By Steven Hoffman
A state-of-the-district report about the performance and perceptions of the Avon Grove School District (AGSD) shows that 83 percent of parents have positive views and are satisfied with the education that their children are receiving. But there is also a perception that many students are not being challenged academically and overall it is a good district, not a great one.
These findings were presented by a group led by assistant superintendent Dr. Margaret Sharp at a school board meeting on June 12. The release of the white paper concludes the discovery phase of the district's strategic planning process. The discovery phase included school-climate surveys, two community forums, two dozen one-on-one or group interviews, state testing data, facilities capacity and enrollment reports.
A major theme of the white paper is the desire of stakeholders in the district—including students, parents, teachers, and administrators—to see Avon Grove transition from a district that offers a good academic program to one that is great.
The report stated, “There is a fairly consistent perception that AGSD is a good district but not great, and there is a consistent desire for AGSD to become great. Simply having AGSD provide a 'good bang for the buck' isn't enough anymore. People want a district that is the pride of the community, the center of community activities, and the best district in Chester County.”
Avon Grove, a district that serves 5,240 students, is rated near the top of the Proficient level on the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile, with scores between 82.1 and 85.5 for each of the schools. Distinguished schools attain scores of 90 and above on these profiles.
The good-but-not-great status of the district is also revealed through these statistics: Two-thirds of Avon Grove students are performing above the national average overall, but a majority of the students have growth averages that show they are learning less than peers nationally from one year to the next. As the achievement level increases, the amount students learn in a year decreases compared to similar achieving students in the U.S.
The white paper offers some ideas to boost academic achievement that might be considered, including implementing full-day kindergarten (this could be phased in to offer assistance to at-risk students first), using data more wisely to determine how to differentiate and personal the instruction for students, utilizing classroom time more efficiently, moving to a more active, problem-solving method of instruction, decreasing class size in schools, and establishing tutoring and other extra-academic supports.
With regard to how the district educates special populations of students, including those with disabilities, the white paper said that there is “more friction between the district and parents than desired.” This is due to “differences between what parents of students with disabilities believe are the appropriate services for their children and the services that the district believes are appropriate.”
Educating non-English speaking students who need more supports will continue to be a challenge because resources are stretched thin, the report noted.
Educating the 162 students who have been identified as gifted presents its own challenges. There is a perception, according to the report, that gifted students are not learning at rates that are commensurate with their capabilities.
The work of teachers in the district is lauded in the report, and the professional staff is praised for displaying a high level of caring. The report notes that there is a strong relationship between students and teachers, especially at the lower grades.
As in all school districts, parents, students, and staff are concerned about discipline and bullying, but overall the parents, teachers, and staff thought the school rules are fair and the expectations are clear.
Approximately 4.5 percent of the Avon Grove students reported that they are bullied every day or several times per week, with verbal bullying being the most frequent form. About one-third of students in the middle school and almost half the students in the high school are worried about being bullied, according to surveys. On the 2013 Pennsylvania Youth Survey, 21 percent of Avon Grove students reported being bullied in the past 12 months at school. This is right at the average for students across the state. Survey responses by teachers showed that bullying is a significant concern for many staff members.
During the process of collecting information for the report, it became apparent that many stakeholders in the district want improved guidance services for high school students who are thinking about going on to college. Concerns about sufficient counseling and support services extends to the middle school.
“There is a belief that the middle school and high school guidance positions may not be staffed at the level required so that sufficient time can be invested with students to fully explore their options for college and career,” the report stated.
It was also noted that the reduction in counseling and support services has resulted in “a perception that without adequate resources to provide the supports there is...little reason to make referrals.” Referrals for issues like behavior, academics, attendance, or social concerns declined from 186 in 2008-2009 to just 31 in 2012-2013.
Another concern is the willingness of students to drink alcohol or experiment with gateway drugs like marijuana and inhalants. Through discussions for the compilation of the white paper, it was learned that there is a perception that drug use by students is caused by a combination of boredom outside school and students having the financial resources to acquire the drugs.
Other data shows that the percentage of students in Avon Grove who admitted using heroin, hallucinogens, and methamphetamines in the 30 days prior to the survey in 2013 was above both the state and national average. Heroin use was also increasing in 2013 compared to surveys in 2009 and 2011.
The white paper also includes findings about how concerned stakeholders in the district are about the aging school buildings in the district.
One parent at a community forum pointed out that the schools, especially the high school, are in need of repairs. There is also an issue with overcrowding, with the number of current students in the schools exceeding the calculated capacity of the building. There are 12 modular classrooms at the high school and two more at the middle school.
“If the economy continues to improve and housing starts and home-buying continue to accelerate, enrollments will continue to increase and place more strain on existing facilities,” the report stated. The most recent study projects that enrollments are expected to increase by 5 percent between 2014-2015 and 2019-2020.
The white paper concluded by noting that across all the groups that were surveyed, there is a strong feeling that district officials need to work to address the issues to “move AGSD toward an elite level of performance.”
The findings in the white paper will now be used in the next stage of the strategic planning process, which is scheduled to take place in mid-August and early September.
School board president Brian Gaerity said that the white paper is “confirming a lot of perceptions that are out there in the district.”
He added that the results reflect a position that the Avon Grove community is not satisfied with the status quo, and there is a desire to move the district from good to great.
“I encourage everyone to read it,” Gaerity said of the white paper. “I think you will get a good, comprehensive picture of the district.”
The white paper is posted on the district's website at www.avongrove.org.