Grades, Safety Key Topics at Diocesan Schools Gathering
School Institute Day first to assemble elementary through high school teachers, administrators
By Sharon Boehlefeld, Features Editor
October 17, 2019
ROCKFORD—Giving Catholic school students the same chances as others was the focus of a diocesan school institute day Oct. 11 at Boylan Central Catholic High School here.
Grades, what they mean, how fair they are and how to make them honest was the topic of the workshops featuring Rick Wormeli, one of the first Nationally Board Certified teachers in America. 
Keeping students safe in school and what to do to prevent the worst from happening was Randy Braverman’s aim. The retired police officer teaches school personnel how to keep their kids safe.
What is a nationally certified teacher?
Rick Wormeli was one of the first nationally certified teachers in the U.S. The program to certify teachers at a national level began about a decade ago.

The process involves extensive preparation and documentation by teachers.

A portfolio is submitted to a national panel and teachers may – or may not – receive national certification.

Both of the day’s main speakers emphasized simple, practical steps teachers and administrators can take in both areas.
Braverman showed pictures of open doors, unlocked school vehicles, unattended school keys, and said everyone — teachers, administrators and staff — needed to be alert to help keep schools safe.
He encouraged schools to start with two basic steps: secure access to the school and develop a clear communication plan and system.
He suggested adding a third step to the familiar “See something, say something,” phrase. That he said, is “Do something.”
If someone is wandering through the school without an obvious visitor’s pass, for example, everyone from the superintendent to the janitor should ask if he or she needs help. 
If you approach a door to enter with a key pass and someone seems to be waiting to “piggy back” on your entry, he urged, go back to your car and call the office. Don’t let the stranger into the building.
Mary Toldo, principal at St. Bridget School in Loves Park, said Braverman’s tips were practical, such as “Don’t use visitor tags that are stickers. They can fall off.” 
She also appreciated Braverman’s emphasis on preparing for traumatic events, but also “What’s your plan after? How are you prepared for the aftermath — 24 hours, 48 hours, three weeks after an event. Do you have follow-up and support? … He offered very specific things,” Toldo said.
Wormeli said his presentation was “a condensed version of a two-day seminar, highlights in two-and-a-half hours.” 
His focus on assessment and grading was the topic for Rockford Diocese teachers and administrators to help them uncover “their own core beliefs about teaching and learning,” according to a pre-workshop handout from the diocesan Office of Education.
In fact, he started with a story from his early teaching days. His first class was kindergarten and after his first day, he sought out another kindergarten teacher for encouragement. She told him about kindergarteners being like popcorn.
You give the kernels the same amount of oil and the same temperature, she told him, and some pop in the first 30 or 45 seconds. A couple minutes in several will pop, and then almost all of them will pop in quick succession. Toward the end of the heating, popping slows down, but a few more will finally turn into fluffy white treats.
It was his first “parable” of many to help teachers recognize what most already knew, in this case that kids are different and not all of them will learn at the same pace.
“Grading is about communication, about accurately reporting what a kid knows,” he told them, emphazing that they should leave their egos behind when they grade.
Wormeli, too, resembled popcorn, moving around the room, occasionally jumping up and down for emphasis, once even dancing across the front of the auditorium. He changed the tone and timbre of his voice, all in an effort to keep his audience engaged.
He told them to think of grading as a moral enterprise that relies on a teacher’s integrity to keep it both honest and useful.
He said evidence-based grading is the strongest form of grading, urging teachers to abandon grading students on things that are not specific learning goals, such as putting their names in a specific place on their paper.
“A life of dreams deferred could be the 89 … not the 90,” he said, later advising teachers to abandon grading the “hidden curriculum ... what society wants us to teach children” about “compliance, not competency. You can’t conflate the two.”
Competent students, he said, “can say where they are in working toward a goal” and they are “activated to achieve that goal.”
Paul Magnafici, an English teacher at Newman Central Catholic High School in Sterling, appreciated Wormeli’s talk. 
“We all have some common goal,” Magnafici said, “and we’re in the business of making students be successful.” 
Differences among students is something teachers “need to take into account,” he said.
Jennifer Micko, English and journalism teacher at Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock, said Wormeli’s comments validate her own practices in 20 years of teaching. 
“It’s good to come to one of these (institutes) and learn something new,” she said. “We’re in a culture now with so many differences — even at honors level — (it’s important that) you don’t grade the kids equally, but you grade them fairly.”
Rosemarie Brubaker, chief administrative officer for Aquin Catholic Schools in Freeport, was excited about hearing Wormeli for the fourth time. 
At Aquin, she said, they use the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) Map program to establish student learning benchmarks three times a year in math, reading and language. Using the program, she said, is “to help individual students … to be their best academic self.”
It also helps them see how quickly students are learning what they need to in each grade and subject.
Cathy Bracke, a kindergarten teacher at St. Rita of Cascia School in Aurora, said of Wormeli, “He was very good, very energetic,” before explaining that she already follows one of his suggestions.
“I have my own addendum”  to the school report card, she said. In it she communicates to parents how students are doing in core academic areas, such as “what letters they need to learn, what prayers they need to know.”
Vendors, breakouts
The day also included a large vendor fair and breakout sessions on topics such as new guidelines for the social studies curriculum for children in kindergarten through eighth grade, student mental health concerns, and specific subject discussions, such as math, social sciences, career and technical education, and more.
Toldo of St. Bridget said she appreciated ideas from the principals’ break-out session on school funding. Jeff Marrs, advancement director at Boylan “gave us many tips on doing transformations versus transactional fundraising.”
In transactional funding, she said, “Donors are engaged in the school, not looking for something in return. He said to look for sponsors that fit events and demonstrate the results to donors as often as you can.”
An example Marrs gave of transformational funding, Toldo said, was of a group of Boylan students who wanted to encourage their peers to opt for reusable water containers. They approached a water company to help them get a water cooler students could use to refill their containers.
Sue Sauer, a new math teacher at Aquin Central Catholic Junior/Senior High School in Freeport, said the vendor fair was interesting. One vendor, she said, talked to her about some math software that would benefit her students, showing her both free and paid versions.
She also said one vendor talked about online master’s and doctoral degree programs for teachers.
Dr. Peter Trumblay, principal at St. Joseph School in Elgin, said, “It’s been a great day for us. It’s a great way of our schools coming together.” 
He said teachers often go into their classrooms as if into “little worlds and teach.” Institute days like this  are “an opportunity to see each other, network. For me, it’s a win-win day.”
Elizabeth Heitkamp, assistant superintendent for diocesan schools, said the chance to get teachers together was one of the goals of the day.
“We had 22 or 23 music teachers together,” she said, adding “They had a great time together.”
“We worked very hard to get something for everyone, and I think we accomplished that,” she said.
“The vendors said they were very happy ... because they had a steady stream” throughout the day, she added.
“We made a point to have (the diocesan) Life Office and Ministry (Office) at the fair,” she said, admitting some people don’t realize they exist.
Grading revisted
Bringing up the topic of grading through Wormeli’s presentation, Heitkamp said, was a key part of the day.
She said it was an attempt to “start the conversation” about potential changes in the grading systems at the schools. 
Because of the traditionally “hard” grading systems of Catholic schools, students who are capable may be missing out on scholarship opportunities.
In the Catholic system, for example, the lowest A may be a 93%, while in a public or other private school A’s may stop at 90%. 
When universities or scholarship providers see a B for one student and an A for another, it may make the difference in financial support.
She said there are no immediate changes planned, but the institute gave teachers and others a chance to consider alternatives.
Overall, she considered the day a success. The two main speakers, Braverman and Wormeli, were well received by their audiences. 
“People want a super personal experience, but that’s not always possible for 800 people,” Heitkamp said.
Originally scheduled as a high school institute day, Heitkamp said, the Education Office decided the program was important enough to include elementary schools, too.
Vito DeFrisco, also an assistant superintendent for diocesan schools, was happy with the day and the speaker selections, too.
“I heard Wormeli in Chicago — they had him as a speaker for the archdiocese,” he said, adding he found him a dynamic speaker.
“He has so much material on YouTube,” DeFrisco said, encouraging others to find the videos to learn more about Wormeli’s approach to grading and to interacting with students.
“We are dedicated to having more professional development  for our diocesan educators,” he added.