A Closer Look

Posting Date: December 11, 2014
Expires 1/31/15

State issues ACT Aspire results

On Thursday, Dec. 11, the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) released statewide, aggregated results from the ACT Aspire, a new assessment which replaces the discontinued Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test (ARMT). This test was implemented following a 2010 decision by ALSDE to strengthen its educational standards to an expectation that all students will be ready for college and career when they graduate from high school. This decision led to bold steps toward a more honest look and more congruent measurement of student achievement, which is a critical first step toward better preparing students for success after high school.

The ACT Aspire assessment for grades 3 though 8 has been successfully completed, and statewide aggregate results are available in a press release from ALSDE. Click here to download the release.

The statewide results follow an announcement in October of ACT Aspire results from Vestavia Hills City Schools. Results and highlights were presented to the Vestavia Hills Board of Education on October 29. Click here to download the presentation to the Board.

Evaluating students’ mastery of more rigorous standards such as the College and Career Ready Standards (CCRS) led Alabama to adopt a new assessment system that includes ACT Aspire. On the ACT Aspire, students are expected to perform at a higher level than on the ARMT. While this change in measurement may look like a decline in performance, the difference in scores is an expected result of a change in measurement. Results from the ACT Aspire cannot be compared to old ARMT results. The two assessments represent wholly different measurement systems of student achievement.

This assessment helps to measure progress towards being college- and career-ready in reading and math as well as English, science, and writing (which are optional tests). The ACT Aspire represents an important component of Plan 2020, the State Board of Education's strategic plan to ensure all Alabama students graduate from high school ready for real life, whether they continue their education or go straight into a career. A briefing from ALSDE on the ACT Aspire, as well as an FAQ and glossary about CCRS implementation, is available by visiting the CCRS page of our website

Posting Date: December 04, 2014
Expires 2/28/15

VHCS becomes Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador

Vestavia Hills City Schools this week became the first school system in Alabama to be named a Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador, district spokesman Whit McGhee announced Wednesday.

This program, overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), forms a two-way relationship between VHCS and the National Weather Service to help build weather preparedness and weather resiliency within the Vestavia Hills community, McGhee said.

“Being a Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador creates a partnership between us and the weather service that fewer than ten school systems in the U.S. presently have,” McGhee said. “It allows us to provide our local forecasters with critical information during weather events, while they in turn provide us with weather guidance and resources to help educate our students and our community about weather safety.”

WRN Ambassador Logo

The Ambassador certification came this week as VHCS completed a comprehensive review of the district’s weather policies and communication protocol. Several school districts’ weather plans came into focus following a January snowstorm that stranded hundreds of children and adults at schools around central Alabama. Though some local meteorologists took the blame at that time for an inaccurate forecast, VHCS administrators say the experience provided valuable insight to help the district watch and prepare for future storms.

“We try to look closer at weather trends in the days leading up to a storm now,” VHCS Director of Safety and Security David Howard said. “In the January snowstorm, we had multiple days in a row of sub-freezing weather. When the temperature stays that low, a dusting of snow has a much greater impact on the ground than it normally would.”

The review of the district’s weather policy led to the following updates:

- VHCS will now consult directly with meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Birmingham via a live chat as a Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador. District administrators will also communicate with city officials and other over-the-mountain superintendents to ensure that school closings and delays are conducted smoothly.

- Parents will receive notifications about weather events through VHCS’ rapid notification system (SchoolCast) as well as social media and local media sources. Whenever possible, the district will now alert parents to the possibility of a closing or delay before a final decision has been made.

- Whenever possible, delays and early closings will occur two hours from normal opening and closing times. Buses will adjust their arrival times accordingly. Schools will make every effort to serve all meals planned for the day when a delay or closing occurs. Field trips scheduled for the day of a weather event will be canceled. Normal checkout procedues will remain in effect.

As the city heads into the chill of winter and the turbulent spring severe weather season, VHCS Superintendent Sheila Phillips says the school system is more prepared than ever to make informed weather decisions.

“Our weather decisions will always err on the side of caution,” VHCS Superintendent Sheila Phillips said. “We will make those decisions with the best interest and safety of our students and employees in mind.”

Posting Date: January 20, 2015
Expires 12/31/15

Harrelson offers tips to reduce flu exposure

VESTAVIA HILLS (VHCS/AP) — This year’s flu vaccine is doing a pretty crummy job. It’s only 23 percent effective, which is one of the worst performances in the last decade, according to a government study released Thursday.

The poor showing is primarily because the vaccine doesn’t include the bug that is making most people sick, health officials say. This year’s formula didn’t include the strain of H3N2 virus that ended up causing about two-thirds of the illnesses this winter. 

School officials in Vestavia Hills reported a spike in flu cases during the month of December. The number of children getting sick from the flu is higher than in recent years, according to Vestavia Hills City Schools Health Services Coordinator Carol Harrelson. She says healthcare providers are expecting another possible spike in flu cases in February. 

“We’ve seen more children in our schools get it than adults,” Harrelson said. “Flu primarily spreads through droplets from coughing or sneezing that lands on someone else or on surfaces that other people touch.” 

Symptoms can appear within a matter of hours, with fever being one of the few ways parents can tell whether their children have flu or a common cold. A persistent cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches and fatigue are also common, she said.

To combat the virus locally, school officials are encouraging students, employees, and families to take practical preventive measures. 

“It’s an old cliché but it’s still true: Washing your hands often or using hand sanitizer will cut down on the number of germs you’re coming into contact with,” Harrelson said, adding that schools have increased surface cleaning and sanitizing during peak flu season.

If a student contracts the virus, it’s important to keep them at home while symptoms persist, Harrelson said. “You are shedding contagious virus in your environment up to seven days after you get sick, so keeping children at home is a key factor in preventing a real outbreak,” she added.

Even with the limited effectiveness of this year’s vaccine, Harrelson says it can still help to reduce the length and severity of the illness. The school system has been offering the vaccine with no direct charge to students and employees for the past three years; more than one-third of the student body received the vaccine in October via injection or nasal spray.

“It’s still the best we have to prevent flu,” she said. 

Selected excerpts from the Associated Press were used in this article.

Posting Date: January 15, 2015
Expires 12/31/15

VHHS students fund Magic Moment for young cancer survivor

Students at Vestavia Hills High School had a big surprise this morning for a young cancer survivor. 

Connor, a 4-year-old from Birmingham who has been fighting a brain tumor, was surprised this morning with a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando through student fundraising efforts for the Birmingham-based charity Magic Moments. The organization funds wishes for critically ill children in Alabama, like Connor.

The school held an assembly this morning in its gym, which had been adorned with Disney-themed decorations. Students dressed in Disney costumes and played and danced with Connor before the assembly began. Members of the school’s Student Government Association then gave him the news that he would be going to Disney World with his family.

The school raised money for Magic Moments throughout the fall. By this morning’s assembly, students had raised enough to cover Connor’s trip along with a check to the charity for more than $21,000. “It was a privilege to raise money for Magic Moments this year and to make a magic moment happen for this deserving child,” SGA President James Harris said.

Connor, who will turn 5 on Jan. 22, was diagnosed in August 2014 with a brain tumor. Since then, he has been in the hospital or to daily doctors’ appointments, undergoing rounds of intense chemotherapy and radiation. Connor is now in remission from his cancer, and his prognosis is positive.

Posting Date: January 15, 2015
Expires 12/31/15

ALSDE updates website with new Data Center

Realizing the importance of education data to parents, business, industry, and educators, the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) has released Phase One of a new Data Center on its website at www.alsde.edu. Phase One consists of the following changes:

1. Report portal— All reports have been moved to various places on the new website and in the Data Center global navigation.

2. Accountability Reporting has ben moved to Assessment Reports > Statewide Reports.

3. Public Data Reports have been moved to Enrollment Reports.

4. Accountability and Assessment Reporting (previously accessed under the “big blue button”) has been moved to Assessment Reports > School Level Reports.

Additional phases of the Data Center will be released as ALSDE moves into a new reporting system. Several critical pieces of school data will be made available on Jan. 20, 2015 on the ALSDE website, including:

Graduation Rate Reporting: ALSDE will be releasing its annual public data on graduation rates by district, school, and sub-groups on Jan. 20.

Assessment Reporting: Last spring, students in grades 3–8 took the first year of new assessments aligned to the Alabama College- and Career-Ready Standards (CCRS), the ACT Aspire assessment in place of the Alabama Reading and Math Test (ARMT). ACT Aspire and ACT Plan scores provide parents with honest feedback about how prepared their child is for college and/or a career after graduation. In addition, the ACT Aspire and ACT Plan align with the ACT assessment that all 11th graders in Alabama now take. The annual aggregate reports will be made available to the public through the ALSDE Data Center on Jan. 20.

Posting Date: January 08, 2015
Expires 12/31/15

Pizitz creative writing students pen novels in competition

The idea of writing a novel of at least ten thousand words in one month would be a daunting challenge for most anyone. But just before the holidays, students in Stratton Brock’s creative writing class at Louis Pizitz Middle School did just that.

When the word counts were tallied at the end of the month, three students had each written more than fifty thousand words. Two of those students wrote more than 125,000 words. By comparison, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit checks in at 95,000 words.

The challenge was all part of National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo,” a nationwide competition that challenges adults and children to write the great American novel during the month of November.

“The majority of students who compete in the competition are in high school, so it’s unique to see the participation of my middle school creative writing students,” Brock said. “Most adults can’t even do this.”

Brock said he encouraged his students to turn off their “internal editor,” a common obstacle that stops many writers from putting words on a page. “I tell them to give in to their writing, and for most of them, that’s a ‘zen’ moment where their output suddenly rises. As they write, quality stories emerge,” he said.

Those quality stories that students penned during NaNoWriMo can even be published through a special agreement with Amazon, Brock said. Some of his students are editing their stories right now to prepare them for submission.

“These students are fiercely motivated,” Brock said. “Now, when I give them a writing assignment, they’ll write twice as much as I ask of them. These kids are really good.” 

Posting Date: December 16, 2014
Expires 12/31/15

New elective courses coming to VHHS

When students begin planning their fall semester this January at Vestavia Hills High School, they’ll have more than a dozen new electives to choose from.

Students will have the opportunity to enroll in four new courses in the Career & Technical Education Department and 12 new courses in the Arts Department. Courses will be taught in the 2015-2016 school year.

The new Career & Technical Education courses will provide students with instruction in software development, Java programming, college accounting, and management principles. The classes are targeted toward students who plan to pursue degrees in business, accounting, computer science, and technology, according to Career & Technical Education Department Chair Deana Goodwine.

To get the word out about the new course offerings, the department will host an “open house” on Jan. 12 at 6 p.m. at VHHS. “This is an opportunity for students to find a place of belonging here and get the edge on some of the most highly-demanded college degrees,” Goodwine said.

The new career and technical offerings join with the Arts Department, which recently received approval of a dozen new courses in visual and performing arts.

VHHS arts teachers led design and creation of the new classes, some of which carry unique titles like “The Perfect Portrait” and “Let’s Get Crafty.” The idea, according to Arts Department Chair Faith Lenhart, is to teach art concepts in a more practical setting.

“We think these classes will appeal to a lot of kids,” Lenhart said. “They’ll make projects like you see on Pinterest and teach art fundamentals and creative problem solving at the same time.”

Lenhart, who works directly with performing arts students, said elective classes like the new ones being offered this fall provide students with incentive to attend school every day.

“Attendance in my classes is almost always 100 percent,” she said. “These courses give them something to hold onto and be a part of. It gives them a sense of ownership and pride in what they do.”