ROCK HALL — As the first day of school draws near, the Kent County Board of Education met last week to review a strategic plan for improving student achievement.

Students are set to return to Kent County Public Schools on Tuesday, Sept. 7, with masks required in indoor spaces and other public health measures in effect. They will be back in classes five days a week for the first time in about a year and a half.

Late last month, the Board of Education met for a work session with KCPS administrators to hear about a long-term strategic plan to meet achievement milestones by 2025.

Gina Jachimowicz, director of teaching and learning, told board members at the work session held Monday, Aug. 23 that the plan serves as a guide for learning and a roadmap to excellence.

Superintendent Karen Couch said the plan had been previously adopted, but then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools and led to hybrid instruction. She said that while the pandemic put the plan on hold, KCPS is ready now to move forward.

“Everybody has a role. Everybody is committed. It’s not just the Board of Education’s strategic plan. It’s not the superintendent’s strategic plan. It’s the Kent County Public Schools strategic plan,” Couch told board members.

The KCPS vision statement reads: “All Kent County Public School students will graduate equipped to achieve their highest potential.”

The school system’s mission statement follows that up with: “KCPS is an anchor organization that creates an environment of academic excellence through a collaborative, equitable and rigorous learning community.”

Through four overarching strategies — equity, communication, innovation and data — the strategic plan outlines six long-term goals, each broken down by administrators at the work session.

“Kent County Public Schools will support early learning and intervention to provide a strong foundation for future learning and success so that all students enter Kindergarten ready to learn,” states the first goal, which highlights early learning.

Early learners range in age from birth to 5 years old. The school system has an Infants and Toddlers program and offers universal pre-kindergarten. The state’s Kindergarten Readiness Assessment will serve as the benchmark measurement, with the school system’s goal to narrow achievement gaps between student demographic groups.

Wendy Keen, supervisor of special education, spoke about efforts to connect families and community partners through early learning programs and activities. She said they have had success with parents joining in for virtual events.

“Kent County Public School students will have equitable access to rigorous culturally relevant curriculum and instructional programs aligned to Maryland College and Career Readiness Standards,” reads the second goal addressing academics for kindergarten through 12th-grade students.

Recurring themes in the discussion focused on collecting student achievement data through state and local assessments and educators reviewing that information and discussing best practices for the classroom in professional development programs.

Coordinator of Student Services Angela Holocker spoke about the value of the professional development learning communities, which group teachers together based on grade and subject to discuss issues related student achievement, the curriculum and classes.

“We know that our teachers, when they have the chance to collaborate that’s some of the most powerful professional learning that can happen in the classrooms,” Holocker told the board.

Through a well rounded curriculum and reviewing assessment data, additional goals are to have students on track for graduation by ninth grade, have them ready for their post-secondary lives, be it college or the workforce, and narrow achievement gaps.

Board member Nivek Johnson asked about efforts to make the curriculum more culturally relevant to students.

Holocker and Jachimowicz spoke about how those discussions are being held in professional development sessions and how the Maryland State Department of Education is offering suggestions on reading collections and other educational materials that ensure broader diversity.

Board member Wendy Costa raised concerns about whether students are being advanced in grades despite not meeting proficiency requirements in areas like reading.

“When kids are just moved along, they don’t do very well,” Costa, a retired educator, said.

Jachimowicz said targets are being set with a commitment to not just aim for the status quo and moving students along from grade to grade. She said the KCPS staff is taking a diagnostic approach to teaching, using student data as a tool.

“We all know that students do not learn the same way and at the same time. So our challenge is to really help everyone achieve and accelerate their learning as quickly as possible,” Jachimowicz said.

One issue the school system faces is a lack of baseline data from state assessments. Those assessments were called off for the 2020-2021 academic year due to the pandemic and the exam itself is changing to a new format.

Couch said a new baseline will not be established by state assessment data until spring 2022.

“We can’t afford to wait,” she said. “We’ve got to start moving forward. We’ve got to start gauging what we can measure and how’s the best way to measure.”

The school system here has been using its own local assessment tests and the resulting data to track students, with an eye toward ensuring students are well on their way to proficiency before they sit down for the state exams.

The strategic plan lays out a goal that by 2025, KCPS will see a 30% increase in students achieving proficiency in English language arts and math on the new Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program exam from the baseline to be established in 2022. The aim is to start with a 10% increase in 2023, then 20% by 2024.

Looking at assessment goals on the school system’s local Measurement of Academic Progress tests, KCPS is aiming for going from 31% proficiency in English language arts to 41% and improving math proficiency rates from 16% to 30%, both by June 2022.

In addition, the strategic plan presentation shows a goal of decreasing achievement gaps on the Measurement of Academic Progress exams based on fall 2021 data by 50% in June 2022.

“Kent County Public Schools leaders, teachers and support staff will have access to an array of professional learning opportunities to ensure high employee standards that create optimal student outcomes,” states the third goal for workforce and professional development.

Dan Hushion, supervisor of human resources, walked the board through plans to bolster recruitment and retention, including bringing on board a more diverse staff, setting core competencies for classroom instruction and developing more means of training and support.

“We have two main processes toward outcomes. The first is two develop a comprehensive plan to recruit and retain a quality and diverse workforce, as well as to develop a comprehensive plan for personalized training and support,” he said.

The fourth goal looks at social and emotional wellness: “Kent County Public Schools will create a safe, inclusive culture that meets the social and emotional needs of all students.”

“That is something that’s very important,” said H.H. Garnet Elementary School Principal Brenda Rose, noting the effects of the pandemic on mental health.

Supervisor of Secondary Education and Student Services Tracey Williams questioned how students can be expected to sit and learn if their basic mental health and social and emotional needs are not being met.

The school system seeks to connect parents of students who need these supports with counseling opportunities. In addition, KCPS administrators and staff are looking at discipline and truancy data, school climate surveys and more to better address these students needs.

“Families and community partners will be informed, engaged and supported for students’ academic success,” states the fifth goal addressing student, family and community engagement and communication.

Galena Elementary School Principal Arlene Reading said that goal goes beyond just informing parents about what is going in schools.

“We want parents — families, not just parents — to be engaged in what’s happening in the school and also feel supported,” Reading said.

A key step in this plan is the creation of a public relations position that will not just see someone from the school system sending out notifications, but also analyzing the most effective ways of communicating with the KCPS community.

In addition to talking about the KPCS website, robocalls, mobile apps and other means of communication, there was continued discussion about school climate surveys and building on community partnerships.

Goal six is centered on facilities and equipment: “Kent County Public Schools will have state of the art learning spaces and tools that are equitable and inclusive.”

Supervisor of Operations Joe Wheeler and Supervisor of Technology William Poore discussed buildings and investing in technology, assessing needs and updating equipment.

Board members also spoke about concerns over buildings like the aging Kent County Middle School in Chestertown and the need for new student furniture, which has come up in budget discussions but been struck due to lack of available funding.

In reviewing the plan, Couch told board members this is the first time the school system is being aligned with one goal. It all comes back to academic achievement.

“So everything is going to be aligned and we’re all going to speaking with the same voice, in that we have work to do. We know these are lofty goals but we have to start somewhere and we have to be able to say in out-loud voice that we’re committed to doing what is needed to make these gains in our academic achievement,” she said.

Board President Joe Goetz thanked the administrators for their presentation. He said the plan is hugely important, in that it aligns the school system in one direction. He asked that implementation of the plan be fluid and allow for flexibility.

Board Vice President Trish McGee, who also is associate editor of the Kent County News, called the plan a good first start: “because we never really had a tangible goal other than the generic ‘we’re going to try to do better.’”

Couch said administrators also are committed to reporting regularly on their progress.

“We want to talk about it and be able to share what we know as we know it,” she said.

The strategic plan presentation is available for download on the Aug. 23 workshop agenda, via go.boarddocs.com/mabe/kcps/Board.nsf/Public.

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