School ‘Town Hall’ Geared To Student Success

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By Stefanie Jackson – Northampton Middle School held its first town hall meeting Tuesday night, not to show parents and guardians what students are doing in school, but to engage them in helping their children succeed.

But it was more than a town hall meeting, it was what Principal Ron Yorko called a “family night” for students, parents, teachers, and school staff to gather together and share a meal and  a conversation about their children’s education.

A spaghetti dinner was served, with cake for dessert made by students in Northampton’s culinary arts program, and door prizes were awarded.

The eighth grade writing SOL (Standards of Learning) test, which will be administered at NMS in two parts March 24-25, was Tuesday night’s topic of discussion.

Teachers offered their tips for getting a passing grade on the essay portion of the writing SOL test.

Ashleigh Tomcics’ best advice was “confidence.” There is no time limit on the SOL, so students should take time to think about the writing prompts and make sure they understand them.

Carolyn Handwerk said the biggest mistake a student can make is not planning.

Jessica Merando agreed. A student should outline an essay before writing it. Scratch paper is provided. When the essay is finished, “read it in your head … like you’re talking to an adult,” to make sure the writing flows, she said.

Principal Yorko’s advice was “stay on topic.” Test graders will stop scoring at the point that an essay goes off topic, he cautioned.

Benjamin Prylinski recommended that students make their essays stand out and give them “pizzazz” by choosing words carefully and using a good vocabulary.

Kimberly Parks reminded students that their answers can be fictional, and no one will “fact check” their work. The best response to a writing prompt that she ever read was a description of a student’s house burning down, even though the event never occurred, she said.

Students should aim for “quality over quantity,” Tomcics added. There is no minimum length or even a minimum number of paragraphs, but the essay should have a beginning, middle, and end.

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) provides samples of passing essays on its website. One of the essays consisted of just one paragraph, but it received a passing grade because it contained an introduction, a body, a conclusion, some figurative language, and correct grammar, Parks said.

She also advised students to divide the writing task into small pieces and take breaks in between so the work isn’t overwhelming.

The writing SOL is given over two days in two parts – the essay and a multiple-choice grammar test. A reading SOL will be given later in the school year. The results of the writing and reading SOL tests are combined to give each student a total score in English.

VDOE’s benchmark for the English SOL is a passing rate of 75%, which is considered Level One performance.

Schools attain full accreditation when they perform at Level One or Level Two in all areas of achievement.

Northampton Middle School plans to hold more town hall meetings. One possible topic is social-emotional learning, Handwerk said.

Northampton’s eighth grade writing teachers came up with the town hall concept to engage families in their children’s education.

The town hall differs from an SOL engagement night, when family members get to see what students have been doing in class to prepare for the SOL.

The town hall takes an extra step by involving family members and giving them the chance to ask questions and provide feedback.

Eighth graders who take the writing SOL will respond to one of 40 possible prompts. All 40 prompts may be viewed at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/sol/standards_docs/english/2010/online_writing/writing_prompts/gr_8_writing_prompts.pdf

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