In his Aug. 28 letter to MOCO, Mr. Brenne makes several good points regarding how to improve academic outcomes for low performing high school students in MCPS schools. However, although often cited as the solution for struggling students, tutoring is not enough.
For the students he cites at John F. Kennedy High School and others, tutoring alone cannot provide them with the intensive repair work they need to gain the skills and content necessary to manage a demanding curriculum now and, in a few short years, in college. For instruction to be effective with struggling older students, indeed all students, teachers need not only training but environments that make teaching and learning possible and productive.
The strategies I relate here are ones I have been a part of in my 50 years in education, and I offer them as examples of what staff can do to address students’ needs and support them in the demands particular to high school. They are not new strategies nor are they the only ones. But each in their time were effective, particularly with low-performing high school students.
Embedding literacy instruction in all subjects — yes, even P.E. and mechanics — allows students multiple opportunities to develop those skills in a variety of ways. Literacy across the curriculum has a long history, but it is rarely implemented with depth. One way to ensure literacy is an immersive experience is a strategy called “adopt-a-standard.”
Teachers in each subject identify appropriate literacy standards and teach and grade assignments aligned to those standards. In Portland, OR, social studies teachers adopted standards related to research and interpreting data and taught research papers and data analyses.
By high school, research shows that low socio-economic high school students are often as much as five years behind in their reading skills and that divide can widen even more over their four years.
Rankin County, MS, decided to do something for middle school students before they entered high school. They designed an eighth-grade drop-out prevention Bridge Program for students who were one or more years older than their peers and struggled in middle school. Their pilot year design revolved around a team of four teachers in ELA, math, social studies and science. Together, they planned and delivered literacy and numeracy intensive lessons across subjects. They also conducted seminars and project-based tasks to give students experiences in managing academic discourse and responsibilities.
One reason college freshmen often sink under the pressures they face is that it is all so new. To prepare junior and senior students for college, high school staff can simulate the way time and demands operate in college classrooms with a gradual release approach. Bowling Green, KY, high school staff redesigned their schedule so that students only meet two or three days a week and are coached on campus on how to manage their “off time” to prepare for class and complete assignments.
In 1988 in Santa Fe, NM, I was one of a group of teachers who designed a non-graded public high school. Our students were predominantly Hispanic and low-income, a population that had a long history of struggle with their studies. Expectations had been set low for many of these students, and they responded likewise.
To create a more demanding curricular experience but one with ongoing supports, we designed Gateways, a model conducted by four teachers in English, history, science and math in side-by-side classrooms to eliminate the need for bells and periods. The librarian and drama teacher were key to adding experiences with language and texts.
This arrangement allowed us to be flexible, responsive and creative. As an example, while Ms. Rodriquez taught a lesson on the United Nations with one group of students for two periods, I worked with another group on their U.N speeches. The next day, we switched groups. We were pleased when our school placed first in the state on the writing assessment.
Each strategy I’ve described demonstrates what can happen if staff are willing to question current practices and innovate to better meet students’ needs. Hopefully, as the blueprint rolls out, MCPS has the will to do both.
Eleanor Dougherty is a Rockville resident who assists schools, districts, and educational organizations on improving their focus on literacy in the content subjects. She is the author of a national literacy program and books and articles on curriculum and instruction.
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