About seven years ago, some administrators with a clear vision saw a need in our building: far too many tenth graders weren't actually tenth graders. By credits, they were still ninth graders. Far too many kids were not on track for on-time graduation...or even graduation at all. These administrators had an idea of what they thought would help solve this problem. So, they attended conferences and did some initial research.
Then, those administrators with a clear vision did something that I fear is unfortunately rare, but has made all the difference.
They identified the problem.
And then they trusted teachers to figure out how to best solve it.
In the middle of my first year in the district (my second year of teaching), I had managed to do enough things right to get myself noticed by my building administration. I still remember when the principal dropped the printouts of a lengthy powerpoint presentation on my desk and said "Take a look at this." It was a presentation from some teacher-leaders who had designed an intervention program for incoming freshmen. I had no idea that this moment was going to transform my career.
Somehow, deep down, my bosses knew that if they mandated a top-down approach to new programming at my high school, that it would not fly. It is no secret, and something we shouldn't wear like the badge we do, but teachers tend to grow quickly jaded by administrative mandates. However, what my principal was offering me was not a mandate, it was an invitation.
In the seven years since that powerpoint landed on my desk, my building administration has given me and my teaching teammates remarkable free reign to design and implement an intervention program for incoming freshmen transitioning into high school. Early on and with the guidance and support of our associate principal, our team did research, conducted visits to other programs nearby, and examined the literature about successful interventions. We examined the needs of the target students and were surprised to realize that the reasons for many of the ninth-graders' failures had little to do with literacy, mathematics, or other core academic skills. Rather, there was some other need which was not being attended to their first year of high school.
The team of teachers with whom I work has evolved and grown...from four teachers the first year to eight teachers (including a counselor) these last three years, all of us working part-time in our assignments with our program and part-time outside the program.
We serve about 15-20% of each year's freshman class, with the sole purpose of providing a solid foundation for future high school survival. We don't remediate curriculum, and we're not a dumping ground for the "troubled" kids. We work with the middle of the bell curve...and in particular, the ones most vulnerable to slipping between the cracks and being left behind but who have the potential to excel in the right environment.
Other schools have visited or contacted us to examine our "model," since our state test data, GPA data, as well as attendance and discipline data all show productive gains. The biggest advice we give, especially to interested administrators, is to turn it over to willing teachers to build.
The keys to our success:
- We, the teachers, are given freedom to choose the pedagogical methods we know are best and are given the opportunity to collaborate as a team.
- We, the teachers, choose this assignment: we have not been forced into it.
- We, the teachers, are trusted with administering the program, including the recruitment and selection process and shaping our program goals and means of implementation.
- We, the teachers, have been allowed to refine and design the services we provide, and to determine who in the building population is best served by what we provide.
- Our students are provided mainstream curriculum presented by teachers who believe they can succeed, but who also understand the barriers which may exist beyond school.
- Our students are provided smaller classes (22:1 instead of 30:1) so that fewer questions go unanswered and fewer confusions are left unaddressed.
- Our students are provided an elective period which is team taught by their math, English, and careers (CTE) teachers (so the ratio is 44:3) where additional support in core subjects can be provided, and where explicit training in time management, organization, study habits, and other high school success skills is provided.
- Our students are part of a community of learners which we strive to keep unpolluted: they know that their participation is a privilege, and harassment and intimidation can result in expulsion from our program. Luckily, we rarely have to take that step.
And because my bosses extended that invitation so long ago, and it made such a difference, we have learned to do the same: no child is mandated to enter our program, no child is forced into this placement...every child is invited. Every year, we have more candidates than we do slots. Kids are recommended to us by their eighth grade teachers (based on some very broad criteria), and we always have about twice as many nominees as we do slots in the program. A few invitations are turned down each year, but not many. The nominees for our program can choose to accept or decline: our students are with us because they choose to be with us. They make the public choice that they want to be successful.
So when we hear that question, "Why don't they do this for all freshmen?" it comes from any number of people. The parents whose children are seeing success, perhaps for the first time. The students, who feel a part of our community, and see themselves as scholars, not just kids. The other teachers, who are able to take their classes further because they inherit students with a strong freshman foundation. The answer? It does come down to money, and it comes down to the affect that such a mandated replication of the program might have not only on the students, but also the teachers. I've not figured out a way around that yet.
Each year, we must remind our administration of the good choice they made in turning this project over to teachers. Largely due to our track record of student success, we haven't had to fight hard to maintain our program (also partly because we don't have a budget, per se, since we teach the regular curriculum without any frills... the main expense is in how the FTE are allocated to allow for the smaller classes and to allow the math and English teachers to team teach with the CTE teacher). Though we're a low cost, high impact program, there is still a cost involved. To an administrator, the cost is not just monetary--I'm sure there is risk involved with allowing teacher leaders to take the reins. In our case, the result has been a strong record of student success.
And that track record of student success is the result of our strong teaching team who have built a powerful program. And that strong teaching team and powerful program would not exist without that invitation I received many years ago.
It takes an administrator who is a brave, forward-thinking, and insightful instructional leader to have the strength to turn real leadership over to those of us who lead our classrooms skillfully every day. It takes a courageous administrative leader to trust that those wise classroom decisions will inform wise program and policy decisions as well.