A State of the School in 2018: What Has Changed, and What Never Will
Looking Back: A Snapshot of STS Five Years Ago
In January 2013, St. Timothy’s was an excellent Episcopal preparatory school of 427 students with a long and successful history of preparing students for success in high school and beyond. Alumni were valedictorians and salutatorians, class presidents, and National Merit Scholars. We had fantastic teachers. We were rightfully proud of our school, and I was thrilled to have my own children in attendance.
At STS, teachers taught primarily using whole-class instruction, grouping students by ability into three separate classes for reading and math throughout the lower school, the most advanced of those classe typically using curriculum from the next grade level. Students in grades 1-4 were graded on the same A-F scale as grades 5-8. At all levels, we offered a strong “grammar-first” writing program. Cursive was a required part of our curriculum, just like mandatory participation in the school science fair and our requirement that students take Latin each year in grades 6-8. We had a part-time reading specialist on staff to support struggling students. Our four PC labs and a laptop cart offered students the requisite tools and opportunities for technology skill building.
Initiatives five years ago included the creation of a new part-time Spanish teaching position as we re-introduced Lower School Spanish, the launch of a new advisory program for the middle school, and the beginning of a national search for a Lower School Head to replace our retiring (and outstanding) Assistant Headmaster. Requests from parents at the time included more writing for students, expanding Spanish into middle school, adding a drama program, and ensuring the math curriculum was both appropriately rigorous for our strongest mathematicians and supportive for those who struggled.
Today: What Has Changed
In January 2018, St. Timothy’s is still an excellent Episcopal preparatory school, with 513 students and a long and successful history of preparing students for success in high school and beyond. In 2017, St. Timothy’s alumni were the salutatorian at Cardinal Gibbons, valedictorian at St. Mary’s, and valedictorian at Leesville Road High School. We still have fantastic teachers, and we are rightfully proud of our school.
However, many things have changed.
Ability grouping by class has been mostly replaced by mixed ability classes with students grouped by ability within the class when needed (though, based on their skill mastery, students do continue to place into separate math courses later in the middle school). Lower school whole group direct instruction has been de-emphasized and replaced with diagnostic pre- and post-testing and small-group, centered learning. Fountas and Pinnell leveled reading identifies the individual mastery and growth on each of our readers. Benchmark skills have replaced letter grades in grades 1-4. A “writing-first” Writers’ Workshop program that emphasizes volume and fluency, with grammar learned within that process, as well as separately, now inspires our writing curriculum through grade 8. Cursive is now optional, as is science fair participation, and a new, more flexible “Individual Science Project” (ISP) is a requirement in middle school. We now employ three Spanish teachers for our Pre-K through grade 8 Spanish offerings, and after just one required semester of Latin, students pick either Spanish or Latin as their language focus for grades 7-8.
A full-time learning specialist now works closely with teachers to develop strategies for supporting struggling students and to collaborate on enrichment strategies for the strongest students. Our drama program, now in its fourth year, is so popular that we have multiple casts for the spring drama production. Students and teachers use interactive, adaptive technology on SmartBoards, iPads, and Chromebooks in every lower school classroom each day, while each middle school student receives a Chromebook for the year to be used as an essential learning tool in every class. PC labs have been converted into the Imagination Lab and The Editor—flexible, multi-use, creative design spaces. Coding is integrated into lower and middle school curriculums. Social-Emotional Learning classes and a Service Learning class have been added in the middle school, while lower school teachers have adopted the “Responsive Classroom” philosophy to guide social-emotional learning in everything from daily morning meetings with the students to navigating conflicts with peers.
Why These Changes?
One reason for the differences we see in 2018 compared to just a few years ago is because education continues to change—in some ways, more rapidly than ever before. Thanks to advances in brain scan technology, for example, researchers are unlocking more keys to effective teaching and learning than ever before, with new, research-based curriculum materials quickly available. Technology certainly plays a key role, though not the only one. Even when considering the most “traditional” of schools, very few classrooms anywhere in 2018 look like they did in 2013; STS is not alone.
Another reason for change is the wealth of talent, vision, and experience that many new colleagues brought to STS over the last five years. Alison Gammage and Tim Coleman were leaders in two outstanding Episcopal schools before joining St. Timothy’s to lead the lower and middle schools. A number of new teachers have joined us, too, coming from other great independent schools, Catholic schools, and public schools. (Incidentally, four STS teachers who’ve joined us in the last few years previously earned Teacher of the Year distinction in Wake County Public Schools.)
Crucially, St. Timothy’s has made a substantial investment in professional development over the last five years, too. This year, alone, STS will invest $80,000 to enroll faculty in graduate courses and continuing education, to attend conferences, to bring in experts, and more. (By comparison, in 2012-13, we invested about $20,000 in professional development.) It would be a poor investment, indeed, if teaching and learning remained exactly the same after such a significant commitment of effort and resources. Lower and middle school math teachers have attended the largest math teaching conference in the U.S. multiple times in the last few years. The entire middle school math department took a Stanford University course with Dr. Jo Boaler, one of the leading math education experts in the country, while several lower and middle school writing teachers went to Columbia University over the last few summers to take courses with Dr. Lucy Calkins, one of the foremost writing education experts in the country. These and so many other experiences inspire our teachers to pursue research-based, new and innovative approaches in their classrooms. Based on their successes, many of our STS colleagues are now invited to present at regional and national conferences, too.
One example of significant change over the last few years has been our approach to grouping. We’ve always intended for a child’s current ability to determine the instruction he/she receives on any day at STS, and we continue to believe that ability grouping is a proven technique to maximize learning and instructional effectiveness. However, using our new diagnostic tools, it is evident that we almost never have 15 or 20 students who are all at the same ability level all year, separate and distinct from another group of 15-20 students, who are separate and distinct from a third group. Depending on what particular set of skills we choose to measure on any given day, we may come up with very different groups. It’s easy to forget that just as the students in each of these classes experience their own unique, and often unpredictable, physical growth spurts, they’re also going to experience conceptual growth spurts and “aha moments” that do not fit neatly into year-long (or more), fixed-ability, whole-class groupings. Our teachers have asked—and rightfully so—why design instruction based on groups of 15-20 if we can instead design more effective instruction based on fluid groups of 4- 5?
There were other notable drawbacks of ability grouping by class, particularly for our younger students. Moving to a more or less advanced class was difficult because different classes tended to move at different paces. The more that we have learned about fixed and growth mindsets, the more we’ve also seen that placing young students into three fixed, leveled classes with minimal changes year after year reinforced the belief of “not being good at math” and “not being good at reading” among some students. Conversely, those who were consistently in the most advanced classes, carrying the label of being “strong at reading” or “strong in math,” were sometimes anxious to never appear to struggle, and missed valuable opportunities to develop the courage and resilience that comes with taking academic risks and learning from failure. Combining pre- and post-testing in a mixed-ability classroom where students are in fluid groups based on their current mastery of the particular skill being taught/assessed helps us identify and address knowledge gaps we might have missed before, even for the strongest students.
Designing instruction and activities that engage students at their current ability level (“differentiated instruction”) is not simple, though our spectrum of student abilities at STS is much narrower than a most other schools, both public and private. We’ve invested a considerable amount of time and professional development into strengthening our differentiated instruction skills, tools, and resources throughout our school. In our current approach to lower school reading, for example, after the teacher explains a concept to a class, the students rotate in small groups (four or five students) to apply or practice what they just learned. Each child’s level of reading mastery (A-Z) will inform grouping choices and learning activities, but so too will discrete skills like fluency, phonetic decoding, sight word memory, grammar, vocabulary, and more. This also allows us to teach reading and written language with a more integrated approach. The result of our shift to this method of teaching and learning was that by the end of last school year, 23% of our fourth graders were on grade level for reading, while the remaining 77% were above grade level.
In a differentiated math classroom, instruction is provided in multiple settings, including whole group mini-lessons, small skill-based groups, and independent practice. Our chief goal in math is for all students to gain full conceptual understanding and fundamental number sense. This means that only rarely would we just accelerate the strongest students, because they may be able to quickly move through a course based on rote memorization alone, never achieving the conceptual understanding they’ll need later in more advanced classes. Instead, for our stronger mathematicians, we now aim to go deeper, not faster. Teachers increase the complexity of tasks based on students’ demonstrated skills. For example, when exploring equivalent fractions (1/2 =2/4 =4/8), some students may require work with hands-on manipulatives, like fraction bars, to better understand the concept. Others who can solve abstractly and do not need manipulatives for understanding may be given activities involving improper fractions, mixed numbers, and decimals. Difficulty level is most often increased by asking students to do more complex work related to the topic, to apply skills in a novel context, or to generalize principles to demonstrate complete conceptual understanding instead of moving on to an entirely new topic.
Looking Ahead: What Hasn’t Changed and Never Will
In the last five years, it’s true that we’ve seen many of the processes and the tools of teaching and learning change at STS, as have some of the people leading that teaching and learning. As we learn more and gain more expertise and experience, change undoubtedly will continue. It would be difficult to predict the changes in tools and processes of teaching and learning at STS that we will see by 2023. However, with any change, we always aim to be thoughtful, methodical, and research-based, and we always ought to be willing to readily explain “why” and “how” to any parent who ever asks.
What has not changed—and what never will—are our core academic values that give our teaching and learning a context, as well as the outcome of a St. Timothy’s education. For sixty years, our top goal has been to be a place of educational excellence, with outstanding teachers offering a challenging preparatory curriculum that provides our graduates with all of the skills they will need for success at the next academic level, and for a successful life afterwards. We will also always be a close-knit, nurturing community, reliant on a close parent-school partnership, and guided by Christian values that align with our strong Episcopal identity. Episcopal traditions, great families, excellent teachers, and an outstanding educational approach that ensures we have thoroughly well-prepared students... of these and so many other features of the St. Timothy’s experience we will always be “loud and proud.”
It’s a great day to be a Titan!
Tim Tinnesz, Head of School