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A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Closing the Achievement Gap

When: Five days this summer

Who: Forty-five educators from seven Columbus, Ohio area-schools

Where: Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA

What: Attend a program, offered through Professional Education titled Closing the Achievement Gap: Strategies for Excellence with Equity.

Why: The program seeks to narrow gaps in achievement levels for all students by increasing engagement among parents, students, and families. The group’s participation is coordinated by Dr. Randall Sampson, Founder of Liberty Leadership Development, an Ohio-based organization that helps K-12 schools “improve student outcomes, empower teachers and students, and enhance school culture.” While the Columbus cohort proves to be one of the larger groups to take part in an HGSE institute, Sampson is determined to reach even more of his Ohio teaching colleagues. To that end, he created a day-by-day photo and video compilation cataloguing the teams’ experience.



Day 1, June 29, 2019: Framing the Work

Two kickoff sessions are led by Faculty Chair Professor Ron Ferguson: “Framing the Work.” These two sessions are followed by “Racial and Social Hierarchy.”

Natosha Schafer and Ed Baker join the rest of their colleagues from Columbus City Schools to learn specific techniques designed to engage learners. Dr. Randall Sampson explains that, owing to varying school needs, teachers are looking to create a systemic process that would help organize and implement instructional strategies, and to develop a real-time data communications system for teacher teams and students.

Here the educators gather for a quick debriefing session.

Topics such as instructional quality, student engagement, youth development practices, parenting, and school leadership all play a role in student achievement. During Ferguson’s session on “Framing the Work,” the team begins to explore these topics through discussions around cutting-edge frameworks. 

Here, Christina Ifill, Principal of West Broad Elementary School, shared some initial insights from Day 1. “I am learning about how institutional racism has created a gap in achievement for students of color.” 


Day 2, June 30: Parent, Family, and Community Engagement

The program’s second day features a full line up of learning sessions, including:

  • “Ethnic-Racial Identity Development and Student Learners,” Adriana Umana-Taylor
  • “The Formula and Boston Basics,” Ron Ferguson
  • “Family and Community Engagement,” Dawn Love
  • “When Families are Separated or Stressed,” Krista Goldstine-Cole

Participants gain a deeper understanding of social context – exploring the question, “Are people like me or not like me?” 

At the “Formula and Boston Basics” sessions, participants learn the role parents plays in fostering student achievement. Professor Ferguson shares research from his book The Formula, where he outlines the parenting roles most commonly used in raising successful people.

Krista Goldstine-Cole presents the final session on Day 2, discussing issues around family engagement in “When Families are Separated or Stressed."


Day 3, July 1: Instructional Leadership and Teacher Engagement

Sessions taking place on the institute’s third day examine how educators can make an impact on raising student achievement levels. The day begins with Jonathon Saphier’s two-part session on “High Expectation Teaching.” This is followed by Elizabeth City’s sessions on “Using Data to Identify Issues and Set Priorities” and “Instructional Leadership.” The day ends with a cookout in Radcliffe Yard providing cohort members the opportunity to come together as a community in a relaxed atmosphere.

Here, Tina Allen, first grade teacher at Cassady Elementary School, shares her perspective on “High Expectations Teaching.” She says that the concept that most resonated with her was Saphier’s observation that, ‘Teachers who believe in their students and articulate high expectations for them help them to achieve.’ “I need to ensure that I have high expectations for my students and that I verbalize it: I care about you and I expect you to be successful --and I am going to help you do that.” 

Elizabeth City’s session on “Using Data to Identify Issues and Set Priorities” includes strategies from the Data Wise Project, HGSE’s collaborative data inquiry process.


Day 4, July 2: Student Engagement

The program’s last full day concentrates on youth development and student engagement – examining the role students can play in closing the achievement gap. The line-up includes “Youth Culture” presented by Youth Underground Ambassadors, a Cambridge-based youth performance group focused on social issues, with a follow-up session conducted by Professor Ron Ferguson. Eugene B. Kogan then joins Ferguson for “Becoming Strategic Investigators,” followed by Ferguson’s “Preparing to Lead” session.

The presentation by Youth Underground Ambassadors and follow-up discussion from Ferguson on youth culture resonates with participants, including Stephanie McCoy, principal of Buckeye Middle School.

She describes the presentation as “powerful, [and] reminding all of us in the room to be mindful that our students do have a voice, and that we do treat them in a way that sometimes hushes their voices. This reminds us to make sure we are listening to them.” 

Each day of Closing the Achievement Gap features group discussions and small group meetings. In addition, individual sessions include participant break-out meetings on specific topics, like this one that took place on the topic of “peer culture.”

Day 4 also includes presentations and discussions about instructional leadership techniques educators can use to improve student engagement and help raise achievement for all students.


Day 5, July 3: Taking Action

On Day 5 the program draws to a close with “Affinity Group Discussions” where program participants meet together as small teams for conversations on a variety of topics of interest, including leadership, applicability, and next steps for participants on their return home to Columbus.

Ferguson leads “Putting It All Together,” the day’s final instructional session where participants synthesize content gleaned throughout the week – discussing how to implement what they learned as a way to improve outcomes for all students and to work toward closing the achievement gap.


Post-Script: Bringing It Home to Columbus

Since Closing the Achievement Gap: Strategies for Excellence with Equity concluded, the Columbus team is back in Ohio settling in to the new school year. Columbus educators are busy sharing what they learned at HGSE with their colleagues and implementing the new teaching and learning methods acquired.

“Engaging student voices and building youth culture are the two items that resonated the most during our debriefing sessions,” Dr. Sampson said. “Our 2019-2020 focus is on the direct impact teachers have in their classrooms and by supporting the development of positive youth culture. School teams are focusing on consistent and high-quality teacher practices.”

This year, as these Columbus educators work to engage and empower their students, they will reflect back on their week in Cambridge and remember the closing lines of Professor Ferguson’s poem, A Caregiver’s Promise, “You will learn that your life is an artwork. And that you are the artist in charge.”