Urbana meets progress goals, shows improvement

By Alissa Groeninger

As Urbana High School seniors return to school this year, they have a reason to celebrate.

The Aug. 19 announcement of the Adequate Yearly Progress reports, which are the standards set by the No Child Left Behind Act, revealed that for the first time since the act was established, Urbana High School met the progress goals. The reports are based on the Prairie States Achievement Test results. These tests are given to Illinois high school juniors in April.

The report breaks down the 2008 test scores based on the performance of specific groups. Low income students scored their highest in math, black students scored their highest in math, and special education students scored their highest in both math and reading. Urbana High School posted its highest record math scores, and all areas of testing increased compared with last year’s test.

While Urbana High School has not met the Adequate Yearly Progress Requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act until this year, their scores have improved steadily over the past few years.

“We knew we (were headed in) the right direction, but you want to see change overnight,” said Renee Hunt, Urbana High School math teacher. “We’re pretty confident that we’re on the right track and that our test scores will keep going up.”

Laura Taylor, Urbana High School principal, credited the school’s success to a focus on curriculum, teaching and the school’s learning environment. She said there has always been a push to improve student achievement, but the school really zoned in on the best ways to achieve this task five years ago by setting high expectation and providing physical and emotional support.

“By building relationships with the kids, we really learn what their needs are,” she said.

One of the ways the district provides one-on-one support is through an advocacy program. The program splits students who have specific needs among administrators, deans and counselors.

“(We needed to do) whatever it took to get them learning,” Taylor said.

In addition, all lower level classes were dropped last year. All students are now taking regular level or higher level courses to foster the highest performance possible.

Three years ago, the entire math department collaborated on progress goals. They integrated more test preparation into classes and aligned them to ensure all students take the necessary subjects to succeed on testing.

Another change was hiring a math coach who incorporates literary lessons into the teaching of math. This helps students who have difficulty grasping the language they need to learn the subject. Planning and conducting lessons in front of other teachers have also helped better instruction.

“The best way to learn as a teacher is through other teachers in our department,” Hunt said. “It’s good to know that what we’re doing is working.”

Phil Wilder, a teacher collaborator at the University’s Center for Education in Small Urban Communities, started working with the math department, as well as the administration during the summer of 2007.

He said he spends several weeks at one time working with specific teachers. He helped Hunt by modeling and coaching teaching strategies. The administration also worked with Wilder to better their school improvement plan, which the state requires all school districts to create. He encouraged them to have all school committees come together and work toward one common goal.

“(I helped) them to kind of hone and focus in on what the initiative should be for professional development,” Wilder said.

School Board President Mark Netter said he is very pleased and feels the school is on the right path to finishing the rest of the work they need to do.

“Faculty, staff and administration have worked hard to bring every child along,” Netter said.

While Urbana High School has created programs and policies that allow students to focus on learning, Taylor also credits the district with helping test scores. She said the middle school students are doing better on their testing and are better prepared as high school students.

“(The district has) been doing remarkable things at the middle school and elementary levels, and I’m sure our scores reflect that,” she said.