FAQ’s for the EE: STW Program

What is the Essential Elements: School-to-Watch (EE: STW) program?

It is the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform’s recognition and continuous improvement program for exemplary middle-level schools and programs that has been adapted for New York State. The program is a partnership among the NYS Middle School Association, the NYS Education Department, the Statewide Network of Middle-level Liaisons, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the School Administrators’ Association of New York State (SAANYS), and Lifetouch. As a Schools To Watch affiliate state, New York integrated the standards of the Regents Policy Statement on Middle-level Education (the State Education Department’s Essential Elements of Standards-Focused Middle-level Schools and Programs) with the high performance criteria of the National Forum.

What is the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform?

The “National Forum” is an alliance of educators, national associations, and officers of professional associations and foundations committed to promoting the academic performance and healthy development of young adolescents. The National Forum, which developed the original Schools to Watch criteria, serves New York State as a source of inspiration and expertise. The National Forum convenes the annual national Schools to Watch conference (June, Washington D.C.).

What does it mean to be an Essential Elements: School To Watch School?

The Essential Elements: School To Watch program promotes continuous school improvement and recognizes those diverse, high-performing, growth-oriented middle grades schools which demonstrate what all middle grades schools are capable of achieving. Designated schools meet 37 criteria in four domains:

  • Academic Excellence. High-performing schools with middle grades are academically excellent.  They challenge all students to use their minds well.
  • Developmental Responsiveness.  High-performing schools with middle grades are sensitive to the unique developmental challenges of early adolescence.
  • Social Equity.  High-performance schools with middle grades are socially equitable, democratic and fair.  They provide every student with high-quality teachers, resources, learning opportunities, and supports.  They keep positive options open for all students.
  • Organizational Structures and Processes.  High-performing schools with middle grades are learning organizations that establish norms, structures, and organizational arrangements to support and sustain their trajectory toward excellence.

An Essential Elements: School To Watch school is a school that is conscientiously moving to meet fully the nationally-endorsed criteria for high-performing middle schools, one that has made a trajectory of continuous improvement over time evidenced by marked progress in meeting all of the criteria, including measurable gains in the academic achievement of all students.

How is the Essential Elements: School To Watch program different from other recognition programs? How is it different from a Blue Ribbon School?

An Essential Elements:  School To Watch school has a positive trajectory, exhibits a climate of continuous improvement and addresses the four domains identified by the National Forum (Academic Excellence, Developmental Responsiveness, Social Equity and Organizational Structure) not just academic achievement. A school must maintain a focus on continuous school improvement (no school is perfect) and be re-designated every three years. Decisions by the application review team and the site visitation team are not based solely on state assessments but on multiple measures and a clear demonstration of practices and programs that address both the academic and personal development needs of all students. The EE: STW program is strictly a middle-level program as it focuses only on publically-funded schools and programs that include a grade 7.

The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program is a United States government program created in 1982 to honor schools which have achieved high levels of academic performance or made significant improvements in closing the achievement gap in schools where at least 40% of the student population is classified as disadvantaged. Depending on the year, the award program accepts applications from elementary, middle, or high schools. The program also includes private as well as public schools. Once designated as a Blue Ribbon School, that school is always a Blue Ribbon School. There is no re-designation requirement.

When are Applications due?

All applications are due to be mailed to the State Education Department no later than the third Friday in July.

Why should your school apply to be an Essential Elements: School To Watch School?

The foundation of the Essential Elements: Schools to Watch Program (and application process) is the self-study tool containing the National Forum Schools to Watch criteria. The Essential Elements: Schools to Watch Leadership Team and the National Forum believe that youth in the middle grades are capable of learning and achieving at high levels. They share a sense of urgency that high-performing middle grades schools become the norm, not the exception. To that end, the National Forum identified a set of selection criteria to describe high-performing schools that serve students in the middle grades. New York adapted these criteria in the form of the EE: STW self-rating rubric. To begin the application process, a school must convene a school learning community and undertake a rigorous process of introspection and self-assessment to investigate their achievement in the areas of academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, social equity and school organization using the EE: STW self-rating rubric. The insights revealed through the use of this process are powerful and rewarding. A thorough, researched-based, review of your middle-level school and its programs is also provided to the school by a site-visitation team comprised of experienced middle-level practitioners. This report highlights the strengths of the school’s program (commendations) suggests areas the staff and administration may want to work on in the future (recommendations). The report is provided to all applicants that receive a site visit regardless of whether they are designated an EE: STW school or not. The application process and the self-study/rubric engage the whole school community in a positive and constructive school improvement activity that culminates and will lead into the development of a research-based continuous improvement plan for the school.

What if we begin the application process and realize we are not ready to be an Essential Elements: School To Watch School? Should we submit our application?

Then wait on submitting the application to the State Education Department, however;

  • Use the EE: STW process strictly for school improvement.
  • Complete a self-assessment using either the Essential Elements Self-study rubric.
  • Use the data from the self-assessment to prepare a continuous improvement plan (CIP).
  • Implement the “CIP”.
  • Evaluate the results, revise and implement the revised CIP.
  • When you have established a positive trajectory and a culture of continuous improvement, consider applying for EE: STW Recognition.

The EE: STW program has been in existence for over a dozen years. It is established and growing. Schools should seek formal recognition only when they feel they are ready.

What process is used to determine if a school is designated an Essential Elements: School To Watch School?

The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform crafted a vision that describes the characteristics of high-performing middle grades schools. With this vision as a basis, National Forum members then developed a set of rigorous criteria that could be used to identify such high-performing schools. These became known as the School To Watch (STW) criteria.

The STW criteria themselves are important, since they represent a set of rigorous, research-based indicators against which schools can measure their own performance and set improvement benchmarks. In addition, they serve as the basis for identifying exemplars at the state level.

Using a rubric fashioned upon the National Forum’s STW criteria and New York State’s Essential Elements of Standards-Focused Middle-Level Schools and Programs, specially trained peer reviewers who evaluate applications submitted by “potential” schools seeking recognition as an EE: STW school.  Based upon their review they advise the EE: STW Leadership Team on which schools should receive a site visit. The EE: STW Leadership Team makes the final decision.  It is important to note that schools do not compete against each other for site visits or recognition as an EE: STW school. All decisions are criterion-referenced. Schools are identified for site visits and recognition based upon how well they are achieving the rigorous criteria established by the National Forum and New York State. Schools that meet the criteria receive site visits. If an application demonstrates that a school has met the criteria in the four domains, it will be selected for a site visitation. A site visitation team generally consists of five to seven team members who have been trained to read and review applications and conduct site reviews. They will spend two days in a school further evaluating its application and potential to serve as a high-performing, growth-oriented middle grades school that will demonstrate what all middle grades schools are capable of achieving.  Upon completing a site visit, the visitation team will prepare a report of the visit and make a recommendation to the EE: STW Leadership Team – designation as an EE: STW school, designation as a Rising EE: STW school, or no designation at this time. Again, the EE: STW Leadership Team makes the final decision.

Site visitation team members currently include diverse, talented, experienced professionals who believe in the National Forum’s criteria and New York State’s Essential Elements of Standards-Focused Middle-Level Schools and Programs. They are advocates for middle-level education and are committed to strengthening middle-level schools. Members work in various capacities, such as middle-level school teachers and counselors, middle-level school administrators, district administrators, college and university professors, program administrators, etc. Each site visitation team’s activities are coordinated by a member of the EE: STW Leadership Team.

What if we apply and are not designated as an Essential Elements: School To Watch School?

Almost all schools that have engaged the staff in the process of self-reflection and introspection, gone through the self-study/rubric process and completed the application are close to being ready for designation. If a school is not recommended for designation following the site visit, the site visitation team in its report will indicate areas that need attention. If the school is very close to being designated and the site visitation team feels the school can correct the areas identified within the next year, it may be designated as a Rising School To Watch school. During the next year, the school may be paired with a current EE: STW school for mentoring and can receive assistance from members of the Leadership Team in the form of guidance and professional development. The site visitation team then returns the following year to examine the progress that the school has made in addressing the areas identified during the initial visit. It is very rare that a Rising EE: STW school receiving a site visit (as determined by the application review team) does not meet the criteria for designation when re-visited the following year.

It should be noted that the application preparation process must be a team effort in the tradition of middle-level philosophy. If the application is a weekend activity, written by a couple individuals on behalf of the school, or not a school-wide effort, the result is almost certain to end up with a non-designation.

If we are designated as an Essential Elements: School-to-Watch School, what is our role in middle grades reform? What are our responsibilities?

If you are designated as an EE: STW School, you agree to participate in all aspects of the program including, but not limited to, recognition celebrations (at the National Conference in Washington, DC and at the NYS Middle School Association Annual Conference in October of the year of designation), professional development and school improvement consultations, visits from others who seek to improve their schools; and participating in and presenting at the national conference and/or NYSMSA conference the year that your school is designated as an EE: STW school. A designee welcomes the opportunity to share knowledge and experience with others and works as a mentor to accelerate middle grades reform in New York State.

What benefits are associated with being designated an Essential Elements: School To Watch school?

While being selected as an Essential Elements: Schools to Watch school provides others with a representative model of how effective middle grades schools work, it also provides your school an opportunity for self-reflection, and a focus for future professional development and consultation. Your school joins a very select family via the state and national network of Schools To Watch schools. As there are currently more than 350 Schools to Watch in eighteen states across the country, an EE: STW school is recognized as a forward thinking, and an achievement and equity-driven organization committed to the development of  a community of learners for the school’s adolescents and adults.

To be designated as an Essential Elements: School To Watch school, do you have to be a “Middle School”?

It is not required that you named a “middle school” to be recognized as an EE: STW school. However,  you must have a middle-level program that meets the criteria established by the National Forum and the Regents Policy Statement on Middle-level Education. Your program MUST include grade 7 and at least one grade on either side of grade 7. Currently, the EE:STW family in New York includes middle schools, junior high schools, K-12 schools, four-grade schools, three-grade schools, two-grade schools, and middle-high schools.

Must an Essential Elements: School To Watch school reaffirm its status every three years?

Yes, EE: STW schools must submit an application to be re-designated every three years. The re-designation application is not as comprehensive as the initial designation application, and a site visitation team usually consists of two to three team members for a one day visit. In the application process, a question asks for areas that a school wants to continue to work on for the next three years. The re-designation team looks at those goals and any changes that have affected your school’s program since the previous application.

How long does it usually take to prepare an application to be an Essential Elements: School-to-Watch school?

This varies with each school but generally the application teams, school administration, or cabinet begin the process during the summer, involve the school and district in the application research and data collection during the fall and winter (the paper self-study), begin writing the narrative to the application in the spring, complete the required electronic survey/rubric in the late spring, and complete the application for submission by early July. Site visits then occur in October through December with decisions being made the following January or February.

Does being an Essential Elements: School-to-Watch school, align with the middle level IB program?

The application process and criteria for an EE: STW School and that of an International Baccalaureate school are very similar and complimentary of each other. There are currently two MYP/IB schools in the EE: School To Watch family.

If participation rate on the state assessments falls below 95%, is a school disqualified from applying for a designation as an Essential Elements: School To Watch?

The EESTW Leadership Team, Middle School Association, and the State Education Department understand the dilemma facing some applicants with regard to accountability status where the participation rate may fall below 95% in schools with high opt-out rates. This is not a disqualifier for potential applicants. Since opt-outs are not under the control of the school or district, the difficulty lies in the reliability of the data on the state assessments being reported in the application in those instances. In demonstrating the evidence for the General Criteria (1-8) and especially item number five under the Academic Excellence domain, special attention should be paid to how the school uses multiple measures and formative and summative evaluation materials aligned to the state standards to rate academic excellence. Some examples could include iReady, NAEP, or NWEA data.

Where can I find a list of the New York State EE: STW schools?

The profiles of the NYS EE: STW designees can be found using the pull-down menu tab “Profiles of STW Schools” on the www.eestw.org website.