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  • by Blaine Helwig

Emulate Before Innovating: COVID or No COVID

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

Every time we boarded an airplane to travel, my wife would open the airline magazine and complete the three levels of Sudoku puzzles: Easy, Medium and Hard. I was amazed at the speed and ease that she could solve these puzzles. I had never played before, but I knew from past learning experiences that I needed to learn in stages – starting at the elementary puzzle level and systematically proceed to the advanced puzzles. Thus, I ordered some Sudoku puzzles from Amazon, and I started with the Easy version. I was surprised initially how long the ‘Easy’ versions took me to correctly complete, but after playing 3 to 5 puzzles a day for three weeks, I was much, much quicker – consistently completing that Sudoku level in minutes. I transitioned to the “Medium” puzzle level and after 5 to 7 puzzles each day for a couple months, I was adept.

Finally, I took on the “Hard” Sudoku version, and I was stymied. I practiced each day – 2 puzzles per day for a more than a month, and I could not consistently complete them correctly. I searched YouTube, and I discovered a number of videos showing the strategy to solve the most difficult Sudoku puzzles. I made my own six ~ 3 by 3 Sudoku grids, and I slowly walked through the videos – systematically – to understand the thinking the Sudoku mavens employed to solve these difficult puzzles quickly. I need to stress the following fact: I did not get creative implementing my own problem solving solutions UNTIL I had mastered and fully understood their techniques. Or, more to the point – I kept my ego and pride in check.

Why did I take this course of action?

The Sudoku experts have proven their success at this task, and I had not. My failing attempts and results at ‘Hard’ Sudoku had more than proven that fact for the last month. Moreover, they possessed much more depth, insight and success than I did on the subject. I was in the learning stage of ‘strategy, thinking and reflecting’ about the means to solve difficult Sudoku puzzles. In short, I needed to ‘emulate before innovating’ if I desired to improve my performance dramatically on this type of process learning.

Spoiler Alert: This short blog is NOT about Sudoku. It is about becoming successful at dramatically changing the academic environment of challenging Title 1 elementary schools.

Academic Transformation of Title 1 Elementary Schools

Educators and advocates at all levels – university professors, non-profit organizations and senior level administrators – all too often say the most important hire and people at a campus are the teachers. This is true and not true depending on the student demographic. If the elementary school is a NON-Title 1 school, then it is true, the teachers are the most important hires, but if the campus is a Title 1 school with a challenging population (as most are), then the most important hire at the campus is the school principal.

Why is the principal the most important hire at a campus?

At a non-Title 1 elementary school, there are few student academic issues since the vast majority of children are on grade level. Thus, the campus principal must possess adept relational, political and diplomatic skill sets to handle parental/community issues, but for all social and academic student matters, only a competent physical plant manager is usually required.

However, this is NOT the case at a Title 1 campus. At a Title 1 elementary school, the principal is the KEY to the campuses’ social and academic success. Invariably, the mass of students are NOT on academic grade level, and the principal must implement efficient and effective instructional methodologies as well as a new teacher induction program to train and retain quality teachers. They also must support classroom management at all grade levels and set-up school wide academic stop-gap resources to achieve high student academic outcomes. Furthermore, it is the campus administrator’s educational philosophy, organizational ability and strategic use of personnel that translates into the classroom and student learning that raises student achievement. Finally, the principal is singularly responsible at the end of the day for hiring quality classroom teachers and training them to be successful in any typical and challenging Title 1 classroom environment.

In a Sudoku analogy, Non-Title 1 elementary schools are an ‘Easy’ or ‘Medium’ Sudoku puzzle, and Title 1 elementary schools are the “Hard” version. A Title 1 campus administrator must know where and what to focus their attention or the campus academically struggles school year after school year. There will be few to no instances of sustained social and academic successes at a Title 1 elementary school when the principal relies on accidental means to heighten student outcomes – meaning without an empirically proven and structured plan. Good things do not consistently happen by accident!

Over the last decade plus, I have written extensively on academic transformation and provided many free resources and procedures that should have significantly increased academic results of Title 1 campuses, but many times, it has not happened. After the principal has implemented efficient/effective stop-gap (e.g. acceleration to grade level) and grade level (i.e. bridge) resources, the school continues to perform poorly. However, after a physical visit to the campus, a talk with their principal and observation of classrooms, instruction and schoolwide systems, I quickly recognized the reason for their lack of social and academic success. The principal did NOT emulate the systematic process that make the literacy and numeracy stop-gap and bridge resources functionally viable. Instead, they immediately start innovating by taking short cuts without fully understanding the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the stop-gap and bridge resource curricular system. Analogously, it is as if the principal is a car mechanic ‘fixing’ a troubled engine; however, instead of emulating the recommended repair process, they tinker and/or remove components in the car engine (system) and then are surprised that the engine does not function well.

COVID – Student Academic Issues – An Absolute and Necessary Discussion

It would be derelict to not address the COVID pandemic and its adverse impact on student learning for the traditional and charter public schools. The pandemic only made the academic situation more difficult since the group of students on the cusp of passing students (i.e. ‘bubble’ kiddos using past vernacular) are now as far academically behind as the other 40 to 70 percent of the ‘normal’ number of struggling academic students at any given Title 1 elementary school. In short, The academic issues are actually the same ones that Title 1 schools had before the pandemic – there are just more students with academic gaps.

Prior to COVID, the mass of Title 1 elementary public schools incessantly performed poorly on grade level State standardized assessments, and campus administrators did not possess an action plan that dramatically increases and sustains academic performance, or their schools would not have chronically low student outcomes. In the last couple years, the public schools have received tremendous amounts of stimulus pandemic relief money. However, no amount of State and Federal monetary funding will address academics when a lack of administrator understanding persists of fundamental academic skill literacy and numeracy gaps that are endemic in Title 1 schools. Unfortunately, in the author’s knowledge, allocated monies have been expended on the same standard personnel and curricular programming that has demonstrated little success in the past.

However, there is good news.

The students that are academically behind has grown, but it is the EXACT same solution as before COVID. The academic literacy and numeracy stop-gap MUST BE correctly and consistently implemented in the manner provided in the written procedures. These free downloadable resources (The New 3Rs Academic Transformation) will close and eliminate the Title 1 students’ literacy and numeracy gaps. If these resources are NOT employed, then in 3 to 4 years when COVID can no longer be blamed, the old excuses for academic Title 1 public school failure will resurface as a common utterance.

Final Thoughts

If there are developmental academic gaps at any content level of human learning, the learner will struggle to varying degrees whether the learner be an adult or an elementary student. Fortunately, if higher performing Title 1 elementary schools is the goal, then, the general solution for that learning level is free and available for download!

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