Enhanced by an International Baccalaureate program, the culture of academic excellence that characterizes St. Robert Catholic High School is such that most students entering Grade 9 aim to attend university on graduation. To facilitate the achievement of these expectations, St. Robert personalizes its approach to reflect individual needs, and evaluates and programs extensively to teach literacy skills to its substantial number of English language learners. A board-wide orientation day in August, which involves some literacy and math screening procedures, provides an essential inclusionary vehicle for welcoming incoming students and allowing staff to anticipate special needs.
While the initial response to EQAO data lies with the school Literacy Committee, which identifies school-wide trends and highlights specific areas of strength and need, each department takes this information, devises its own curricular plan and incorporates its findings into the larger school improvement plan. Using EQAO as the starting point, teachers at St. Robert concentrate over time on areas of concern by integrating successful teaching strategies into the curriculum. For example, by aligning different genres of reading with the curriculum, giving descriptive feedback and matching assessment data with expectations, every staff member takes responsibility for teaching literacy.
Recently for instance, when school data indicated a difficulty with vocabulary development, staff immediately focused on that need. Then, zooming in on inferencing, they explicitly taught students how to read for meaning, articulate what they have learned and make connections to real-life experiences. Similarly, for writing they “married EQAO data with the curriculum” and designed a course outline to ensure that all students receive the same information through targeted lessons about personal opinion pieces, news reports and sight-passage analysis. Likewise, acting on data showing strong student performances on knowledgebased questions and corresponding weaknesses on criticalthinking tasks, teachers refined their questioning practices and explicitly taught critical-thinking skills.
To accommodate evolving English-language skills, the school provides all Grade 10 students with workbooks covering essential reading and writing skills from the curriculum. Deeply invested in the academic success of their children, parents can go directly to these resources to familiarize themselves with EQAO literacy requirements. For subject teachers, they serve as diagnostic assessment devices or as lead-ins to teaching curriculum expectations. An online program called Reading Aloud is another valuable resource available to Grade 10 applied classes. Again, literacy skills outlined in the curriculum are embedded in the program. With contemporary stories and a chat area for discussing questions, it functions as a highly motivating teaching tool.
Reaching out to non-identified students, the Literacy Mentor program provides increasingly inclusive data and support. Recently transferred at-risk students who scored below 60% in Grades 9 and 10 English or weren’t successful on the OSSLT meet in small groups with staff mentors twice weekly to identify individual learning gaps, determine why these gaps exist and receive appropriate interventions. The staff mentors record progress and ultimately share improvement data with the multi-disciplinary school success team. “Trusting and sharing your data are two of the most important things teachers can do,” says Principal Sarna.
Using a continuous feedback cycle of data, St. Robert also traces trends over time. Current EQAO data, school results from the primary and junior assessments along with classroom data and data from other sources (such as credit recovery and attendance records) are used organically by small successful departmental learning teams. These teams venture beyond the numbers to gather perceptual and attitudinal data, which they layer over school board statistics, ensuring student success.
Principal Sarna states: “There is a constant questioning around how we can make those incremental improvements. The challenge is continually seeking out the deeper corners of the curriculum.”
With professional development predominantly occurring on site, staff can tailor board initiatives to local needs. Recently for example, working with a board initiative, staff from various departments used EQAO data to create targeted lessons for Grades 9 and 10 students in the applied program. As part of the project, teachers worked in pairs, observing each other and discussing their insights. A comparison of data from before and after showed that these strategies improved students’ literacy skills significantly. As Principal Sarna states, “Data helps by providing a focus to align our vision along a path that is going to produce results.”
“ Data helps by providing a focus to align our vision along a path that is going to produce results.”
— Jennifer Sarna, Principal
Staff at St. Robert collaborate successfully in small teams, not only within the school but also with staff from other schools, and acknowledge their commitment to meeting student needs. This was demonstrated recently by the school’s success securing a grant to address the discrepancy between the academic and applied programs’ OSSLT success rates by reviewing data, linking them to the curriculum and designing Grade 9 lessons plans with other schools.
Assistive and other technology provides another link to success by allowing students with learning disabilities to function well in the academic stream and all students with special education needs to demonstrate their learning more clearly on assessments. EQAO resources familiarize students with the language and expectations of the curriculum. Committed to improving technology school-wide, St. Robert is now purchasing iPads to improve students’ oral and written communication skills.
Ever respectful of student wishes, staff encourage student input into the schools’ many extracurricular activities, which significantly contribute to the development of language and social skills among the diverse student population. With full parental support, the teachers have collaboratively created a friendly, welcoming and safe learning community within which students thrive both socially and academically.
Dr. Bette M. Stephenson Recognition of Achievement, 2014 School Recipient