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Laurel's High Road Academy pilots data-driven national program

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For students at High Road Academy, the lazy, hazy days of July are not the time for spending endless hours at the local swimming pool, riding a bike or learning new skills at day camp.

Instead, the 90 kids enrolled at the nonpublic school on Route 1 in North Laurel continue intensive instruction in personalized remedial programs for another month after the traditional school year ends in June.

But the summer of 2014 added a new twist to the students' normal routine: July saw the culmination of a pilot program to test data-led instruction that revolves around more detailed and more frequent targeted assessments that work in tandem with Common Core State Standards.

The new program will be implemented this fall at High Road Academy and at 50 schools nationwide.

Use of the new assessments along with behavioral interventions already in place has been shown to lead to breakthroughs in students with learning disabilities, officials say.

"We had been looking for options for learning-disabled students, students who are skill-deficient and need remediation," said Ellen Gaske, executive director of High Road Academy, which was founded in Fulton in 1998 and moved to its current location in 2007.

"Some students have come to us with their heads down and tails between their legs because they'd been beaten down" by their struggle to succeed in school, she said. "Some were depressed or had low self-esteem."

Gaske is also chief academic officer for Special Education Services Inc., the Yardley, Pa.-based provider of special education programming that operates the school — which incurs no cost to students' parents — along with more than 55 other programs in 11 states and Washington.

She previously was a special education teacher and supervisor in Howard County public schools from 1975 to 1998.

The search for alternatives was driven by the system's inability to consistently deliver small-group help to address specific areas of weakness, which, in turn, led to seeing students "who would shut down, get frustrated, skip class or act up," Gaske said.

"Kids in special education were not faring very well in national and state data," she said. "Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been looking at enhanced accountability for all states, and it's time now for this [new push] to happen."

High Road Academy serves students in grades 3 through 12 who are referred and funded by public school systems in Howard, Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Carroll counties and Washington primarily, though some come as far away as Calvert County. Students in Prince George's County attend High Road Academy of Prince George's County, located in Lanham.

While all areas of academics are addressed at the academy, the school's teaching staff specializes in working with students who have severe reading disabilities.

"For many students we look at [a referral] almost like corrective surgery," said Janet Zimmerman, instructional facilitator for nonpublic services and special education compliance in Howard County schools.

"They're immersed in reading instruction at High Road Academy, and once their reading levels are brought up they can be returned to public school," she said, noting that referrals are made to other nonpublic schools that also specialize in specific learning disabilities.

Data focus

While an Individualized Education Program team that monitors each student's progress was already in place at High Road Academy and the school has focused on data "since day one," Gaske said, concerns about struggling students persisted, just as they have across the country.

Now, a battery of 20-minute computerized tests examines all areas of academic learning in greater detail; there are eight different measures for language arts alone, for instance. Called Star Assessments by Wisconsin-based Renaissance Learning, which designed them, they are aligned to Common Core.

"We've had the ability to assess whether a student is [performing] at a basic, proficient or advanced level as a rough reference, but nothing that informs instruction," Gaske said.

Linking High Road Academy's data-led instruction to the state's standards "will help us to fine tune" programming and make greater progress, she said. "It is very personalized and detailed, and it provides specific instructional prompts based on each student's needs."

Kara Marsh-Armstrong, head teacher at High Road Academy, said the data informs staff in deciding who works with whom to address students' skill deficiencies.

"In order to reach students, we use lots of visual and graphic organizers to help them assemble their thoughts," she said as she displayed an example of a worksheet that assists a student in completing an assignment.

With only 8 to 10 students in a class that is run by a teacher and a teaching assistant, data-led instruction provides individualized help more efficiently, she said.

The targeted assessment tests will be administered five times a year, providing the administration and teachers with updated data points to tweak personalized instructional programs to benefit students in the classroom and during statewide testing, Gaske said.

This is important as the High School Assessments will be phased out over the next few years, and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, will be rolled out during the 2014-2015 academic year.

Even the way Individualized Education Plans are written will be "cutting edge."

"Not only are we helping to remediate learning disabilities, we are also better preparing [students] to return to general education and to succeed in their homes schools," she said.

'Different learning environment'

William Hughes is a Potomac resident whose son Will just graduated from High Road Academy in June, earning his diploma from Churchill High School. Hughes said the school's ability to provide "a different learning environment" that is funded with taxpayer dollars turned his son's education around.

"Will has multiple learning disabilities and was reading at the level of a first-grader" when he started at the school in seventh grade, said Hughes, a Coast Guard commander.

"He has always been verbally precocious, and before long he was reading at a college level," Hughes said of his son, who will attend Landmark College in Putney, Vt., in the fall. The college tailors its courses to students with learning disabilities.

Gaske, whom Hughes called "a heck of an educator," was also the first to diagnose Will in his senior year as having Asperger's syndrome, a milder form of autism.

"Because of this intervention, we saw him just leap frog — it just clicked," he said. "High Road was the place for him to be."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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