PATERSON, NJ- With students at College Achieve Paterson Charter School taking the state’s PARCC tests this week, the school’s Co-founder, Dr. Gemar Mills, is offering confidence that the advanced measures he and his team have instituted to correct last year’s test scores will pay off.
Last year—College Achieve Paterson’s first year of existence—eighty percent of its 5th and 6th graders failed to meet or exceed expectations on their Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) math section. While the school fared better in language arts, with 33% passing, Dr. Mills and team knows they have work to do.
Stressing that “in comparison to the district, they weren’t outside of the norm,” Dr. Mills understands that last year’s scores didn’t quite meet the high expectations parents place on a school run by the “turnaround principal.” Mills believes that the school’s unique educational model will take time to sink in, but also knew he needed to make some serious changes in the short time.
To begin, College Achieve hired a number of new staff members to lower its already comparable low staff-to-student ratio. This included 5th-grade teacher Porscha Haynes, who also came in as the head of the math department to help bolster the program.
She started revamping the curriculum immediately. “We looked at our planning of the curriculum, started with mapping out what is really important to get scholars to the next grade,” says Portia, adding “Do our teachers actually know what the scholars need to know?”
To fill any gaps, the school invested serious time into what Portia calls “intense professional development.” They had the staff take part in the same exercises that the students already did—Cornell notes, Socratic seminars, and the Toulmin writing model. Professional development has continued through the summer, with half the staff participating in professional development every Friday while the other staff assists students in preparing for the PARCC exam.
The school also implemented Saturday learning sessions, making them every week and encouraging more students to come. Mills says that over 100 students attend each session.
Instead of forcing students to stare at test prep books all day, he increased tutorial services to provide personalized tutoring on a weekly basis. New technology in the form of laptops allows kids to get additional prep through a responsive platform. “I want my scholars to conceptually learn that type of material. They use manipulatives and act out the problem,” says Haynes.
As a parent herself, Haynes says she knows how important it is to be able to send her child to a school where the students feel safe. “They’re going to have a place where the teachers love and care about them, they’re going to go to a school they want to come to every day,” she says.
Dr. Mills thinks that he has the right tools to bring that to the neighborhood he grew up in. He founded College Achieve Paterson with the intention of sending the students to find success even far beyond his own.
Though the school has doubled down on its commitment to raise PARCC scores, Dr. Mills still hopes to mitigate an even larger issue in the future; correcting what he sees as an unfair standardized test system.
Like many other education activists, Mills sees the PARCC exam and similar tests disenfranchising to students who didn’t have the same upbringing as test preparers. “The world where you grew up, what you learned and how—all these things matter,” he says. The students who don’t have the same context, who didn’t necessarily use the same words as test writers, are being left behind.
“This is the elephant in the room never being acknowledging,” says Mills. He believes there are ways to correct this system; by revamping test language to reflect different areas, and possibly replacing the concept of standardized tests as we know it. “We could learn other models,” he says, suggesting the concept of writing and defending a (grade-level appropriate) dissertation instead.
“I think there’s definitely going to be some growth, I’m really excited for this year,” says Haynes. According to Dr. Mills, early indications from practice exams have shown success. Mills expects that success to be reflected in the student's final exam results.