Member Kudos: Cougar University, Port Huron Area School District

2015 Education Excellence Award Recipient

DashBoard, Oct. 14, 2015

The 20 recipients of the 2015 MASB/SET SEG Foundation Education Excellence Awards are some of the greatest examples of unique and innovative public school programs in the state of Michigan. Over the next few months, MASB will share the details of each program from their applications, presented in alphabetical order by district. This week we highlight Cougar University at Central Middle School in the Port Huron Area School District.

Description: Central Middle School’s Cougar University program provides 50 minutes of targeted intervention and/or extension instruction to every student, every day. Teachers place students in the appropriate Cougar University courses using data from grades and Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress math and reading assessments.

Flexible scheduling allows students to move among the courses as their academic needs change throughout the year. Course offerings include targeted reading and math interventions, as well as extension courses such as Robotics, AP Prep, Coding, Detective Science, Battle of the Books, Leadership, Fitness for Life, Advanced Writing and Mythology. As a high-poverty and Priority School, originally ranking in the bottom 2 percent of public schools in Michigan, Central disrupted and restructured its school day in order to create time to nurture improved student behavior, math and reading achievement. Three-year data trends show marked improvement in all three target areas.

Funding/Resources: The Cougar University program has evolved to provide more time for student instruction at little expense to the district. In order to create time for a 50-minute Cougar University, Central shortened 60-minute core classes by 10 minutes and extended the school day by 15 minutes. This allows the Cougar University courses to be staffed by teachers at their regular salary.

Courses are held in classrooms throughout the building, so there are no additional facility costs. Highly qualified teachers originate and design extension courses to target the academic interests and needs of particular student groups using existing materials. Materials for Robotics are provided by a grant. Curriculum materials and technology for targeted math and reading interventions are funded through a State of Michigan 22K grant awarded in 2013. Previously, teachers designed intervention courses using existing materials.

Importantly, for two years, intervention and extension courses were offered in nine-week intervals on only three days a week. This maintained student interest, but data analysis determined that intervention courses needed to be sustained year-long, while some extension courses needed extending to allow more flexibility for students earning exit from intervention. These adjustments account, in part, for dramatic academic improvement this year.

Outreach: Cougar University math and reading intervention courses build the foundations for effective communication, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration; extension courses stretch and apply those important skills in an engaging environment. Flexible scheduling maximizes these benefits. Extension courses are offered as marking period, semester or year-long. Targeted math and reading intervention courses are year-long. Students are able to move fluidly among the courses throughout the year based on their achievement data and, in the case of extension courses, their interests. Providing these options in addition to core course offerings has dramatically improved academics and behavior while transforming Central’s culture.

Central’s school-wide reading and math intervention model is centered around the student. Instruction in the math courses follows the gradual-release model of instruction, which begins with explicit small-group instruction, moves to guided modeling and practice, and culminates with independent mastery. Instruction in reading courses begins with whole-group explicit instruction, moves to small group and independent practice, and ends with whole group wrap-up. As a part of their basic design, these courses establish and build on effective participation and communication skills. Using collaboration to think through increasingly difficult academic concepts to creatively solve problems is an instructional norm.

Extension courses are designed to engage student interest and stretch core academic skills by encouraging creative application and synthesis of knowledge. In Robotics, students work in teams to build a robot and create the code to make it work. In Coding, students work together to create computer games. In Detective Science, students work together using scientific knowledge to solve real-world problems. In Battle of the Books, Advanced Writing and Mythology, students construct new knowledge for themselves through reading, research, discussion, writing and presentation. In Leadership classes, students develop solutions to problems throughout the school and model those solutions for other students. In Fitness for Life, students analyze their lifestyle choices and apply fitness knowledge in order to improve their overall health. In all courses, students must practice and apply the four C’s in the process of achieving their ultimate project goals.

A powerful evolution of Cougar University occurred this year when, based on analysis of data and experience, we scheduled the program for first hour instead of at the end of the day. All Central students receive free breakfast each day, which is eaten together in first hour. This allows students and teachers to touch base at the beginning of each day, allowing for deeper communication and establishing meaningful relationships. Additionally, the majority of our positive behavioral intervention and support retraining now occurs during Cougar University, allowing for the collaboration necessary for creating a consistent school culture throughout the day. Additionally, the first-hour time gives the program prominence; students know the learning they do in first hour is a priority, not an after-thought.

Cougar University dramatically extended educational opportunities for Central’s students. Previously, students at Central followed a traditional school schedule of core academic classes complemented by a predictable rotation of the required electives: gym, art, music and world language. Now, not only do students have a range of academic electives that are targeted to their needs and interests, they have additional time in areas of their individual academic concern.

Results: A three-year data analysis of NWEA MAP and School-Wide Information System data shows that the Cougar University program has markedly improved student math and reading achievement and behavior.

Our 2015 MAP math assessment showed that Central students grew 7.1 RIT points in the first semester, which equates to more than a year's growth in the course of a single semester. At that rate, students may achieve more than two years’ growth in the course of a single year.

As a comparison, in the 2012-2013 school year, the first year of our Cougar University program, the RIT growth from fall to winter was 4.0. Driving this improvement in growth between the first and third years of the program was our careful attention to adapting the program according to our data. For example, intervention students showed little growth improvement between 2012-2013 and 2013-2014. To address this, we made Cougar University intervention classes year-long instead of nine weeks, decreased class sizes, increased the course offerings to target skills gaps and adjusted the curriculum accordingly.

Reading growth measures from fall to winter 2014-2015 showed a growth of 7.6 RIT points, which equates to nearly two years’ growth in a single semester. If students continue this growth pattern, they will be reading on grade level by the time they graduate from the eighth grade. Again, this marked growth resulted from diligent analysis of data that showed a decline in reading scores in the fall to winter of 2013-2014. Though the students made over a half a year’s growth in that first semester, we know our students need to achieve well over one year's growth every school year in order to read on grade level at graduation from eighth grade. To accomplish this growth we again adjusted Cougar University intervention courses to allow for targeted, year-long instruction for more students.

One major triumph of Cougar University is the consistent reduction in behavior referrals over the course of the program. Our school has adopted a positive behavior intervention and support program. In addition to academic instruction, Cougar University classes have provided focused time for teachers to teach behavior expectations in a consistent manner school wide. Not only do we reteach expectations in Cougar University, we celebrate positive student behavior daily with recognition and awards. This time during Cougar University allows for effective program implementation and fidelity. From 2012-2014, our school-wide behavior referrals plummeted from 3,908 to 3,167, a 20 percent reduction. 

Cougar University is a transformative program and we are confident that by continuing to tailor curriculum using rigorous data analysis, we will continue to see improvement in student achievement and behavior. The program will continue to evolve to meet student needs, while leaving teachers the time to engage children by enhancing their individual growth.

Additional Information:

Program Coordinator: Building Leadership Team, Cougar Council,

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