Plan is working

Bob Vavra

The efforts of the Chinook School Division to create engaging learning environments for high school students have been successful during the past school year.

Superintendent of Learning Bob Vavra presented the 21st century student engagement status report during a regular Chinook School Division board meeting on May 11, which took place via video conference.

The Chinook School Division created the student engagement plan three years ago as part of the graduation plan.

“It was put in place mainly because our results showed and provincial results with our schools survey showed that student engagement, especially the middle years and high school level, really drops off,” he told the meeting. “So we put in a plan three years ago to improve student engagement at the high school level.”

Although the focus of the initiative is on Grade 10-12 students, the configuration of some schools also results in the inclusion of a few Grade 9 students during the implementation of the plan.

The engagement plan includes professional development sessions on collaborative culture for teachers, student-centred learning, and student surveys to determine focus areas for future engagement activities.

The school division created an engagement framework to guide the implementation of the plan. The two main components of this framework are collaborative culture and student-centred learning.

Collaborative culture has three subcomponents, which are authentic relationships, students as partners, and supportive environment. The three subcomponents for student-centred learning are planning for deeper learning, responding to diverse learners, and assessment for learning.

“Over the past three years we've done professional development in all of those six areas, and what we really found is we have to do a little bit more work in the assessment realm,” he said. “So that was a key focus for us this year and that will be a focus for us moving forward.”

Various professional development activities for teachers took place during the 2019-20 school year to assist them with their classroom efforts to increase student engagement. The school division appointed two engagement coaches to provide support to teachers.

This year they coached about 55 per cent of Grade 10-12 teachers as part of a two-year plan, and the remaining 45 per cent of teachers will receive coaching during the next school year.

“These coaches go out and work with the teachers and guide them in working with assessment specifically this year, but the engagement model as a whole and doing a good job of connecting with kids,” Vavra said.

The coaches took videos of teachers while they were teaching and afterwards the recordings were evaluated.

“Then they guided the teachers in creating plans to make their work more engaging, and the teachers came up with those plans,” he said. “The coaches were there just to support them, and that worked really well, and it created a very tight network with those teachers.”

This positive interaction between teachers and the engagement coaches had additional benefits since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in the suspension of classes and the implementation of a plan for supplemental learning at home.

“It worked really well going into our COVID situation, where those teachers relied very heavily on the coaches to help them with the distance learning pieces that that we put into place so they could support learning from home,” he said.

The student engagement activities during the 2019-20 school year included professional development activities with high school administrators.

“We gave them the tools to support the teachers in their schools in working not only with the coaches, but if they were in a school that didn't have coaching, then they would fill that void,” he explained.

The creation of an engagement committee was a major part of the work done during the 2019-20 school year to implement the student engagement plan. The members of the committee included representatives from principal and teacher school teams, central office staff and technology support staff.

The committee had four meetings to review provincial, national and international research on student engagement. Committee members participated in research trips to collect additional information. There was a trip to five schools in Regina to review Tinker Tubs, an activity for younger learners to encourage learning and engagement. Three teachers attended robotics and coding training provided by SaskCode.

The information obtained from these research trips will be useful in the creation of plans for the expansion of student engagement activities in the Chinook School Division over the next two years.

The Chinook School Division board had set a goal for the student engagement initiative that requires 80 per cent of students to meet or exceed expectations in Chinook course surveys by June 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic will not make it possible to do a survey of student engagement in June, but the results from the most recent survey at the end of the first semester indicated that this board goal has been achieved.

The overall results from the responses to seven different questions indicates that 80 per cent of students were meeting or exceeding expectations at the end of the first semester. Vavra therefore felt the board goal would have been exceeded if the pandemic did not cause the disruption of regular learning activities.

“Although we didn't get to assess or to ask some of the questions in June this year, the research from the past three years would have shown that we usually have about a two to seven per cent growth from first semester to second semester,” he noted. “If you look at that, we would have been anywhere from 82 to 87 per cent. So it's disappointing that we didn't get to that end goal, but our kids are at where we said they would be right now. So that's exciting.”

The student engagement initiative will continue during the next school year. The remaining 45 per cent of high school teachers will receive coaching from the two engagement coaches in 2020-21. The school division is also planning to expand this initiative to the pre-kindergarten to Grade 9 levels.

“We're going to do some modules that they can do from home or at school, it doesn't matter, on the collaborative culture piece,” he said. “So getting to know their kids, providing that safe environment, which could fit nicely into some of the things we're dealing with now.”

The work will continue to strengthen practices for assessments on the Grade 10-12 levels. Another new aspect during the 2020-21 school year will be the launch of pilot projects in six to 10 schools that will use relevant hands-on resources to promote student engagement in literacy and math.

“We'll have engagement kits there that kids can use and connect to the curriculum,” he said. “We don't want just fun activities. We want activities to engage kids, but get them to a deeper learning.”

The work done next year through the pilot projects will be a preparation for a roll-out to the entire division in the fall of 2021, which will be aligned with the new provincial education plan.

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