Reducing The Achievement Gap: A Team Approach
Written by Jerry Davisson, Principal, Chippewa Valley High School; Region 9 Representative, MASSP Board of Directors
Each year our School Improvement Team brainstorms ways to increase the academic success of our struggling students. We organize and offer a variety of services and interventions to help these students experience growth and success in the classroom as well as on the Michigan Merit Examination (MME). Year after year, we start off optimistically about what we have to offer these students. We send letters to the parents and we invite students to attend. Each year, it becomes a challenge to get more than a handful of these academically struggling students to actually attend the services made available to them.
This year, with the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) demanding that schools focus on reducing the Achievement Gap, we decided to try a team approach to reaching the struggling learner. Our first challenge was to decide on which gap students we should focus on. We decided that the junior class would be our focus. Then a decision had to be made about how to identify them: should it be based on GPA, failure rate, or test scores (reading or math), etc.? It was decided that the juniors with scores on the PLAN (Reading) in the bottom 30 percent, as well as the juniors with reading Lexile scores in the bottom 30 percent, would be our focus. Many students were on both lists; however, many were not. We ended up with a list of just over 200 students.
Administrators, counselors, and teachers analyzed the list and brainstormed ideas about what it would take to truly impact these students. We realized the biggest challenge was not coming up with the great out of the box interventions, but how we would get these students to show up, attend, and engage in the opportunities being offered to them. This is where the team approach became a necessity. Hearing from all the counselors, our Be the Change facilitator, all the administrators, and a variety of teachers, a plan was created that would address the foundation of the problem with these students. The common denominator with this group was that they did not feel connected to the high school. They were not involved in clubs, activities, or sports at the school. They did not see a purpose in school.
Collaboratively, we came up with an idea to meet with the students and get their feedback. We decided to send out notices to over 200 juniors personally inviting them to a pizza lunch in our media center. We made attendance voluntary since it was during their lunch time, but we intentionally did not provide a purpose or reason in order to add a little excitement. Approximately 100 students showed up over the three lunches to eat pizza and hear from administrators, counselors, and teachers about the importance of the junior year. Suggestions were made regarding possible interventions that the school was willing to provide. Students were told that staff cares about them and asked to look around the room to see the commitment being made by staff. The students were asked to complete a short survey on the computer before they left. We held a drawing each lunch giving away coupons for ice cream, and the students were presented with an opportunity to go on a field trip to a college campus. Permission forms were handed out as they left. Students expressed their gratitude as they left.
The results of the student surveys were very positive. Out of the approximate 100 student surveys completed, 78 students responded favorably to attending a specially designed program on Tuesdays after school; homework help in the media center after school; a field trip to a college; and ACT test prep sessions. Although our target group was just over 200 juniors and this was our first attempt, we were quite happy to get 78 of the students to acknowledge that they would be willing to attend one or more of the interventions that we suggested.
Not wanting to lose momentum, we quickly recruited teachers that would organize and facilitate both the homework help sessions (using NHS students) and our Tuesday academic program. There was much enthusiasm amongst the staff to make these interventions worthwhile and enticing to the students. A group of teachers developed a flyer for our Tuesday program and named it "SWAG: Students With Academic Goals." Dates, locations, and times for each of the programs were mailed home to the selected juniors' parents. Also, individual flyers were sent to the 78 surveyed students that had expressed willingness to attend. We had 21 students return the forms to attend the field trip to the college.
Counselors and administrators divided up the student names by caseload and are making individual contacts to promote attendance at the various intervention activities. Daily, I am receiving positive feedback from the counselors, administrators, and teachers regarding the positive responses they are getting from these students. They see this as a great opportunity to be proactive and build positive relationships with these students that often only get attention after they fail or get in trouble in school. The key is getting these students to know they are cared for and that we want them actively engaged in our school.
Several counselors and I attended the field trip to the college last week with the 21 students. Although it was cold and rainy, the experience was amazing, even life changing. We went through ice breaking, trust, and team building activities that helped us get to know both ourselves and each other better. The bus ride home was much different than the ride there. Students were talking to each other as if they had been friends for years. Now, these students don't hesitate to say hi when they pass by me in the hallway, usually making some kind of comment about the trip.
We are realizing the importance of engaging these students in activities at school. We are now planning on personally inviting many of the students to participate in our "Challenge Day." We are seeking donations from our business community so that we can hold drawings for those students who attend our after school programs. Counselors are making an extra effort to reach out to the parents of these students. Both counselors and administrators are committed to monitoring the progress of the students on their caseload.
Although we have just begun this challenge of reducing the achievement gap among our junior class, we believe we are on to something that will result in a greater degree of success than we have had in the past. Using a team approach involving counselors, administrators, teachers, parents, students and the business community has sparked enthusiasm and optimism that these students will become more engaged at school and will experience academic success. Using a team approach to connecting with struggling students is a must if you want to reduce the achievement gap.