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The beginning of the new school year starts now

5 min read


Cherry blossoms. Baseball season. High-stakes assessments. As schools complete our nation’s annual rite of testing craziness this month, most will spend the remainder of the year engaged in “instructional” activities geared more to entertaining and occupying students’ time than teaching and educating them “bell to bell.” Simultaneously, many school staff members will begin the slow disengagement process that culminates in summer break.

And yet, the last months of each school year are the most important months of the new school year. Indeed, in our 30 years of school improvement work, we emphasize this essential truth: The beginning of the new school year starts in April.

That is, schools need to complete important organizational, curricular, instructional and student activities in April (and May) so everyone can “hit the road running” on the first day of the new school year in August.

To this end, in April (and May), schools should analyze their current status and next year’s needs in these areas:

  1. Committee structure: (Re)organizing the organizational chart and structure to reflect a shared leadership orientation, (re)assigning staff to their next year’s committees, and holding committee meetings with the out-going and in-coming members to transition and plan for next year’s committee goals and objectives.
  2. Curricular structure: Ensuring that all coursework and units, primary and supplemental materials and resources, and formative and summative assessments are available and aligned not just to the state’s high-stakes assessments, but also to the functional knowledge, skills and competencies needed by all students in literacy, math, science, oral and written expression, and technology.
  3. Instructional and support staff structure: Making sure that a tiered continuum of services, supports, interventions and programs are aligned with the academic and behavioral needs of at-risk, underperforming, unresponsive and unsuccessful students.
  4. Student Achievement Structure: Identifying the current functional academic and social-behavioral status of every student, the instructional approaches and supports needed to facilitate their progress, and the best ways to organize them into courses and classrooms so that next year’s teachers can successfully differentiate their instruction and maximize their growth and progress.

The get-go process

To address this fourth area in order to accomplish the first three areas, we recommend that schools complete the “get-go process” every April (or May). The primary goals of the get-go process are to ensure that every teacher knows, before the first day of the new school year, (a) the current functional academic and behavioral status of every student; (b) what instructional approaches contributed to their learning and success during the past academic year; and (c) what specialized services, supports, strategies or interventions are needed for students who have specific or special (e.g., enrichment, disability, ELL) needs. This is done by having this year’s teachers synthesize and organize what they have learned about all of their students this current year, so that they can systematically “brief” next year’s teachers.

The get-go process begins as staff decide what existing data to load onto a spreadsheet (our “virtual” data wall). Typically, the spreadsheet identifies every student’s grades, interim or formative assessment test scores, attendance, disciplinary infractions, disability or 504 status, estimates of their functional academic status, and other desired information. Using these data, teachers prepare for grade-level or team meetings to determine specific student’s needs for the coming year. Beyond the students who are making good progress in all areas, three clusters of students are identified at these meetings:

Get-go students need immediate instructional or intervention services, supports, strategies or programs in place on the first day of the new school year. Students with IEPs, 504 Plans or other “high-need” academic or behavioral intervention plans are automatically get-go students, as are students, for example, with significant medical or other needs.

At-risk students received academic and/or behavioral interventions this past year that were so successful that they are not needed in the new school year. Nonetheless, next year’s teachers are fully briefed on these students and interventions in case difficulties re-emerge and interventions are needed.

Check-in students receive a “check in” anywhere from the first day of school through the middle of the first marking period. This check-in provides a social, emotional, behavioral, academic or home-school “safety net” to make sure the new school year begins well for these students, or an “early warning” signal so that problems are identified and resolved quickly.

After the get-go meetings, teachers write short “briefing reports” for the get-go and at-risk students not on IEPs, 504s, or other formal intervention plans, and meet with the next year’s teacher or teaching team to further discuss these students before the new school year begins.

Beyond these teacher-to-teacher contacts, the get-go information is also used to organize students into the best classroom and learning configurations possible (#4 above), so that instructional and support staff are effectively aligned (#3 above), to successfully deliver the curriculum and content required (#2 above), so that all students’ academic and behavioral outcomes are maximized. All of this is monitored by the relevant committees in the school’s shared leadership structure (#1 above) — for example, the curriculum & instruction, discipline & behavior management, early intervention, and school leadership committees, respectively.

Paraphrasing Brandon Sanderson: “Great educators know when to set aside the important things in order to accomplish the vital things.” The committee, curricular, staff and student activities discussed above are essential to the success of any school. We need to prioritize and prepare in April (and May) what must be ready in August. If not done now, it may never get done later.

Howie Knoff is a national consultant who has helped thousands of schools implement one or more components of Project ACHIEVE, his evidence-based school improvement program. One of his most-recent books is: “School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management: A Positive Behavioral Support Implementation Guide” (Corwin Press). A past-president of the National Association of School Psychologists, you can connect with him on Twitter (@DrHowieKnoff), LinkedIn, by email or via his blog.