by Kara Hansen
OVERLAND PARK — St. Thomas Aquinas High School is batting .1000, and spring training has barely begun.
That’s because in the two years the state of Kansas has been awarding the Governor’s Achievement Award — instituted to identify high-performing schools in the state — the Overland Park high school has twice received the annual distinction.
Contributing to that perfect record is the fact that Aquinas has routinely met the state Standard of Excellence in the areas of math, reading, writing, and social science. Aquinas students are among top scorers in the metropolitan area on the ACT, and the school also boasts a slew of National Merit scholars and semifinalists.
So what’s the secret to all that success? A School Improvement Team, say administrators, which originated seven years ago to assist with the accreditation process for the North Central Association and the state of Kansas.
Once accreditation was achieved, however, the team was not disbanded. Rather, it was tasked with the school improvement process — with helping students at Aquinas experience personal success at school and on Kansas assessment tests.
So far, it seems to be working. But it’s taken a village, said Bill Ford, president of St. Thomas Aquinas.
“What we have accomplished in being the only Catholic high school in Kansas to be awarded the Governor’s Achievement Award is the result of a school-wide effort from all of our faculty and staff,” he said.
But he credits SIT with giving a lot of direction to the school community’s efforts.
“Essentially, we determine where we are as a school, determine where we need to be, then develop the path that leads us to our goal,” explained Craig Moss, SIT coordinator and a math teacher at Aquinas. “And then we monitor whether or not we meet our goal, which starts the cycle over again.”
“They are the driving force behind school improvement — from working in conjunction with the faculty for setting our school-wide goals, particularly in reading and math, developing a climate of professional learning communities and enhancing the Catholic nature of our school,” he said.
Specifically, members of SIT at Aquinas have developed a program called Enhanced Learning Opportunity, which, by testing incoming freshman, allows the school to identify a student’s area of need early.
“Students who do not meet a predetermined level in either reading or math or both are then assigned to seminars twice a week for a total of roughly 100 minutes to work on those skills in which they exhibit a deficiency,” explained Moss. “We then continue to monitor and assess them, so we know when they are at an acceptable level, and to resume working with those students who need more time to reach that benchmark.”
“Obviously, the two most critical skills a student needs in order to be successful in high school are in the areas of reading and computation. These two basic skills carry across the curriculum in the humanities and math and science. Students will struggle in class if they are unable to be proficient in these areas, so this is where we have placed our greatest emphasis,” said Ford.
There are other programs in place, as well, that have helped Aquinas kids on their way to academic success. A guided studies program helps students with study skills and the transition to high school. Students are also able to take courses for college credit through the College Now program in conjunction with Johnson County Community College.
Additionally, individual test courses are used to help determine a path of learning for each student.
“We do a very good job of determining what classes a student should be placed in when they come here because we evaluate each student’s individual performance on the placement test,” said Moss.
Finally, students are allowed to “test out” of certain coursework and move into higher-level courses, further increasing the opportunities for learning.
Through it all, the School Improvement Team members at Aquinas are continuously assessing, re-evaluating and modifying programs and curriculum as needed to ensure each student at Aquinas is receiving a top-notch education in line with archdiocesan and state standards.
“Every member of the faculty and staff at St. Thomas Aquinas is involved in some aspect of the school improvement process. It is only because of that united effort that we have been able to make positive improvements for the good of our students,” said Moss.