Classworks Supports Unique Students
A Peer Review Article by Kathleen Turner
Principle Leadership Magazine
October 2010 (Copyright 2010 NASSP)
Many Hollywood movies characterize high school students leading carefree, fun-filled lives outside school, but we educators often see a different story. We see students facing real challenges and managing real responsibilities while trying to keep up with their schoolwork.
Although students know school is important, it is not their only priority. Many have family responsibilities and must care for younger siblings or their own children. Others work during the week and on weekends. Many are also involved in school athletics and activities.
In Humphreys County, located in the Mississippi Delta, 38% of residents have an income level below the poverty line. At Humphreys County High School, 95% of students are economically disadvantaged. Many students enter our school several years behind their grade levels in English and mathematics, which affects our state test scores.
When we asked ourselves what we could do to better support our unique student populations and prevent at-risk learners from dropping out of school, our answer was to stretch the traditional school model in two important ways. First, we extended the school day with a Saturday academy and after-school programs. Second, we reshaped learning by individualizing instruction to help each student fill in academic gaps. As a result of our efforts, we have increased learning time, reduced the achievement gap, increased parent involvement, improved school performance, and helped more students earn their high school diplomas.
Because most students do not have sports, work, or family obligations on Saturday mornings, we offer a Saturday academy from 8 a.m. to noon to provide additional support for struggling learners. Although the time is convenient and we offer bus service and a mid-morning brunch, we found it was difficult to get students—particularly those who could most benefit from additional instruction—to attend the voluntary program. That is, it was difficult until we got parents involved and began individualizing instruction with technology.
Initially, our Saturday Academy consisted primarily of whole-class instruction. What we discovered was that students did not want to go to school on Saturday to do the exact same thing they did during the regular school week. Further, parents did not understand the need for their children to receive the extra instruction.
To drum up attendance, we now send letters home to inform parents of the academy and how vital it is to their children's academic success. We tell them explicitly what their children's level of performance is and what it could be with this intervention. Our counselors and parent liaisons also personally follow up with parents to convey a sense of urgency about their children's participation. Through that communication, we strive to get a written commitment from the parent and the student that the student will attend.
Getting students there, of course, is only half the battle. Keeping them there requires that we reshape learning to capture their interest and address their individual needs. To that end, in 2008 we starting using a K-12 instructional software program. The Classworks software includes interactive learning activities that are automatically individualized to address all students' needs and keep them engaged. Students now spend up to half their time working on the software.
Because the software is aligned with our state standards, we are helping students master the academic skills they will be tested on in Algebra I and English II as part of Mississippi's Subject Area Testing Program (SATP) end-of-course tests that students must pass to graduate.
A key benefit is that we can import the students' state test scores from the Mississippi Curriculum Test, Second Edition (MCT2), which is administered in eighth grade, and from the SATP end-of-course tests into the software to create individualized learning paths for each student.
We have also taken a similar approach with our after-school program, which runs weekdays from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. As with the academy, we ask for a written commitment from the parent and the student that the student will attend. After identifying the skills that students need to work on, we provide opportunities for whole-group instruction with the teacher. Then students break into small groups and get one-on-one assistance or receive individualized instruction in the software.
We also offer a credit recovery program in our computer lab after school and on holidays. Students who failed English 1 or mathematics during the previous year work on the software to fill in gaps and address specific needs. A teacher is available for support.
As a result of our efforts, positive change is taking place. Attendance in these programs has grown. Student performance in English and Algebra 1 has improved, and their self-confidence and self-esteem has soared. Our drop-out rate has decreased and our graduation rate has increased. From 2006-07 to 2008-09, our state accountability status rose from "Low Performing" to "Successful," and we met AYP requirements in mathematics and language arts in 2009.
The simple truth is, if you keep doing the same things, you will get the same results. By reconfiguring our school, we are making a difference and accommodating the real-world needs of our students.