Co-authored by Ashley Varady (Program Manager), Christina Perry (Program Director), Lauren Hall (Director of Evaluation), and Bita Nazarian (Executive Director) of 826 Valencia.
In the world of business, terms like performance indicators and productivity are commonplace. It makes sense to want to evaluate progress and the efficacy of a given program, and change course if adequate growth isn't met. Increasingly, these same buzzwords have entered the conversation in the world of education, whereby teacher quality and school funding are connected to standardized test scores and other forms of evaluation. There has been much debate about what constitutes fair and meaningful measures of performance evaluation, for both teachers and students. With the shift to Common Core Standards, these high stakes assessments are moving from multiple choice tests to "authentic tasks" where students communicate their understanding in writing, making writing an essential skill across all disciplines.
The notion that writing is critical to demonstrating understanding has been core to our work at 826 Valencia since our founding in 2002. We work to cultivate these crucial academic skills through rigorous, "real world" writing tasks that are then published in professional books for a much wider audience. In addition to skill building, though, we also invite students to see writing as a resource and a tool for self-empowerment. Our goal is to transform a young person's relationship with writing—moving from intimidation, dread, and defeat to a source of power, wonder, creativity, and expression. We believe that these attitudinal shifts are the essential foundation for skill development. When students have positive feelings about their own potential, hope becomes the motivator—it links their effort in the classroom to their dreams for their future. When our students achieve significant, authentic successes in their daily life, it inspires them to dream bigger about their future.
And so what is the impact of our work? How do you measure the shifts in confidence a student experiences when they subject their writing to multiple revisions and watch their story come to life on paper? What assessment can tease out the sense of pride a student feels when her writing is published and shared beyond her family and her classroom? Or when a student who hates to write begins to see himself as a writer when he learns he has an ear for the rhythm of language? Or that his story means something to someone outside his community?
We ask students what matters to them, who they are, who they want to become, what they have to say, and why. Listening is at the core of this process. We let them decide how they want to tell their story and we show them that their story matters by giving them a forum—publishing and printing their words. We cultivate a sense of wonder, hold a value of creativity, and we have fun. And we see big shifts in our students' lives. We see grades improve and we also see beaming smiles—indicators of pride, confidence, and hope. And all the while, students are improving their skills.
As a result, our evaluation portfolio seeks to measure changes along the spectrum from skills to affinity. We pair writing assessment data with less tangible data in order to paint a complete picture of the impact of 826 Valencia. To this end, we use a variety of tools, including district-wide writing assessments and Fountas and Pinnell Reading Assessments, attitudinal surveys, conversation, reflection, and feedback—all in an effort to better understand our students' learning and demonstrate the efficacy of our model. And we see that rigorous and fun writing positively impacts students for the long haul.
Here's an example of this combined approach at evaluation last year: Students who participated in the 826 program at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 demonstrated accelerated reading level growth, with 74% of third and fourth grade students growing more than a year, in the course of just five months. This is especially important for English Language Learners, who are often entering school below grade level in reading and writing. In the first half of the 2014-2015 school year, over 35% of 826 students have already made over a year of growth, which includes 42% of fifth graders, who are participating in the 826 program for the second consecutive year.
We also move beyond these hard stats to hear our students' reflections. From a student in the program, Jesús Islas Garcia, who began the year hating to write: "When I'm published I feel like I'm a movie star or a millionaire. When I write about my life or funny stories or serious and sad stories, other people can laugh, cry or be sad…and when I'm an adult I will be a famous writer in the city of San Francisco."
A third grade student in the program wrote when asked to explain why the sky is blue:
The sky is made with secret ingredients. It had to be made so everyone could breathe. After it was made, people threw blue glitter at it. A crocodile was selling blue glitter every night. He was selling glitter so everyone could have it. He wanted everyone to have some glitter to throw into the sky. The sky was turquoise or blue or sometimes even purple when people threw glitter at it.
Shortly after this program wrapped, we held a two-week writing camp for high schoolers called the Young Authors' Workshop, and we got this written feedback: "I learned that the stories we write are not just words. They are the windows to different worlds, to the writer's soul, to the writer's mind. Writing can take you anywhere."
So how do you measure that "movie star" feeling? Or the new realization in the summer camper that writing opens every door? We consider our students' words, stories, and reflections to be key performance indicators used to drive strategy and decision-making, with the same weight we give quantitative assessments. After all, everyone needs a healthy dose of glitter in their lives.
If this work is exciting to you, go to 826win.com and vote for 826 Valencia in the Google Impact Challenge to help them win $500,000 to open a new center in the severely under-resourced Tenderloin neighborhood! Voting ends on Tuesday night and midnight, and will take just two seconds of your time.
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