Franklin City Public Schools and JASON Learning partner to drive equity through shared commitment to professional learning

Franklin City Public Schools, Virginia

Teachers are a school’s greatest asset. That’s certainly the belief in Virginia’s Franklin City Public Schools, where Superintendent Dr. Tamara Sterling and her team have systematically reversed eight years of underperformance and a dreaded state takeover with a focus on Algebra I and a commitment to professional development for teachers and staff.

With an eye toward equity and leveling the playing for a school division where some 90 percent of families live below the poverty line, FCPS partnered with JASON Learning to offer real-world STEM learning experiences and deeper professional experiences for teachers, giving educators an opportunity to reach more students with a higher degree of confidence.

Free and reduced-price lunch
Families in poverty
Algebra I pass rate
Geometry pass rate

The Challenge

When administrators at Virginia’s Franklin City Public Schools hired Dr. Tamara Sterling to head up the school division in the summer of 2017, they expected a turnaround to take time. Under state control since 2010, the division was mired in a culture of underperformance, especially for low-income and underserved students. Just four years into that endeavor, the results are turning heads.

With a focus on creating opportunities for students through increased access to Algebra I and Geometry, Sterling and her team, including Chief Academic Officer Felicia Burkhalter, managed to create STEM-based academic and career pathways for struggling students in every corner of the rural Hampton Roads community. Just how much have things improved? For three consecutive years, middle school students reported a 100% pass rate for Algebra I, an astonishing figure for a division that, just a few years earlier, was among the lowest-performing in the state.

“We looked into the data, down to the elementary school,” explains Sterling. “When we got to the middle school, we realized that our elementary school was doing a really good job of preparing children. However, we weren’t opening up any pathways for them to be exposed to high-level mathematics. So we had to develop teams to begin to look at the data. It didn’t take long to start seeing our children’s potential.”

The Solution

Through its partnership with JASON Learning, teachers and students would receive access to a vast library of interactive, real-world lessons with a focus on Algebra I and Geometry. The learning experience, which included a digital curriculum and exposure to real-world role models, empowered students to envision mathematics applied to future career opportunities.

Despite excitement around the curriculum, Sterling and her team knew success would hinge on teachers’ willingness and ability to do things differently. It would come down to training.

“In August, JASON Learning came in with their team and trained all of our curriculum specialists. We have a train-the-trainer model,” explains Burkhalter. “Throughout the school year, we host weekly PLCs, where curriculum specialists and teachers map out the specific objective that will be taught weekly and ensure that they’re aligned with what’s taught and tested.”

When the pandemic hit, administrators added professional development for parents as well. Teachers spent three weeks training parents and showing them how to help using the JASON STEM curriculum from home. Administrators say the curriculum, coupled with thoughtful training, encourages instructors to innovate and apply different strategies to reach the district’s most underserved students.

Sterling said the district focused on Algebra I and, later, on Geometry, because the data showed that those mathematics disciplines were “gatekeepers” to student performance. The more Algebra I and Geometry classes the district opened, and the earlier students started developing an interest in advanced mathematics, the better they performed overall.

“That was our first ‘a-ha’ moment,” says Sterling. “My first year, we agreed, from the board on to the principals and in our community, that we would open up our first pre-Algebra class.”

Momentum has only grown from there. Now, in many cases, eighth graders enrolled in pre-Algebra are taking and passing the same exam delivered to ninth graders. By pushing access to advanced mathematics down to middle school level, and empowering students and teachers to embrace the power of math, FCPS is able to provide more opportunities for students as they matriculate into and eventually graduate from high school and enter the workforce.

“We use JASON Learning because it embeds real-world experiences. JASON makes sure that our teachers have the training and the professional development. When teachers know they have our support, they feel motivated to try different instructional strategies.”

Dr. Tamara Sterling, Franklin City Public Schools

Dr. Tamara Sterling

Superintendent, Franklin City Public Schools, Va.

Empowering teachers

Administrators say the success would not have been possible without training and support for teachers provided by JASON Learning.

“We had to continuously press our students and press our teachers,” says Burkhalter. “We’d say, ‘Hey, you can do this. You’re built for this. It was a lot of cheerleading.”

Students and teachers rose to the occasion and passed the state examination. It hardly mattered that the district was 100% free-and-reduced-price lunch or 81% minority.

Today, FCPS educators are getting students into advanced pre-Algebra and Algebra I by seventh grade and placing them into Geometry by eighth grade, which means they enter high school ahead of the game.

“The first year that our middle school students took that Algebra examination, a very high-profile college called us and said, ‘We want those students,’” says Sterling. “Normally, we would send one or two students a year to a college-level STEM engineering camp. That year, we sent 44 students. So that’s really just the beginning of our story.”

Give students — and teachers — the real-world skills and confidence to succeed