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Our Exceptional Teachers

“Teachers motivate minds, guide learning, share achievements, inspire a love of knowledge, and lead our youth to a brighter future.” 

 

In this week of celebration and recognition of the extraordinary teachers at The Craig School, it is most fitting to honor them in the words of our students themselves. This letter, written to one of our middle school math teachers, by a current 10th-grade student who started her journey at The Craig School during middle school, highlights the lasting impact of our teachers:

 

I would properly like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read my letter. Thank you so much for helping me with math when I was struggling. Not only have you made math my favorite subject, but you helped me to believe in myself and encouraged me to push myself to achieve bigger and better things. Thank you for encouraging me and making me feel like I can succeed in anything that I do. I know that all of your students will carry on the lessons you have taught us. Thank you for making every day feel like a new adventure and for making every day in your class so much fun. 

 

Before I came to Craig, I hated math and I struggled with it—no one was teaching me the right way. You offered to put me in a higher class in the eighth grade, and that pushed me to be able to do ninth-grade math and now, Geometry. I realized I couldn’t thank you enough. Without your help, I would not have achieved the distinction of High Honor Roll in math class. Thank you for making everyone feel so special and for always brightening up the room when you walk in.

 

This is what our teachers do, this is how they impact your children, and this is how our students feel. Our students have found a safe, positive school environment where they can try challenging things and know at the end of the day, whether they reach immediate success or not, our teachers support them every step of the way through with their unwavering belief in the ability and capability of each student. Let’s celebrate the exceptional teaching happening at The Craig School!  

 

Best, 

Dr. Kara A. Loftin 

Head of School 

 

 

Today, I wanted to bring attention to our extended school year (ESY), Summer Academy, for students in grades 2-12, and Summer Enrichment programs. Last year, we successfully provided a meaningful extended school year experience for our students. For students with exceptionalities, having extra time to learn, engage, process, and cement learning is incredibly important to continue progress toward their goals and for long-term academic achievement. Along with an array of core subjects, our students are so fortunate to have Orton Gillingham and related services available to them during ESY. Some of our students will take part in ESY as a component of their IEP, but for other students the decision to attend is made by our parents. ESY is particularly important to relearn skills and prevent skill loss, sometimes called “summer slide.”  For students who struggle with working memory, who benefit from continual reinforcement, or who are on the cusp of mastering a critical skill, participating in ESY, provides the necessary support, services, and specialized instruction to continue to grow as learners.  Similar to the regular school year at The Craig School, the “one size fits all” model of education does not apply, rather the individual student and their learning needs are at the center of decisions regarding their specific summer educational program. 

 

Our afternoon and all-day Friday program, Summer Enrichment, which is suited for students in grades 2-8, is similar to camp, with activities including, but not limited to, art, sports, outdoor activities, STEM, swimming, movie making, and gardening. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 mandates, last summer we were unable to provide our very popular Summer Enrichment program.  We are happy to have that program return and welcome our students to join us as we build on their strengths and foster community. The enrichment program provides opportunities to build a student’s self-esteem, to uncover strengths and interests students may not have known they have, to improve social skills, and most importantly, to have fun with other youth in a healthy and positive setting.  Camp-like programs for students with exceptionalities, like our Summer Enrichment program, provide an opportunity for independence, increased confidence, and the camaraderie of other youth that share similarities with one another. 

 

The Craig School’s extended school year, Summer Academy, grades 2-12, and Summer Enrichment program, grades 2-8, are offered on campus, July 6th - July 29th and July 6th - July 30th, respectively. Give Nicole Moon, Director of Admission, a call (973) 334-1285 ext. 212 or drop her an email to sign up today.  We are committed to creating a full educational and fun summer experience for your student. 

 

After many years of working with students with exceptionalities, a common concern raised among parents is feeling excluded from Individualized Education Program (IEP) team meetings. This could be due to many variables, such as overuse of jargon or a focus on compliance and paperwork, rather than on the student’s needs. Parents may struggle to have adequate time during an IEP meeting to engage in dialogue when the procedural elements get in the way of collaborating as a team on behalf of the student. Many of you have experienced this first hand. Frustrations rise and conflict festers. 

 

A facilitated IEP is an IEP team meeting where a non-biased, impartial facilitator assists with the meeting process. Facilitation is not mediation, nor does using a facilitator forfeit your right to dispute resolution. FIEP is a tool to assist with conflict and disagreements directly related to the IEP, it is a model for effective communication and collaboration strategies, and most importantly, FIEP helps re-direct the conversation back to the needs of the individual child. Fostering a safe environment for idea exchange and for the voice of every team member to be heard by reducing any perceived or real imbalance of power is central to the role of a facilitator. Of the many benefits to parents, a facilitator will lead pre-meetings with families to establish a meeting agenda, develop meeting norms as a proactive way to promote positive behavior, write down off-topic issues during the meeting so that the team can revisit them later, and use a centralized location (flip chart, projector, etc.) to visually chart the order of the meeting, meeting discussion items, and solution-oriented thinking. 

 

Sometimes parents can feel outnumbered in an IEP meeting and may even have a sense that they are excluded from critical decisions regarding their child’s program, supports, and services. The facilitated IEP is intended to lessen these stressors and keep the discussion exactly where it needs to be, on meeting the needs of the individual child. To find out more please visit: https://www.nj.gov/education/specialed/iep/facilitated/ 

 

School physical education and sports programming are intended to contribute positively to the physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development of young people. However, many students, including those with exceptionalities, may be reluctant to participate in these programs for a variety of reasons (e.g. low self-confidence, fear of making mistakes, difficulty following the rules of the game). This year, when many schools eliminated or reduced recess, sports offerings, and physical education classes, we, at The Craig School, have been able to offer meaningful opportunities for our students to develop their physical fitness along with fostering prosocial behaviors, like sharing, cooperating, and helping one another. While we did have to make adjustments to the sports and physical education programs, our students have had and will continue to have opportunities to move, play, and interact socially with one another outside of the traditional classroom. 

 

Physical activity provides more than cardiovascular benefits and stress reduction; movement is integral to learning. Dr. John Ratey, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School writes about the benefits of physical activity and brain development, “...it optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention, and motivation; it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information; and it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus.” Physical activity, whether through participation in sports, a physical education class, or movement-based learning activities in the classroom, not only prepares students for learning but also helps students retain what they are learning. In short, movement helps learning stick. 

 

As an educator, one of the benefits I appreciate most about The Craig School’s physical education and sports programming is the opportunity our students have to practice and strengthen their executive functioning skills, the “brain-based skills required for humans to effectively execute, or perform, tasks and solve problems” (Guare, Dawson, & Guare, 2013). When playing on a team, for example, cognitive flexibility is needed as task demands shift quickly, the ability to plan and prioritize is useful as participants try to anticipate the behavior of teammates and opponents, and students engage in goal-directed persistence as situations in the game changes and immediate decisions are needed.  Additionally, the executive functioning skill sustained attention is leveraged when players engage in strategic thinking. Finally, participants activate working memory to coordinate gross motor movements with complex cognitive demands.

 

At The Craig School, we develop sports programs and physical education classes that give students, who may have had previous negative experiences with sports, a chance to start again. Providing a safe, positive space to explore moving their bodies and learning gameplay provides students opportunities to build their self-confidence and self-esteem, to learn from one another, to develop friendships, and to become better learners. 

 

Have you ever found yourself in a parent-teacher conference or an IEP/ISP meeting confused about some of the language used? As educators, we (and I include myself!) are guilty of using educational jargon, acronyms, and technical words that mean something to us yet may leave parents scratching their heads. Over the past few weeks, several in the community have asked about different types of assessments and what they mean. At The Craig School, our academic program is comprehensive and evidence-based, that is, we use interventions, supports, and services with proven evidence of effectiveness. Each student’s academic program ultimately is determined by using a data-based decision-making process reliant on assessment.

 

Assessment informs a teacher’s instructional practices and strategies, decisions regarding supports and services, and the interventions employed for the specific needs of each student in order for students to achieve and grow academically.  Assessment may also be used as a marker to indicate a student’s mastery of content or their ability to demonstrate their learning resulting in the student’s earned grades (e.g. projects, papers, tests, etc.). There are many types of assessments and untangling what it all means can be somewhat overwhelming. 

 

While not exhaustive, below is a primer, if you will, of the types of educational assessments typically found in schools. You may find this helpful when discussing progress reports, goals & objectives, IEP/ISPs, or Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP). 

 

Assessment Terminology Primer 

 

Assessment 

Assessment is data collected about a student in order to make decisions. These decisions may be diagnostic (information about the specific nature of the student’s learning disability) and evaluative (information about the student’s strengths, overall progress, and areas for growth). Additionally, assessments help in the development of IEPs/ISPs, for planning instruction based on the needs of the student, for eligibility decisions (i.e. student eligibility for special education and related services), and educational placement (general education, self-contained classroom, etc). 

 

Criterion-Referenced Assessment 

This type of assessment lets us know what the student can and can not do. Criterion-referenced assessments are seen in the classroom (e.g. tests, quizzes, etc.) and measure a student’s performance against a pre-determined set of knowledge and skills. For example, our middle school math teachers may give students a quiz on 8th-grade math computation problems. 

 

Curriculum-Based Measurements (CBM) 

Teachers use CBM to find out how their students are progressing in learning the content for the academic year. CBM is typically applied to core academic areas such as spelling, writing, math, and reading. CBM can be used for progress monitoring. Oral Reading Fluency (ORF), a measure found in all divisions of the school (dependent upon student need) is an example of CBM. 

 

Formative & Summative Assessment 

These two types of assessments are most commonly applied in the everyday classroom setting and are used so students can express their level of content knowledge, skills, and understanding. Formative assessment is used to indicate where students are in the process of learning. They are “forming” their learning. Summative assessment can be thought of as an endpoint. Through summative assessment, students show their mastery of the content. Final exams in our high school are summative assessments and quizzes and projects sprinkled throughout the trimester, are examples of formative assessment. 

 

Formal & Informal Assessment

Formal assessments are not content and performance-driven, rather they are data-driven assessments. They are standardized and typically have percentiles, stanines, and standard scores. Norm-referenced tests, like the GORT-5 (Gray Oral Reading Test), are examples of a formal assessment. Informal assessments are content and performance-driven and not data-driven. A writing sample or essay can be used as an informal assessment of literary and narrative writing (e.g. use of hyperbole, simile, metaphor, etc.) 

 

Goals & Objectives 

In the Lower and Middle School, Goals & Objectives describe what students will learn or focus on. Goals are the big concepts that run throughout the school year, objectives are how a student reaches the goal, evaluation is made up of the tools used for assessment, and criteria provide an explanation of the expectation for student performance. In middle school science, a goal for the year is to “use scientific skills and processes to interpret, model, and explain phenomena.” 

One objective to reach that goal is to “read science texts to determine main ideas, gather technical information, and identify patterns in data.” The way the teacher will assess the student is through class assignments and projects. Finally, academic achievement is shown when the student can perform this skill with 80% accuracy. 

 

Norm-Referenced Assessment 

A norm-referenced assessment compares student performance to other students’ performance with similar age and/or grade in school. The TOWL (Test of Written Language), GMADE (Group Mathematics Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation), and GRADE (Group Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation), all used in the lower and middle school are norm-referenced assessments. In the high school, the SAT or ACT are examples. 

 

Progress Reports 

Progress reports, used in the high school, provide information necessary to understand a student’s strengths and challenges, the instructional strategies most effective for a particular student’s educational needs, current student performance status with numerical grades, and how teachers are addressing areas of concern. Grades in a progress report are not final. These reports illustrate how well the student is doing, giving students information needed for corrective action to meet their educational goals. 

 

Progress Monitoring 

Progress monitoring helps teachers determine if the student is improving towards their goals and is an indicator of the appropriateness of a student’s educational program/intervention. Progress monitoring gives teachers the information needed to adjust their approach with the student. Sometimes you may hear the word, benchmark, used with progress monitoring. A benchmark tells us where the student is at in a specific content area. A good example of this is in our Orton-Gillingham classes. Orton-Gillingham is prescriptive and diagnostic, however, there is also consistent reflection and analysis of student progress embedded within the instructional approach.  

 

Screening

Screening helps identify students who are at risk for not meeting a certain academic standard or benchmark. For example, in Mrs. Gallagher’s English class at the high school,  all of her students take the Self-Regulation Questionnaire (Brown, Miller, & Lawendowski, 1999) at the beginning of the school year. This short screen helps her identify which students may need skill-building and additional support as they develop a greater ability to self-regulate for optimal learning. 

 

My intention in this letter is to give you a sense of who I am as a leader and my excitement regarding beginning my journey as the Head of School at The Craig School. My journey teaching students with language-based learning disabilities began many years ago with humble means. I started teaching in 1998, originally as a music teacher in a college preparatory boarding high school. What I didn’t know at the time was that this experience would lead me on a journey that would forever change the trajectory of my career. It was there, that first year, that I became acutely aware that some students thrived and others did not and that motivation or drive had little to nothing to do with it. I witnessed bright students who were not moving into their full potential, into the fullness of their being. As an educator, I yearned to find out how and what I could do so that all of my students succeeded. After those first experiences teaching students, it wasn’t until 2010 when I understood more fully that students “do well when they can.” So much of what I was seeing with my students was a fundamental lack of skill development, whether it was linked to executive functioning skills, social-emotional skills, behavioral skills, or academic skills. One of my students, in particular, was diagnosed with dyslexia early on in second grade, had yet to attend a school that understood and provided evidence-based practices for students with dyslexia, but now found himself in high school, struggling, and with me as his teacher. It saddens me, but I too, at that point, did not have the specialized knowledge to teach him in the ways that would elicit his best and encourage the development of comprehensive learning and higher-order thinking. Rather than sitting idle, I did something about it. This is where my life’s journey really changed. It started with a Master’s of Education degree in Special Education, specifically focused on Dyslexia, one of the few programs in the country, and ended with a Doctorate of Philosophy in Special Education where my culminating doctoral research furthered the literature on strengths-based diagnostic and progress monitoring assessments examining the role of biases in terms of student self-report and gender. This research provided suggestions for improved training protocols for teachers and others administering strengths-based assessments for students with learning disabilities.

Not only did I equip myself with the knowledge to truly influence the lives of my students with learning disabilities, but I also began a program at that same school I started out in 1998. The program was and still is based on the ideals of full inclusion, embracing neurodiversity, building student self-confidence, resilience, and nurturing a deep acceptance and respect for all human beings. Initiated with a small group of boys who were on the verge of school failure, this program developed into a unique hybrid school-within-a-school model dedicated to the needs of the whole child that focused on leveraging student competencies and strengths while acknowledging and addressing areas for growth. From these beginnings, I concluded my tenure there with a staff of 18, a student enrollment of over 100 students yearly, and a new facility dedicated as a learning space for students with learning disabilities.

Now that you have an overarching view of my career and educational background, there are three central tenets that drive what I do and how I do it. The first is my profound adherence to the respect of the individual and the dignity of humankind. This is followed by the belief that education is not only an equalizer, but also a powerful tool to lift up society and break down barriers between individuals of different backgrounds, values, and abilities. Finally, I believe as an educator it is my role to celebrate the strengths of each child and to seek to understand how to bolster growth areas by first understanding the student’s strengths, competencies, and abilities.

The most effective school-home partnerships are bi-directional and use child-focused approaches wherein families and educators cooperate, coordinate, and collaborate to enhance opportunities for success for students across social, emotional, behavioral, and academic domains. What we know from a vast body of research over the past four decades is that home-school partnerships steeped in open and honest communication, along with responsibility-taking for working together as a team and shared common goals, resulting in mutual child-centered decision-making focused on positive student outcomes. It is within this relationship of families and professionals that every child’s education takes place. As parents and schools learn the value of collaboration, communication, and creating meaningful partnerships, together we create an educational environment that supports the abilities of all children to succeed.

The following provides a guide to navigate through the Parent-Teacher Conference process:

A Parent’s Guide to Successful Parent-Teacher Conferences

Before the Conference

  • Review any school materials and correspondence you have already been given (work samples, homework, teacher notes, goals and objectives, reports, assessment information, etc.).
  • Talk with your student. Ask questions about what subjects your child likes the least or the most and why, who the child connects the most with at school, and if there is a teacher they want to make sure you connect with, for example.
  • Prepare a list of notes and questions for the conference. What pressing needs would you like to discuss with your child’s teachers? Are there things that your child’s teachers should know about major changes in your family or living situation? Is there anything worrying your child?
  • If the conference is virtual, practice using the interface platform before the conference. For the Lower/Middle School, Google Meet will be used. To reduce stress, familiarize yourself with it beforehand. Check your internet connection and plan now how to reduce distractions during the conference.

During the Conference

  • A universal experience at schools is that parent-teacher conferences are short and every minute counts! Be on time.
  • Be yourself and stay calm. There may be times when you may need further clarification. Ask for explanations of anything you don’t understand.
  • Cover your most important questions and concerns first. Conference time goes quickly. You can ask for a follow-up meeting with a teacher to discuss things you did not get to.
  • Make a plan for follow-up.

After the Conference

  • Talk to your child. What can you share that was positive? Was an action plan developed? If so, explain it to them and let them know that you and their teacher created this plan to help them.
  • Start working on the action plan and stay in touch with your child’s teachers.

 

A Teacher’s Guide to Successful Parent-Teacher Conferences

Before the Conference

  • If the parent and teacher have not been in contact before parent-teacher conferences, take time to do that now. You can reach out with a positive story to share or even to pre-plan the discussion by asking if there are any specific questions or topics the parent would like to discuss at the conference.
  • No surprises. It is important that parents are not surprised during the conference. If there are challenges to discuss, pre-plan your approach, and inform the parents ahead of time.
  • Gather all of the data for that student so that the information you need is quickly accessible. With virtual parent-teacher conferences, have tabs open on your computer and be ready to screen-share as necessary.

During the Conference

  • Start on time and end on time. Practice your pacing.
  • To build successful home-school partnerships, there needs to be space and mutual respect for each voice at the table. Ask open-ended questions and check for understanding. You could ask, What questions do you have for me? What goals do you have for your child this year?
  • Take notes, set goals together, and mention plans for follow-through.
  • End by thanking the parent for their partnership.

After the Conference

  • Take a deep breath! Conferences can be stressful for parents and teachers alike. Acknowledge what went well.
  • Reach out to the parents with follow-up information, action plans, or other relevant information.

“We help our parents assess their child’s true potential and understand the nature of learning disabilities, and provide our families an internal support network within the Craig community.”

The culminating line of The Craig School mission statement has been on my mind lately. How do we build community and authentic parent-school partnerships in a world that looks, feels, and in many ways is, so different than what we have previously known? Not only is it our mission at The Craig School to champion awareness, acceptance, and understanding of learning differences but it is also our mission to promote a support system among our parents, to provide opportunities to share our stories as parents of students with learning disabilities, and to partner with you as we provide an educational environment primed for student growth and achievement. According to Abright and Weissberg (2010), parent-school partnerships are child-focused approaches wherein families and educators cooperate, coordinate and collaborate to enhance opportunities for success for students across social, emotional, behavioral, and academic domains. There are structural elements that provide a means to this end, such as parent-teacher conferences, becoming a member of our Parents’ Association (PACS), or volunteering at your child’s school, all part of The Craig School experience. However, it is argued that these parent-school partnerships must go a step further and become bi-directional. That is from parent to school and from school to parent. Through bi-directional parent-school relationships, such as two-way information sharing and joint decision making and collaboration, pathways are formed for improved student outcomes. As you get to know the teachers at The Craig School, you will find individuals that are communicative and ready to partner with you. This is also true of the administration and staff at The Craig School.

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For more information on ways of giving to Craig, please contact Katie Burke, Director of Development, at 973-334-1295 or make a donation online by clicking here.

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