Last week, we attended SCORE’s Southeast Regional Rural Education Summit to highlight the work of the Higher Achievement Summer School (H.A.S.S.), an intensive four-week summer experience we put together to give struggling eighth graders in Alabama the skills they need to be successful in high school and beyond. Many students in our community experience the educational injustice of the achievement gap during the traditional academic year. In the summer months, these students have few opportunities to build upon their education, thus the achievement gap between them and their peers widens. H.A.S.S. strives to fill this void. Throughout the four weeks, students focus on reading comprehension and analysis, research skills, grammar, and IT skill building, and receive individualized math instruction that is aligned with the standards on the Alabama High School Graduation Exam. Our goal is that by the end of the program, the 20 students who participate will make substantial academic gains when they enter high school and begin to develop many of the life skills they need to succeed in today’s rapidly evolving society. Although we came to the Summit to present on the work we are doing, we learned so much at the summit that we have taken back with us to strengthen our own teaching.
Speaking on the Middle Grades Education panel helped tremendously with some possible changes we will make for next year’s summer school, such as expanding the summer school to include students from earlier grades. It was slightly nerve wrecking to be in a room full of veteran educators as first year teachers, but once we started, it came easily because we are so passionate about what we do. We received lots of great advice and positive feedback about things we could do to improve and ideas for receiving additional funding. The panel inspired and pushed us to think more critically about how to more effectively change the life trajectory of the students that we come into contact with.
We also learned a lot from Randall Bennett from the Tennessee Board of Education, who facilitated the session and shared a lot of successful things going on in Tennessee education. We were especially interested in the Early
Warning Data System the state is implementing, which made us think about how to more closely evaluate students that are struggling, not only during H.A.S.S. but also in our classrooms. Tennessee’s system prompted us to think in-depth about how to identify and help students that figuratively slip through the gaps, those students that are not disruptive, but who are not engaged in class.
Aside from our panel, one major thing the summit has inspired us to do is make the parents of our students more involved and aware of the goal for H.A.S.S., which is to produce a well-rounded student capable of success in both high school and higher education. The Family Engagement Strategies session gave us concrete ways to involve our parents, such as educating them on things they can do throughout the year to set their children up for academic success, and utilize them to further their students’ education by helping them become more critical thinkers. It is clear to us that making sure the teacher and parent are on the exact same page is critical when it comes to the future success of the student.
To us, the mark of a successful conference is spending time discussing what we can do to make changes and then operationalizing those ideas to improve our own communities. The Southeast Regional Rural Education Summit did that for us. Attending the Summit opened our eyes to how many people are really working to improve rural education. It gave us even more inspiration and drive, along with specific advice and tips, to continue the opportunities that we provide our students during H.A.S.S. We left with a new and greater sense of possibility and purpose.
Laurie Brown graduated from Florida State University with a Bachelors in Sociology and African-American Studies in 2010. After graduating she joined Teach for America – Alabama where she is a high school math teacher at Francis Marion High School in Marion, AL, where she has just finished her first year of teaching. She currently does after school tutoring and is one of three founders of Higher Achievement Summer School.
Ashley Buckelew graduated from Auburn University in 2010 with a degree in Education. She is a Teach for America Alabama teacher in Marengo County. She co-founded Higher Achievement Summer School in 2011.