skills. The intentional scheduling of common preparation periods has contributed significantly to allowing this to happen.
“ Looking at a variety of data propels our school improvement planning. Evidence from students’ classroom and EQAO assessments and staff surveys shows us if we’re on the right track, guides our decisions and sets us in motion for the next year. I believe that our teachers are our most important resource and their creativity and passion should never be underestimated when it comes to helping students learn and achieve success.”
— Gale Daly, Principal
To increase the engagement of some students, St. Mary’s offers a special mathematics class with a sports focus. A Grade 9 student states: “I like how we worked together in class to solve problems. This made mathematics interesting because the teachers made connections to real-life activities and were always there to help us. I didn’t see math as relevant at first and couldn’t do it, but now I like it and feel more confident.”
A Grade 9 applied math teacher, who has been an EQAO scorer for several years, works closely with the other teachers to engage in moderated marking on a regular basis. They use the Grade 9 results and scoring guides to compare their marking of the assessments to that of EQAO scorers and to develop consistency and a deep understanding of what each level looks like.
Principal Daly states: “Looking at a variety of data propels our school improvement planning. Evidence from students’ classroom and EQAO assessments and staff surveys shows us if we’re on the right track, guides our decisions and sets us in motion for the next year. I believe that our teachers are our most important resource and their creativity and passion should never be underestimated when it comes to helping students learn and achieve success.”
Dr. Bette M. Stephenson Recognition of Achievement, 2014 School Recipient